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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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  • The Situation in Dagestan

    This briefing addressed the security challenge face by Russia in the Northern Caucasus in light of an outbreak of fighting in Dagestan in response to unemployment and rampant crime. The potential role of the OSCE in achieving peace in Dagestan in a similar manner to its mission in Chechnya was discussed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Dr. Robert Bruce Ware, a professor in the Department of Philosophical Studies at Southern Illinois University, and Dr. Zulfia Kisrieva-War a native from Dagestan – evaluated potential responses to several questions, including who the combatants in Dagestan are; their aims; why the region is such a volatile area; and whether Moscow has a coherent broad-based strategy for achieving peace and prosperity in the region. Historical background on the conflict and strategies for the international community to pursue moving forward were also topics of discussion.

  • Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo: The Views of Local Human Rights Advocates

    This briefing addressed the current situation of human rights in the former Yugoslavia and examined the role of the OSCE in bringing human rights to the forefront and attempting to hold governments accountable to their commitments in the post-Cold War era. Representatives from the Helsinki Committees in Montenegro and Kosovo, as well as the Director of the International Helsinki Foundation, were present at the briefing and spoke about the difficulties of raising awareness about human rights problem in each country with respect for the individual circumstances within the countries, and about the steps that might be taken in the future regarding increasing transparency within human rights.

  • Children's Day in Turkey

    Mr. Speaker, later this week the Republic of Turkey will celebrate “Children's Day” as has been the custom every April 23rd since the early 1920s. Such festive occasions are important reminders of the wonderful blessing that children are to family and society alike. Regrettably, the joy of this celebration will not be shared by all children in Turkey.   Recently, I chaired a hearing of the Helsinki Commission that reviewed human rights practices in Turkey, an original signatory to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. The disturbing testimony presented at that hearing underscored the vulnerability of children. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Harold Koh, cited the case of two-year-old Azat Tokmak to illustrate how terrible and dehumanizing the practice of torture is for everyone involved, including children. Azat was tortured, according to Mr. Koh, in an effort to secure a confession from her mother. He testified: “In April [1998] the Istanbul Chamber of Doctors certified that Azat showed physical and psychological signs of torture after detention at an Istanbul branch of the anti-terror police. Azat's mother, Fatma Tokmak, was detained in December 1996 on suspicion of membership in the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Azat was burned with cigarettes and kicked in an effect to make her mother confess.” Mr. Speaker, we are talking about a two-year-old child, a baby, being tortured by police.   At the same March 18th hearing, Stephen Rickard, Director of the Washington Office of Amnesty International USA, observed, “There is something Orwellian about calling units that torture and beat children and sexually assault their victims “anti-terror” police.” Mr. Rickard displayed a photograph of Done Talun, a twelve-year-old girl from a poor neighborhood in Ankara, to give a human face to the problem of torture in Turkey. “For five days, she was beaten and tortured while her frantic family asked for information about her whereabouts and condition,” Rickard said. Done was accused of stealing some bread. Her torture reportedly occurred at the Ankara Police Headquarters. “Is this young girl's case unique? Unfortunately, it is not,” he concluded. Mr. Rickard presented the Commission with a recent AI report: “Gross Violations in the Name of Fighting Terror: The Human Rights Record Of Turkey's ‘Anti-Terror’ Police Units.” The report includes a section on the torture of children.   Mr. Douglas A. Johnson, Executive Director of the Center for Victims of Torture, testified that there are thirty-seven different forms of torture practiced in Turkey today. Addressing the torture of children, Johnson observed, “twenty percent of our clients over the years were tortured when they were children, and usually that was to use them as a weapon against their parents,” similar to the case of two-year-old Azat Tokmak.   Mr. Speaker, I urge the Clinton Administration to press the Government of Turkey to eliminate the climate of impunity that has allowed children like Azat and Done to be subjected to such gross abuse at the hands of the police. Then, and only then, will children such as these, “the least of these,” be able to fully partake in the joy of this special Children's Day set aside to celebrate their lives and those of all children in Turkey.

  • Repression and Violence in Kosovo and Hearing on Kosovo: The Humanitarian Perspective

    This hearing, chaired by Commissioner Alfonse D’Amato, discussed the dire circumstances in Kosovo, specifically Serbian repression of the Kosovar Albanian majority population. In this hearing, D’Amato called for the U.S. to step up and prevent another outbreak of ethnic cleansing and achieve a peaceful resolution to the crisis. More specifically, to facilitate a lasting peace, the Commissioner called on U.S. leadership to make Slobodan Milosevic believe that the world would not stand by while the atrocities in Kosovo and Serbia continued. In addition, any settlement reached between Milosevic and the Kosovo Albanian leadership, D’Amato, continued, must be respected and protect the human rights of all individuals in Kosovo, without preconditions. Witnesses in this hearing discussed these human rights violations and the predicament of the Kosovar Albanians.

  • The Future of Chechnya

    Former senatosr and commissionesr chaired this hearing, which focused on the efforts of the citizens in Chechnya to free themselves from Russian power. Russia’s “transgressions” against the Chechnyan populace entailed lack of recognition of international principles. More specifically, the 1994 OSCE Budapest Document, with which the Russians agreed, stipulates that each participating state will ensure that its armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with the provisions of international law. Moreover, even when force cannot be avoided, each state will ensure that its use must be commensurate with the needs.  At the time of this hearing, anywhere between 30,000 and 80,000 people had been killed because of the conflict in the territory, and tens of thousands of men, women, and children had been driven from their homes. In addition, there had been a cease-fire in Chechnya. However, the dangers had not recently ended.

  • Political Turmoil in Serbia

    In this hearing, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) discussed, with witnesses, the developments in Serbia and what opposition forces had to say about the future of the country. Witnesses present included Miodrag Perisic, co-founder and vice president of Serbia’s first political opposition party (the Democratic Party); Branislav Canak, the president of a confederation of independent trade unions that wanted to organize workers throughout Serbia (the Independents); Veran Matic, Editor-In-Chief of B92, Belgrade’s independent radio station; and Obrad Kesic, program specialist for the Professional Media Program at the International Research and Exchanges Board. More specifically, Smith and witnesses discussed popular unrest against Milosevic’s refusal to accept election results regarding the ruling Socialist Party and its allies, underscoring more general displeasure with the Serbian government’s track record regarding the economy, human rights, and a lack of confidence that Serbians’ children would have a democratic and prosperous future.  

  • Report: Prosecuting War Crimes in the Former Yugolsavia, An Update

    In early 1996, with little fanfare, the U.N. Security Council quietly and quickly selected Canadian Judge Louise Arbour to succeed Justice Richard Goldstone, the first chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The relative ease with which a replacement was chosen -- in contrast to the prolonged, relatively public, and embarrassing manner in which the Security Council members fought among themselves for nearly a year over the selection of the first prosecutor -- reflects the dramatically changed circumstances in which the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal now finds itself. At the time of Goldstone’s appointment in 1994, most observers of the Yugoslav conflict seemed to fall into one of two categories: those that thought war crimes trials should be held, but did not believe the Tribunal would ever indict anybody above the rank of private (let alone hold an actual trial), and those who believed that the mere discussion of war crimes trials undermined peace negotiations. Under Goldstone’s able stewardship, the Tribunal has developed a full complement of staff, including prosecuting attorneys and investigators; issued more than fifty indictments, including for the two highest ranking Bosnian-Serb political and military leaders and three members of the Yugoslav People’s Army; obtained custody of three men; and begun the Tribunal’s first trial. Goldstone has deftly managed a multitude of political crises, successfully traversed the treacherous waters of the U.N. bureaucracy, and, thus far, helped safeguard the legal integrity and credibility of the Tribunal. All of these factors, combined with the achievement of a tenuous peace agreement in Dayton in November 1995,2 now make the possibility of war crimes trials seem, to many, more real than ever before. This memorandum outlines the basic structure of the Tribunal and the most recent developments with respect to investigations and trials, cooperation by U.N. member states with the Tribunal, and funding.

  • Mass Graves and Other Atrocities in Bosnia

    Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) and others discussed the atrocities committed against women, men, and children in the former Yugoslavian country of Bosnia. These atrocities exemplified Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the former Yugoslavia at large, as areas where internecine violence and strife seemed to be constant phenomena.

  • The Latest Crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina

    With Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) presiding, this hearing focused on the continuing ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavian country of Bosnia. This hearing was held with the events of the two weeks that preceded it in mind. More specifically, militants from Serbia had attacked UN outposts and, subsequently, had taken peacekeepers hostage.  In spite of the atrocities being committed against the Bosnian people, Rep. Smith stated that the international community viewed the conflict in Bosnia as more of a crisis than the Bosnians themselves. Unfortunately, though, as this hearing sought to address, the international community could have better responded to the crisis in the former Yugoslav country. As a witness, Dr. Haris Silajdzic was also in attendance.

  • 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.

  • The United Nations, NATO and the Former Yugoslavia

    This hearing focused on policy questions related to United Nations efforts and coordinated assistance from NATO in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. The hearing reviewed a historical timeline of the events and atrocities associated with the war. The hearing covered the issue of genocide and the actions in which the United States ought to respond. In relation to the war, the hearing touched based on the effectiveness of the Bosnian arms embargo and whether its intended approached has alleviated the conflict in any matter. The witnesses and the Commissioners touched on the logistical difficulties faced by the United Nations and what the general perspective and desires of the local population.

  • Genocide in Bosnia

    This hearing focused on determinig if the recent ethnic cleansing, the destruction of cultural sites, and war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia constituted genocide.  In particular, the witnesses and Commissioners discussed  how many of the war crimes were committed on orders from the military and the political leadership.

  • The Crisis of Chechnya

    Apart from horrendous human rights violations, the war in Chechnya has brought to the fore all the underlying fissures in Russia’s political and economic structures, as well as highlighted the tensions in Russia’s relations with its neighbors and the rest of the international community. Chechnya confronts Russia’s Government, and by extension, all OSCE governments with the key issue of self-determination. Though Principle VIII of the Helsinki Final Act guarantees the equal right of all peoples to self-determination, the international community has never worked out rules and mechanisms for pursuing that right. Since many countries face actual or potential separatist movements based on demands for self-determination, governments have tended to side-step the issue.

  • The Crisis in Chechnya

    This hearing discussed the human right violations conducted by the Russian government against the civilians of the Chechen Republic. The horrendous human rights violations, the war in Chechnya brought to the fore all the underlying fissures in Russia’s political and economic structures, as well as highlighted the tensions in Russia’s relations with its neighbors and the rest of the international community. Chechnya confronted Russia’s Government, and by extension, all OSCE governments with the key issue of self-determination. Though Principle VIII of the Helsinki Final Act guarantees the equal right of all peoples to self-determination, the international community has never worked out rules and mechanisms for pursuing that right. Since many countries face actual or potential separatist movements based on demands for self-determination, governments have tended to side-step the issue.

  • Russia and its Neighbors

    Dennis Deconcini (D-AZ) and other legislators discussed Russia’s relations with its neighboring countries. More specifically, concerning democratic reform, the hearing contrasted the economic criteria of privatization, the rate of inflation, currency emission, and subsidies to enterprises with Moscow’s policies vis-à-vis its neighbors. Of course, Russia’s neighbors are referred to as the New Independent States, and, as Deconcini argues, it is problematic when Russia militarily or economically coerces its neighbors to enter into unwanted, yet inevitable, political, security, or economic relationships.

  • THE FATE OF THE PEOPLE OF BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA - PART 3

    President of Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corp, Frederick Cuny, and former special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, José Maria Mendiluce, gave testimony in front of the U.S. Helsinki Commission in regards to the civilian populations of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In their testimony, each witness covered the humanitarian efforts on the ground and its effects on the civilian population, obstacles created by the mafia, and the effects of the Bosnian arms embargo. Also the Commissioners and witnesses discussed the different perspectives of sanction use- employ sanctions to deter the foreign government to follow a desired goal or that the use of such particular sanctions only adds fuel to the survival of the regime via nationalism.The hearing concludes with possible U.S. responses with findings and reports to support prospective actions.

  • THE FATE OF THE PEOPLE OF BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- PART 2

    President of Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corp, Frederick Cuny, and former special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, José Maria Mendiluce, gave testimony in front of the U.S. Helsinki Commission in regards to the civilian populations of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In their testimony, each witness covered the humanitarian efforts on the ground and its effects on the civilian population, obstacles created by the mafia, and the effects of the Bosnian arms embargo. Also the Commissioners and witnesses discussed the different perspectives of sanction use- employ sanctions to deter the foreign government to follow a desired goal or that the use of such particular sanctions only adds fuel to the survival of the regime via nationalism.

  • The Crisis In Bosnia-Herzegovina

    Sen. Dennis DeConcini presided over this hearing that was held with the state of violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina in mind. The unfortunate former Yugoslavian country had just emerged from a bloody internecine conflict, which resulted in thousands of refugees. The purpose of this hearing was to discuss post-conflict negotiations, and yet, unfortunately, violence started again and escalated after the civil war earlier in the 1990s. The Commissioners, then, asked how the U.S., UN, European Community, and other individual actors, which had been criticized for inaction regarding the crisis, should respond.

  • The New Commonwealth of Independent States: Problems, Perspectives, and U.S. Policy Implications

    This hearing discussed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of a series of succeeding states. The hearing covered the theme of regional and ethnic divisions as key elements in the unpredicted dissolution of the Soviet Union. The witnesses covered the particular challenges of securing peaceful independence from the “commonwealth of former Soviet Republics” and the democratization process. The conversation centered on the human rights dimension and the process of newly created states signing on to several international treaties and obtaining memberships in international organizations.

  • The Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis: Prospects For Resolution

    This hearing focused on Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in Azerbaijan that has historically been dominated by Armenians and, consequently, has requested to become part of Armenia. The Azeris did not take too kindly to this request, and bloody and violent conflict ensued between the two countries. The hearing examined whether there were still reasons for cautious optimism about a negotiated settlement. This dispute underscored the fact that almost all borders between republics in the former U.S.S.R. were then in dispute. Others present at the hearing included Commissioner Dennis DeConcini, members of the Russia Supreme Soviet Anatoly Shabad, Nadir Mekhtiyev, and Fyodor Shelov-Kovedyaev, Plenipotentiary Representative of Armenia to the United States Alexander Arzoumanian, and Dr. David Nissman, expert on Azerbaijan.

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