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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.What is the OSCE?

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


* 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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  • Helsinki-Related Legislation in the 115th Congress

    Between January 1 and May 15, 2017, U.S. Helsinki Commissioners introduced more than a dozen bills and resolutions on issues relating to the Commission’s mandate to monitor and encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and other commitments undertaken by the 57 participating countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Senator Roger Wicker (MS), the Commission’s Chairman, and Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Senate Commissioner, have been particularly active.  Representative Chris Smith (NJ), the Commission’s Co-Chairman, and Representative Alcee Hastings (FL), Ranking House Commissioner, have also introduced several pieces of legislation. Other Commissioners, both House and Senate, have contributed to the effort.   The bills and resolutions cover a wide range of issues, from ensuring the Helsinki Principles are defended and promoted in U.S. foreign policy to encouraging improved U.S. implementation of Helsinki commitments at home. Several have been introduced in response to Russia’s threat to its neighbors and European security, while others address broader concerns about developments in Europe and the OSCE Partner countries of the Mediterranean region.    Download the full report to learn more.  Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, Anne Balance, Intern, and Jackson Lines, Intern

  • Helsinki Commissioners Urge President to Prioritize Democracy, Human Rights in Foreign Policy

    On May 3, Helsinki Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Helsinki Commissioners Senator Cory Gardner (CO), Senator Marco Rubio (FL), and Senator Thom Tillis (NC) signed a letter encouraging President Trump to prioritize democracy and respect for human rights in the Administration’s foreign policy agenda. The letter reads in part: “America has long been a leader in supporting individual rights. It was more than 240 years ago that the Founding Fathers declared  that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These principles have successfully formed the backbone of the American experiment in self- government. The rights the Founders recognized are not by any means solely ‘American,’ but rather are universal. Being fortunate to enjoy these freedoms ourselves, we have the moral imperative to promote democracy and human rights across the globe.” The bipartisan letter was also signed by Senator Todd Young (IN), Senator Edward Markey (MA), Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), Senator Susan Collins (ME), Senator Dick Durbin (IL), Senator Patrick Leahy (VT), Senator Christopher Coons (DE), Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK), Senator Cory Booker (NJ), and Senator Jeff Merkley (OR). The full text of the letter can be found below. Dear Mr. President: As you carry out the responsibilities of the Office of the President, we in the Congress stand ready to work with you to ensure that America remains a leader in advocating for democracy and human rights. We urge your administration to make these issues a priority. As you know, America has long been a leader in supporting individual rights.  It was more than 240 years ago that the Founding Fathers declared  that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  These principles have successfully formed the backbone of the American experiment in self- government. The rights the Founders recognized are not by any means solely “American,” but rather are universal. Being fortunate to enjoy these freedoms ourselves, we have the moral imperative to promote democracy and human rights across the globe.  At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee hearing earlier this year titled “Democracy and Human Rights: The Case for U.S. Leadership” human rights activists shared their stories of living under oppressive regimes. They made clear that they believe that the United States has a critical role to play in safeguarding the fundamental rights of all people. A world that is more democratic, respects human rights, and abides by the rule of law strengthens the security, stability, and prosperity of America. History has demonstrated time-and-again that free societies are more likely to be at peace with one another. Constitutional democracies are also less likely to fail and become breeding grounds for instability, terrorism, and migration.  Democratic nations that respect good governance and the rights of their own citizens are also more likely to be economically successful, and to be stable and reliable trade and investment partners for the United States.  Our economic partnerships with Japan, Germany, Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, and numerous other nations’ today stand as testament to the wisdom of far-sighted U.S. policy that seeks to develop good governance and strong democratic institutions as necessary enablers for strong economic partnerships as well. As we have seen over the past decade, there is a creeping authoritarian resurgence across the globe, against which we are the bulwark for individual rights and freedoms.  America, since its founding, has led this fight, not just for the rights of Americans found in the Constitution, but for the rights of all.  By elevating democracy and human rights to a prominent place on your foreign policy agenda you can make a measurable difference and make America safer, more prosperous, and more secure.  There is longstanding and deep bipartisan Congressional commitment to advancing freedom around the world, just as Republican and Democratic administrations for decades have supported democracy and human rights, and we look forward to working with you on this important cause.  We ask that, as you continue to formulate your foreign and defense policies, you put the promotion of democracy and human rights front-and-center as a primary pillar of America’s approach abroad.  As we move forward with the process of holding confirmation hearings for your nominees to key foreign policy positions we will be assessing their commitment to uphold these important American values as they carry out our nation’s foreign policy.

  • The OSCE as a Model: Asian Insights

    From April 14 to 22, 2017, Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Ambassador David Killion and Policy Advisor Paul Massaro traveled to Tokyo, Japan and Seoul, South Korea for consultations with these OSCE Asian Partners for Co-operation. Major topics of discussion included the call for a Helsinki Final Act-inspired arrangement for northeast Asia and the heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The future of the OSCE Asian Partners dialogue and further cooperation with the OSCE and other European institutions were also discussed. The OSCE Asian Partners for Cooperation is a grouping of countries in Asia with which the OSCE engages in a perm-anent, active dialogue, recognizing the linkages between European and Asian security. Currently, the OSCE Asian Partners include Japan, which joined in 1992; the Republic of Korea; which joined in 1994; Thailand, which joined in 2000; Afghanistan, which joined in 2003; and Australia, which joined in 2009. Mongolia was previously an Asian partner, having joined the grouping in 2004, but became a full OSCE participating State in 2012. The trip offered Helsinki Commission staff the opportunity to get a firsthand account of the situation in northeast Asia at a critical time, and ahead of the annual OSCE Asian Partners Conference taking place in Berlin later this year. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Ambassador David Killion, Chief of Staff, and Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor

  • A Call to OSCE Commitments in Aftermath of Turkish Referendum

    Mr. President, I rise today to express my concerns about the outcome of the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey, when more than 50 million Turkish citizens voted on constitutional amendments to convert Turkey’s parliamentary government into a presidential system.   Turkey is a longstanding friend of the United States and a NATO ally.  Our bilateral partnership dates back to the Cold War when Turkey served as an important bulwark against the creeping influence of the Soviet Union.  Time has not diminished Turkey’s geostrategic importance. Today, Ankara finds itself at the intersection of several critical challenges: the instability in Syria and Iraq, the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups, and the refugee crisis spawned by this regional upheaval.     The United States relies on Turkey and other regional partners to help coordinate and strengthen our collective response.  I was deeply troubled when renegade military units attempted to overthrow Turkey’s democratically elected government last July.  Turkey’s strength is rooted in the democratic legitimacy of its government – a pillar of stability targeted by the reckless and criminal coup attempt.         As Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or U.S. Helsinki Commission, I take very seriously the political commitments made by the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  These commitments – held by both the United States and Turkey – represent the foundation of security and cooperation in the OSCE region.  They include an indispensable focus on human rights, rule of law, and democratic institutions.    In the OSCE’s founding document, the Helsinki Final Act, participating States affirm “the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” and consider respect for these to be an “essential factor” for international peace and security. This vision is consistent with long-established U.S. foreign policy promoting human rights and democracy as cornerstones of a safer, more stable international order.      With these principles in mind, the United States must pay urgent attention to the current situation in Turkey and the danger it poses to Turkish and regional stability.  Eroding respect for fundamental freedoms, rule of law, and democratic institutions in Turkey has proceeded at an alarming pace.  The government’s planned “executive presidency” will further decrease government accountability. Since the attempted coup more than nine months ago, Turkey has operated under a state of emergency that gives the government sweeping authority to curtail rights and silence opponents.  Certain extraordinary measures may have been justified in the immediate aftermath to restore order, investigate events, and bring perpetrators to justice, but the government’s actions have stretched far beyond these legitimate aims.  The ongoing purge has touched every institution of government, sector of society, corner of the country, and shade of opposition – military or civilian, Turk or Kurd, religious or secular, nationalist or leftist, political or non-political.   An atmosphere of fear and uncertainty has settled over Turkish society as more than 100,000 people have been detained or arrested.  Tens of thousands have been fired from their jobs, had their professional licenses revoked, and had their names released on public lists without any recognizable due process.  The government removed and replaced thousands of judges and prosecutors within hours of the coup’s defeat, compromising the independence of the judiciary at a moment when an impartial justice system had become more important than ever. The government has also closed more than 150 media outlets.  Upwards of 80 journalists are behind bars.  The offices of the country’s oldest newspaper were raided, and the paper’s editor-in-chief and other staff were arrested.  The media environment was already under extraordinary pressure before the coup. Last spring, the government seized control of the country’s highest-circulation paper.  Self-censorship is now widely practiced to avoid provoking the government’s ire.   Additionally, state of emergency decrees have given regional governors the ability to curtail freedom of assembly rights, harming the ability of civil society organizations to organize rallies concerning the referendum.  Since July, the government has detained more than a dozen opposition parliamentarians. Many more continue to face criminal charges for political statements they made before the coup attempt.    It is difficult to overstate the chilling effect these measures have had on political debate in Turkey. And yet, these are the circumstances under which Turks voted on April 16.  These major constitutional changes passed with a slim majority of 51 percent.  The OSCE’s international observation mission stated in its preliminary conclusions that the vote “took place on an unlevel playing field” and that “fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed.”  Under the revised constitution, the once largely ceremonial position of president will convert into an “executive presidency” and the position of prime minister will be abolished.  The president will be elected along with the national assembly every five years and has the ability to dissolve the assembly and call new elections at will.  The president will also appoint a larger proportion — nearly half — of the country’s supreme judicial council.  In a report on these new constitutional provisions, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe concluded that the amendments are a “step backwards” and pose “dangers of degeneration … towards an authoritarian and personal regime.”    Turkey is undergoing a disturbing transformation, and I am concerned these changes could undermine the strength of our partnership.  President Erdogan’s government has dramatically repressed dissent, purged opponents from every sector of government and society, and is now poised to consolidate power further under his self-described “executive presidency.” In the short term, the Turkish government should act swiftly and transparently to investigate credible claims of voting irregularities in the referendum as well as the legality of a surprise electoral board decision to admit an unknown number of ballots that should be deemed invalid under existing rules.  Public trust in the outcome of such a consequential vote is of utmost importance.  Sadly, until now, the government has responded to these challenges with dismissiveness and suppression.  In the past week, dozens of activists have been detained for participating in protests against the election results. Furthermore, the government should lift the state of emergency, stop all forms of repression against the free press, release all imprisoned journalists and political activists, and urgently restore public confidence in the judiciary.  Only then can it credibly and independently adjudicate the tens of thousands of cases caught up in the government’s months-long dragnet operations. A country where disagreements are suppressed rather than debated is less secure. A country where institutions are subordinated to personalities is less stable.  A country where criticism is conflated with sedition is less democratic.  Unless President Erdogan moves urgently to reverse these trends, I fear our partnership will inevitably become more transactional and less strategic.  It will become more difficult to justify long-term investment in our relationship with Turkey if the future of the country becomes synonymous with the fortunes of one party or one individual. The United States and Turkey need a solid foundation for enduring cooperation to tackle regional instability, terrorism, migration, and other challenges. The future of this partnership is difficult to imagine in the midst of a prolonged state of emergency, wide-scale purges, and weakened democratic institutions.

  • Turkey Post-Referendum: Institutions and Human Rights

    Human rights abuses by the Turkish government have proliferated under the state-sanctioned emergency measures imposed in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup attempt.  Turkish authorities have fired as many as 130,000 public workers, including teachers, academics, police officers, and soldiers, and thousands have been arrested. Hundreds of journalists have had their credentials revoked and dozens of media outlets have been shut down. Human rights groups have documented widespread reports of intimidation, ill-treatment and torture of those in police custody. On April 16, 2017, Turkey held a referendum on a package of amendments that transforms the country’s institutions in major ways. The position of prime minister was eliminated and the executive powers of the president were expanded, enabling him to appoint ministers without parliamentary approval, exert more influence over the judiciary, and call early elections. Coming on top of the post-coup crackdown, how will Turkey’s changing institutions affect human rights in the country? Panelists at the briefing discussed how U.S. policymakers can most effectively encourage the protection of human rights to promote the interests of the Turkish people given the strategic importance of the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship.

  • How the State of Russian Media Becomes the State of International Media

    It was a bad week for reports on freedom of the media in Russia. On Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders released its 2017 world press freedom index. Russia came in at 148, after such bastions of independent media as South Sudan and Thailand. On Thursday, a Ukrainian human rights delegation briefed the Helsinki Commission on the case of Oleg Sentsov — a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in a Siberian penal colony for his opposition to the annexation of Crimea — and abuses of Ukrainian journalists and creative professionals more broadly. On Friday, Freedom House unveiled its Freedom of the Press 2017 report. That report gives Russia partial credit for the world’s 13-year low in press freedom. “Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia has been a trailblazer in globalizing state propaganda. It continues to leverage pro-Kremlin reporting around the world,” the report states. The three taken in tandem tell a story — one in which violence against journalists in Russia and the region is connected to violence against journalism around the world. Consider the case of Oleg Sentsov. In 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for planning terrorist attacks in Crimea. In his trial, he said he had been tortured. The international human rights community believes this to have been payback for the filmmaker’s outspoken stance against the annexation of Crimea (it is also worth noting that Russia treated Sentsov, a Ukrainian, as though he were a Russian citizen; after the annexation of Crimea, Russia considered all who did not explicitly apply for Ukrainian citizenship to be Russian, to which Sentsov objected in court by saying, “I am not a serf to be transferred with the land”). Russian-backed media reported it as a terrorism case. And so the case contains both the physical threat that looms over journalists and creative types who fail to parrot the party line and also the threat that Russian state-backed media can pose to understanding in the wider world. “Many people perceive [Russian state-backed media] not as propaganda, but as an alternative point of view,” Natalya Kaplan, Sentsov’s cousin, told Foreign Policy in an interview before heading to the Helsinki Commission briefing. “They tend to trust what Russian propaganda says.” In the case of Sentsov, that means some outside of Russia (to say nothing of those in it) thought he was neither filmmaker nor terrorist, but some combination of the two. Americans can no longer tell the difference between actual fake news and fake fake news, Ukrainian PEN member Halya Coynash told FP. “The thing is that you really think the media and information you get from Russian media, it is media. Which is wrong. We have state media, and state media are part of [the] strategy of [the state],” said Mustafa Nayyem, journalist turned Ukrainian member of parliament. Alternative facts are not facts, and false equivalences are not equivalent. But consumers of Russian state-backed media around the globe can be duped into treating them as such, Nayyem said. He argued Russia presents reality and a bold-faced lie as though they are but two different perspectives, the truth of which lies somewhere in the middle, for viewers to decide for themselves. “We know that [Sentsov] never was involved in some attacks, or in some revolution, in terroristic things. He’s a filmmaker, and his movies are recognized internationally. The lie is that this guy was a terrorist, and no one even tried to understand the basis of this [accusation] … There is guy: a filmmaker, and a terrorist. What is true? They think that maybe he’s some filmmaker-terrorist. It’s insane.” Nayyem ardently believes those who want to protect freedom of media and speech need to build up conventions regulating what are accepted as media outlets and news. But there’s a thin line between banning propaganda and furthering censorship and repression. Russia’s independent Dozhd (TV Rain), for example, was recently banned in Ukraine for reporting that Crimea is part of Russia. “Recent democratic gains have bolstered media freedom overall,” the Freedom House report states, “but restrictions on Russian outlets and attempts to foster ‘patriotic’ reporting raise questions about the government’s commitment to media autonomy.” And besides, even Ukrainians, more prepared for Russian media influence than their western counterparts, are not entirely immune. “The Russian media are much better funded” than their Ukrainian counterparts, Kaplan said, and it takes time and resources to counter reports put out by the Russian state-backed media machine. “Even my Ukrainian friends who live in Kiev, after watching two hours of Russian TV, start to question themselves. ‘Am I a fascist?’” Kaplan does not, at present, see much reason for optimism. While it was a bad week for reports on the state of Russian media, it was inevitably a much worse week for those trying to correct or improve it. “Journalism in Russia is dead. It happened quite a while ago,” Kaplan said. “There are small islands of freedom of speech in Russia,” she said, but they aren’t on TV, and they aren’t available to those who don’t know how to access certain sites. Besides, she said, the sophisticated propaganda machine will figure out how to move onto the internet, too. “Russian journalists face the biggest challenge. Their job is simply to survive.” Hanging in the air is the idea that, at present, surviving is actually journalism’s job, too.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Proclamation Recognizing Importance of Helsinki Final Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act –  the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – and its relevance to American national security.  The resolution was cosponsored by all other Senators currently serving on the Helsinki Commission: Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. John Boozman (AR), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty. Unfortunately, the commitment to these ideals by some OSCE participating States is eroding,” Chairman Wicker said. “The shrinking space for civil society in many nations has become reminiscent of the Communist era – a time when many Helsinki Monitoring Groups were violently persecuted for their courageous support of basic human rights,” he continued. “With its actions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Russian Federation in particular has demonstrated how closely such internal repression can be tied to external aggression.  We were reminded of these abuses in this morning’s Helsinki Commission hearing. I urge the President to make it clear that Helsinki principles are vital not only to American national interests but also to the security of the OSCE region as a whole.” “What was remarkable about the Helsinki Final Act was the commitment that these standards we agreed to would not only be of internal interest to the member country, but that any country signatory to the Helsinki Final Act could challenge the actions of any other country,” said Ranking Commissioner Cardin, who is also Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We have not only the right but the responsibility to call out countries that fail to adhere to the basic principles that were agreed to in 1975.” Defining security in a uniquely comprehensive manner, the Helsinki Final Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, among them respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief (Principle VII). Other principles include respect for sovereign equality (Principle I), the territorial integrity of states (Principle IV), and states’ fulfilment in good faith of their obligations under international law (Principle X). S.Con.Res.13 encourages President Trump to reaffirm America’s commitment to the principles and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. The resolution also calls on the President to urge other participating States to respect their OSCE commitments and to condemn the Russian Federation's clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of all 10 core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act.

  • Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight

    The U.S Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Wednesday on “Democracy and Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight.”  It was the first hearing in the 115th Congress focused on internal human rights repression in Russia. Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice-chairman of pro-reform movement Open Russia; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President of Freedom House, testified about the crisis of Russian democracy and the country’s worsening human rights record under President Vladimir Putin. In his opening statement, Mr. Kara-Murza underscored the necessity for the OSCE participating States to give an honest assessment about what is happening in Russia, where the number of political prisoners now exceeds a hundred people (a number that has doubled in less than a year). Mr. Kara-Murza, a vocal critic of the Kremlin who has survived two poisoning attempts, estimated that more than 30 activists have been murdered by the Putin regime since Vladimir Putin assumed power in 2000. He also called for an end to impunity for human rights violations in Russia. “The U.S. does have a mechanism for such accountability in the Magnitsky Act that provides for targeted sanctions on human rights abusers. This law should continue to be implemented to its full extent,” Mr. Kara-Murza said. His concerns were echoed by Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Denber, who noted that today, “Russia is more repressive that it has ever been in the post-Soviet era.” At Chairman Wicker’s request, Ms. Denber provided detailed information about each of the Russian political prisoners who were featured on posters in the room, and also spoke at length about the repression of gay men in Chechnya. Dr. Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House highlighted the fact that Mr. Putin was the primary author of the modern authoritarian’s playbook, which has subsequently been replicated by many autocratic rulers in the region.  “His methods for suppressing civil society and political opposition have inspired other dictators, and his media manipulation has impacted most of Eurasia directly and extended to Europe and the United States,” Dr. Calingaert said. However, despite the grim situation, Mr. Kara-Murza voiced some optimism about the future. “Increasingly, the young generation in Russia – the very generation that grew up under Vladimir Putin – is demanding respect and accountability from those in power,” he said. Mr. Kara-Murza pointed to a wave of anti-corruption demonstrations that took place in dozens of cities across Russia in late March, with tens of thousands of people, mostly young protesters, taking out to the streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Dimitriy Medvedev. “This movement will continue. And these growing demands for accountability are the best guarantee that Russia will one day become a country where citizens can exercise the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled,” he added.  

  • Death of OSCE Monitor in Eastern Ukraine

    Mr. President, I was saddened to learn that an American member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine was killed this past weekend by a landmine. Joseph Stone was carrying out his dutiesin territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Two other members of the team—one from the Czech Republic and another from Germany—were injured. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe controls these monitoring teams. They are comprised of unarmed civilians. The mission has been in the region since 2014, when, unfortunately, Russian-backed troops invaded Crimea. Had Russia lived up to the Minsk agreements and ceased supporting, directing, funding, and fueling separatists in this region, there would have been no need for the mission to continue. Sadly, that is not the case. This particular special monitoring mission currently fields roughly 700 monitors, with 600 of them in Donetsk and Luhansk. Those who are part of this mission are unarmed civilians. They serve as the eyes and ears for the world in the conflict zone. They report on the near-constant violations of the cease-fire, as well as reporting on humanitarian needs of the population. They play an essential role in the understanding of the situation on the ground, often under extremely difficult circumstances and, certainly, as we have seen with Joseph Stone, dangerous circumstances. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I often hear from our top military leaders about the importance of the OSCE and the work being done by the special monitoring missions. In late March, for example, during a hearing of the Armed Services Committee, General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, called attention to the good work of OSCE in the region and the work of the monitoring missions. He confirmed in his testimony that ‘‘Russia is directing combined Russian-separatist forces to target civilian infrastructure and threaten and intimidate OSCE monitors in order to turn up the pressure on Ukraine.’’ He also said, ‘‘Russian-led separatist forces continue to commit the majority of ceasefire violations despite attempts by the OSCE to broker a lasting ceasefire along the Line of Contact.’’ The tragic death of American Joseph Stone underscores the need for the OSCE monitors to have unfettered access across the front lines and across the border regions controlled by the separatists. This unfortunate tragedy is a result of this access not being granted. I commend the Austrian Foreign Minister, who serves as OSCE chair-in-office, for calling attention to this tragedy and calling for an immediate investigation into these events. Those who are responsible for the death of Joseph Stone and the injury of the two other monitors should be held accountable. Joseph Stone died serving his country by serving as a part of this international effort, and I extend my condolences this evening to his family and friends. I once again call on the Russian leadership to put an end to the cycle of violence and to live up to its OSCE commitments. As chairman of the Helsinki Commission, the U.S. part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I think it is important for Members of the Senate and for Americans to understand the important role that Americans are playing in this effort.

  • Background: OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor On April 23, 2017, the OSCE announced that a U.S. paramedic serving in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine had been killed when his vehicle struck an explosive – likely a landmine – in separatist controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. Two other SMM personnel, from Germany and the Czech Republic, were also injured in the incident. What is the OSCE SMM? The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine was established in 2014, to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia and Ukraine.  Currently fielding roughly 700 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the SMM is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. The Mission has some notable achievements, including regular reporting on the near-constant ceasefire violations, as well as the humanitarian needs of the population struggling in the conflict zone.  It has also sought to bring the sides together on weapons withdrawals and demining, as well as working towards agreements to fix power and water lines in the conflict area. However, Mission personnel face regular and sometimes violent harassment by combined Russian-separatist forces, who seek to limit the SMM’s access to the areas they control.  The attacks have made the environment in which Mission personnel operate increasingly volatile and dangerous, a fact tragically underlined by the incident on April 23.  In addition to this harassment, the SMM has faced limits imposed by the Russian-backed separatists including denial of access to the Ukrainian-Russian border, as well as jamming or downing of the OSCE’s unmanned aerial vehicles, critical tools for maintaining a clear operational picture. What is the U.S. Position? The United States supports the SMM and its monitors by providing personnel (roughly 75 Americans, making it the largest national contributor) and resources to the mission. The U.S. also supports the SMM by pushing Russia to end the separatists’ obstructions.  Since the April 23 incident, the U.S. has reiterated its call for full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, particularly by the Russian-led separatist forces who are most responsible for the threats to the SMM.  The U.S. has pushed for the sides to move towards a real and durable ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, and disengagement from the line of contact, as well as safe, full, and unfettered access throughout the conflict zone for the SMM monitors. The U.S. Helsinki Commission has consistently upheld Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, including through support of the efforts of the SMM in Ukraine, and called for full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, in particular underlining Russia’s responsibility in ensuring that the separatists make verifiable and irreversible progress on the implementation of the Minsk agreements. The latest incident must not only be fully investigated; it is a reminder of the urgent need for progress on full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, including a cease-fire and withdrawal of weapons.  

  • Chairman Wicker on Death of OSCE Monitor in Eastern Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Following the death yesterday of a U.S. paramedic serving in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine when his vehicle struck an explosive – likely a landmine –  in separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker spoke on the Senate floor this evening to condemn the incident; express his condolences to the family of the victim, Joseph Stone;  and call for the Russian government to end the cycle of violence that resulted in yesterday’s tragedy. “Had Russia lived up to the Minsk agreements, and ceased supporting, directing, funding, and fueling separatists in this region, there would have been no need for the [monitoring] mission to continue,” Senator Wicker said. “[The monitors] play an essential role in the understanding of the situation on the ground, often under extremely difficult circumstances…the tragic death of American Joseph Stone underscores the need for the OSCE monitors to have unfettered access across the front lines and across the border regions controlled by the separatists,” he continued. “I commend the Austrian foreign minister, who serves as OSCE Chair-in-Office, for calling attention to this tragedy and calling for an immediate investigation into these events. Those who are responsible … should be held accountable. Joseph Stone died serving his country by serving as a part of this international effort, and I extend my condolences this evening to his family and friends. I once again call on Russian leadership to put an end to the cycle of violence and to live up to its OSCE commitments,” Senator Wicker concluded. The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. Currently fielding roughly 700 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the SMM is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. It is the only independent monitoring mission in the war zone. The United States supports the SMM and its monitors by providing roughly 75 personnel and other resources to the mission.

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Attend OSCE Permanent Council

    By A. Paul Massaro III, policy advisor, Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to USOSCE, Orest Deychakiwsky, policy advisor, Alex Tiersky, policy advisor, and Jackson Lines, intern On March 30, 2017, Ambassador David Killion, Chief of Staff of the Helsinki Commission, and Helsinki Commission Policy Advisors Paul Massaro and Everett Price attended the Permanent Council (PC) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna. Helsinki Commission staff members occasionally have the opportunity to attend OSCE events, including PC meetings, which help inform the work of Congress with regard to the OSCE region. What is the Permanent Council? In contrast to OSCE Summit or Ministerial Meetings, which are held annually and provide political direction and standard setting for the OSCE, the Permanent Council is the regular body for political consultations and decisions concerning the day-to-day operational work of the OSCE, and also provides a forum to address current issues. PC Meetings are held once a week at the Ambassadorial level in Vienna, Austria, and usually consist of a report by the head of an OSCE field mission or an invited speaker, and discussion of current issues. Any decisions are taken by consensus.   The PC is generally closed to the public and press, although press may be allowed in for statements by high-level visitors, and academic and other visiting groups are occasionally allowed to observe the proceedings. The Helsinki Commission, joined by the State Department, has long recommended opening the Permanent Council and webcasting it as a way to improve transparency. The United States Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE) regularly posts statements it makes in the PC on its website and shares them on social media. March 30 Meeting The March 30 meeting included a report by Ambassador Michael Scanlan, Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, which focused largely on discussions of the future status of Transnistria within Moldova; a discussion of Russian intervention in Eastern Ukraine; and remarks on media freedom in Belarus and religious freedom in Russia. Ambassador Scanlan noted that, due to a lack of elections this year, 2017 is an important opportunity to address the Transnistrian autonomy issue in a meaningful way. Many participants expressed hope that a mid-May conference meant to open dialogue on the issue would make tangible steps towards Transnistrian autonomy. If a framework can be agreed upon, the PC volunteered the OSCE to mediate talks finalizing the deal. The United States, through its Chargé d’Affaires, Kate Byrnes, intervened on each issue. On Moldova, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to working with the 5+2 partners to find a comprehensive conflict settlement that respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova and affords a special status for the Transnistrian region. On Ukraine, the United States summarized the appalling continuation of Russia’s ongoing aggression and detailed violations of the ceasefire. The U.S., Ms. Byrnes stated, “affirms its staunch support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally-recognized borders.” While no participant was willing to take responsibility for the escalation of tensions in Ukraine, all delegations remained concerned with the situation and agreed that both sides in the conflict need to abide by the Minsk Agreements if progress towards peace is to continue. The United States also condemned crackdowns on protestors in Russia and Belarus. The United States, EU, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director (ODIHR) Michael Link joined together to issue statements reminding Belarus of the need to uphold its obligations to human rights and fundamental freedoms as part of the OSCE. The U.S. and EU delegations also condemned the arrests of protestors in Russia. Both called for the release of those arrested, with a particular focus on Alexei Navalny. Finally, the United States expressed concern about a Russian court case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses that could lead to the disenfranchisement of the group in Russia, violating OSCE commitments to uphold freedom of religion.

  • Russian Military Aggression in Europe: A Resurgent Threat to Stability

    On March 21 and March 23, 2017, expert witnesses—including Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander-Europe—testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) about ongoing Russian activities in the European region. The impact of Russia’s military aggression and its failure to uphold fundamental international agreements were of paramount importance to Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH), also a Helsinki Commissioner and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees. Three key themes emerged in the Commissioners’ questioning: the challenges Russian military activities, including exercises, pose to the stability of the European security environment; Moscow’s flaunting of its security-related commitments; and the role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in addressing these violations Download the full report to learn more. Contributor: Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor

  • First Person: Election Observation in Armenia

    By Everett Price, Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s policy advisor for Armenia, I participated in the election observation mission (EOM) to Armenia organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from March 31 to April 3, 2017. On April 2, the Republic of Armenia held its first parliamentary election since approving constitutional amendments in a popular referendum in 2015 that transition the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. The election was also significant as the first nation-wide vote held under sweeping 2016 revisions to the country’s electoral code that implemented a new process for allocating legislative seats, improved transparency, mandated advanced voter authentication measures, and increased female and minority representation quotas. I was one of a 63-member delegation of parliamentarians and staff deployed by the OSCE PA to serve as short-term observers to the Armenian election. This parliamentary delegation complemented the work of a team of 14 experts, 28 long-term observers, and over 300 short-term observers sent throughout the capital and across the country by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament (EP) also participated. The OSCE PA and ODIHR regularly lead EOMs in the OSCE region at the invitation of the host country. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) In the days before the vote, our OSCE PA observation team received extensive briefings on the election process and current political dynamics from ODIHR experts and from Armenian government officials, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. These briefings focused on allegations of electoral violations, the complexity of the electoral code, the role of international and local observers, and the tenor of the campaign. We heard a “unified message of concern” from civil society representatives.  Citizen activists, journalists, and opposition members told us that the ruling party would abuse its access to administrative resources to get out the vote and that it, and other parties, would engage in voter intimidation and vote buying.  They warned that while new electoral procedures might mitigate concerns about the casting and counting ballots, the ruling party and powerful oligarchs would wield improper influence outside the voting booth, diminishing the fairness of the vote. One political commentator assessed that the difficult economic situation experienced by many voters during this election season would make them especially susceptible to selling their vote. Briefers also discussed the complexity of Armenia’s new electoral code and the extent to which it would address past electoral violations. Significantly, this was Armenia’s first time employing electronic voter identification, multiple ballots, and a partial open list voting system that allows voters to express their preference for specific candidates. The code incorporated many recommendations from Armenian civil society, ODIHR, and other international experts and was generally assessed as a positive step forward. Concerns remained, however, about the complexity of voting procedures, voter registration policy, relatively weak campaign finance transparency provisions, and restrictions on citizen observer participation, among other issues.       Civil society activists specifically raised concerns about the overall number of citizen observers and the rules governing their access to polling stations. Armenia registered over 28,000 citizen observers in a country of less than 3 million people, prompting concerns about overcrowding at polling stations and questions about the origins of the organizations and individuals behind these observation missions. One civil society representative said that only 600 of the citizen observers were from known NGOs and that many of the rest are likely from NGOs established by political parties. Some worried that the large number of citizen observers was meant to suppress the participation of legitimate groups since the electoral code stipulates that a maximum of 15 citizen observers are allowed in a polling station at one time. Ruling party officials, meanwhile, noted that hundreds of citizen observers were foreigners registered under local NGOs. They intimated that these observers could be a vehicle for unwelcome foreign influence. One media representative characterized the content of the campaign as “the most primitive” in recent memory, while another political commentator lamented the “poverty of ideas” and “competition of personalities” on display. Several members of the media and some political party officials regretted that lack of any televised debate among candidates—only three of the nine parties and political coalitions on the ballot were willing to hold such a debate. What’s more, several journalists noted that many parties actively avoided the press and restricted most of their candidates from interacting with the media.    Before dawn on election day, two other observers and I deployed to our first assigned polling station to watch the opening procedures. At a school in downtown Yerevan, I watched as the precinct chairwoman capably organized the precinct committee that worked together to prepare the space and voting materials for the arrival of the day’s first voters. The importance of orderliness at this particular polling station became evident within the hour when presidential security arrived to prepare for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to cast his vote there. Despite this exceptional circumstance, in other ways the experience at this polling station typified the voting I observed elsewhere throughout the day. I saw non-credentialed citizens hovering watchfully—and in violation of the electoral code—outside the polling station and engaging voters—likely local party officials keeping tabs on voter participation. Inside the polling place there was some overcrowding, a malfunctioning electronic voter authentication device, and modest voter confusion about the voting procedure, which involved selecting among nine separate ballots and optionally marking a candidate preference on the reverse side. I visited a total of seven polling places that day, stretching from downtown Yerevan to the shores of Lake Sevan and the surrounding hinterland 60km northeast of the capital. In larger precincts I witnessed large contingents of party proxies and citizen observers monitoring the vote. In several instances, citizen observers credentialed under the name of a local NGO turned out to be from foreign countries and were unable to explain to me the mission of their organization, highlighting the opaque origins of some citizen observation efforts. In most precincts I saw a mix of credentialed and non-credentialed individuals from political parties and local NGOs mingling inside and outside the polling station, engaging voters, and generally making their presence felt. Our day ended in Yerevan where we observed the closure procedure at a polling place where about 700 votes had been cast. The precinct chairwoman carefully walked the precinct committee through the process step by step, openly acknowledging to us the difficulty of carrying out the complex procedure for the first time. The tallying took place transparently in front of us and in full view of several local observers and party proxies that stayed late into the night to oversee the count. We had the opportunity, along with our fellow observers, to ask questions of the precinct chairwoman about how she and her team were adjudicating individual ballots and counting votes. Although my observations here are anecdotal, they are consistent with the preliminary findings and conclusions of the international election observation mission that the elections “were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected” although the vote was “tainted by credible information about vote-buying and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.” The end result was a vote that suffered from “an overall lack of public confidence and trust.” (Read the full Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions.)        While Armenia’s democracy took some important strides in the procedural conduct of this election, much work remains to be done. With the vote tallying complete, Armenia now embarks on a critical period of transition to a parliamentary system that will be fully realized at the end of the President’s final term in April 2018. All political actors, but particularly the new governing coalition, must shoulder their responsibilities to ensure that this new system of governance earns the trust of the public it serves. To build this trust, Armenia would benefit from a process of political evolution that accompanies its institutional transition and procedural reforms. Specifically, Armenia’s political parties and new parliament would do well to ensure a competition of ideas replaces the all too common clashes of personalities and patronage networks on display during this election.

  • International Roma Day 2017

    International Roma Day is observed annually on April 8, commemorating the anniversary of the1971 London meeting of Romani activists from across Europe. The 1971 London meeting, convened as the "World Romani Congress," was one of the first transnational gatherings of Roma.  Since 1990, International Roma Day has been an opportunity to celebrate Romani culture and counter anti-Roma prejudice that fosters political and economic marginalization.  Roma—Europe’s Largest Ethnic Minority Roma live throughout all European countries as well as the Americas and Australasia. In Europe, the Roma population is very conservatively estimated at 15 million, with large concentrations in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe.  Roma have migrated to the United States since the colonial period. There are an estimated one million Americans with some Romani roots (recent or distant Romani ancestry).  Roma live throughout the United States, with larger communities in New York City, Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They are sometimes the victims of racial profiling by law enforcement.  The last explicitly anti-Roma law in the United States was repealed in New Jersey in 1998. Romani Americans have served as public members on the U.S. delegation to several OSCE human dimension meetings.  In 2016, the President appointed Dr. Ethel Brooks to serve on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, bringing a Romani voice to that body. Helsinki Commission Advocacy on Romani Human Rights The Commission has long record of addressing human rights issues relating to Roma.  As early as 1990, a Helsinki Commission delegation in Bucharest raised alarm orchestrated attacks on Roma conducted as part of a larger crackdown on dissent.  Helsinki Commissioners have continued to engage regarding the situation of Roma through hearings, briefings, and congressional meetings with Roma in Europe and the United States.  In recent years, the Commission has supported Romani inclusion in annual initiatives for political leaders such as the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN).  On March 27-28, the Commission worked in cooperation with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to hold a workshop during “Roma Week” at the European Parliament in Brussels titled, “Strengthening diverse leadership, participation and representation of Roma, including women and youth, in public and political life.”  Roma Day Events in the United States Harvard will host its fifth Annual Roma conference on April 10, where Helsinki Commission staff will participate. Scholars of Romani culture and Roma who work as academics, activists, and performers will convene a conference at New York University April 28-29. Later in the spring, on May 6, the 20th Annual Herdeljezi Music Festival will be held in the San Francisco area at the Croatian American Cultural Center. In the Washington area, the Embassy of the Czech Republic supported a March 30 screening of the documentary about the prejudice faced by the FC Roma football club. On May 17, the Czech Embassy will support a concert at the national Gallery of Art by Romani-Czech pianist Tomas Kaco. Learn More International Roma Day: Statement by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Celebrating International Roma Day: Statement by USOSCE Acting Deputy Chief of Mission Michele Siders International Roma Day: Statement by OSCE/ODIHR Director Michael Link

  • Romani Political Participation Key to Change

    On March 27 and 28, 2017, thirty-five Romani elected officials and civil society representatives participated in a two-day event held by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in cooperation with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, as part of the European Union’s “Roma Week.”  The event focused on opportunities to enhance Romani political participation as a means of strengthening the long-term strength and stability of the OSCE region.  As citizens of many OSCE participating States, Roma have long contributed to the prosperity of their countries in numerous ways, ranging from serving in the military to educating the next generation.  However, Roma are often described and perceived in negative terms, leading political leaders and others, to consider Roma a problem rather than a solution. Referring to the political rhetoric that instigated the tragic murders of Roma in 2008 and 2009, Romani-Hungarian researcher and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network alumni Roland Ferkovics stressed, “Political narratives should not only motivate and influence people but should also unite…Political leaders must take Roma as equal partner(s) using narratives [that] focus on similarities instead of differences.” Diverse speakers from across the OSCE region also shared experiences and practices that have been successful in inspiring democratic change. “Standing for elected office and using one’s right to vote is a powerful tool for Roma communities in Europe to counter anti-Roma rhetoric, hate crimes and racism,” said Mee Moua, former President of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), who also served as a Minnesota State Senator in the United States. Noting the importance of united communities, Killion Munyama, a member of the Polish Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, noted the importance of Roma having a seat at the decision-making table:  “Societies benefit from broad and diverse participation representing the voices of all communities in the public and political spheres.” Participants also stressed the urgency in ensuring the success of current Romani legislative initiatives and the importance of ensuring that legislative initiatives aimed at Roma, such as the EU Framework Strategy for Integration, are designed and implemented with the participation of Roma at all levels of government.  Other speakers at the event included MEP Terry Reintke, former MEP Livia Jaroka, and Jamen Gabriela Hrabanova of the European Roma Grassroots Organizations Network. Dr. Mischa Thompson of the Helsinki Commission participated as a facilitator.

  • Russian Supreme Court Considers Outlawing Jehovah's Witness Worship

    The Russian Supreme Court could declare the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organization in a Wednesday hearing, a move that would lead to the seizure of the church's headquarters near St. Petersburg and the outlawing of the group’s organized worship. In advance of the hearing, international concern has grown. “If the Supreme Court rules in favour of the authorities, it will be the first such ruling by a court declaring a registered centralized religious organization to be ‘extremist,’” the UN human rights’ high commissioner's office said in a statement on Tuesday. The ruling would also cap off years of increased restrictions by the Russian Federation against minority religions. Last summer, Russia introduced an anti-terrorism law that also restricted evangelism, and a regional court ordered the deportation of six missionaries with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2015, a court banned the Church of Scientology’s Moscow branch. Under a Russian law passed in 1997, there is freedom of religion, but four faiths are designated to be traditional—Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism—and other religious organizations must register with the government. Some groups, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are registered, still face bureaucratic and legal hurdles. Jehovah's Witness leaders estimate that there are 175,000 Russian-based adherents to the faith, which was founded in the United States the 1870s. Unlike Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is the son of God but do not believe in the Trinity. “They would basically be prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses as criminals,” David Semonian, international spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, says of the pending court declaration. “Anyone who would actually would have our publications could be criminalized. It is of great concern.” Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed a counter claim asking the court to rule the Justice Ministry’s actions as political repression. A ruling in favor of the ministry would make it a crime for Jehovah’s Witnesses to worship in the Russian Federation and dissolve the faith’s legal means to own or rent Kingdom Halls, their places of worship. In 2015, the Russian Federation banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website JW.org, and customs officials stopped shipments of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bibles, citing the possibility they were extremist literature. Last year, Russia threatened to close the group’s national headquarters. Roman Lunkin, a human rights fellow at the Wilson Center and an expert on church-state relations in Russia, says that Russian authorities have been targeting minority religions as “extremists” in an effort to demonstrate support for the Russian Orthodox Church and to marginalize organizations with suspected pro-western sympathies. "The treatment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects the Russian government’s tendency to view all independent religious activity as a threat to its control and the country’s political stability," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement on Tuesday. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are no threat to either the Russian Orthodox Church or to the Russian Government,” Semonian says. “The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, and that is all we are asking, to have the same rights as other religious groups have so we can go about our ministry in a peaceful way.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are pacifists, and their religious beliefs require them to abstain from political activity. They declare allegiance only to God, not to a state or political entity. They do not vote, lobby, protest, or join military. This lack of participation can be seen as a threat if a state demands nationalist and patriotic activity. “The persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is very much tied to the resurgence of a new view of nationalism, where everything within the state is fine, but anything outside of the state has to be crushed,” Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, a U.S. commissioner for International Religious Freedom appointed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, says. “A pacifist group that tells its members that their allegiance is to something outside of the government is immediately a group that will be perceived as dangerous to the regime.” Other minority Christian groups in Russia, like evangelicals, have not yet faced the same level of scrutiny. Lunkin says it is impossible to accuse evangelicals of extremist activity because their literature and Bible translation matches that of the Russian Orthodox Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation of the Bible, and they also have their own magazine and educational materials. Evangelicals also have closer relationships with government officials, he says. “It’s [about] a protection of traditional religions, and the Orthodox identity of Russian people,” Lunkin says. “But in fact it is about protecting personal power, because the main fear is changing of regimes in Russia.” Jehovah’s Witness church leadership has reached out to the U.S. State department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the U.S. Helsinki Commission for aid. “We will do everything within our legal means to have the judgment reversed,” Semonian says. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are known worldwide for our peaceful activities, and under no circumstances would we ever resort to violence or any other activity that could be misunderstood or considered extremist.” Jehovah’s Witness leaders have also asked their eight million members worldwide to write letters to Russia officials, including President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to ask them to intervene. Instructions tell writers to “be candid but respectful,” and to mention how the faith has benefited their families. “Keep in mind that ‘a mild answer turns away rage,’ and ‘a gentle tongue can break a bone,’” the instructions say, quoting the Biblical book of Proverbs. The decision will come as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is finalizing its annual report identifying countries of concern, its first such report for the Trump administration. The Commission is a bipartisan government advisory group that makes policy recommendations to the President, Congress, and the Secretary of State. Since 2009, the group has designated Russia as a “Tier 2” nation, on the watch list one step below countries of particular concern. “The fate of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the fate of any religious group that does not pledge its allegiance to the Russian government,” Arriaga says. “April 5 will definitely mark a new chapter of religious persecution in post-Soviet Russia.”

  • Consensus Denied? Challenges for OSCE Decision-Making in 2017

    Over the past decade, it has been increasingly difficult for the 57 participating States of the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to achieve the consensus necessary to address key issues facing the OSCE region, as well as to make decisions that shape the internal functioning of the organization.   In contrast to the bloc-to-bloc confrontations of the Cold War, there often is overwhelming support from most OSCE countries for specific decisions or actions.  However, the Russian Federation regularly represents the single dissenting country; without consensus, under OSCE rules, the proposal fails.  Some participating States have tried to accommodate Russian recalcitrance, believing it will give Moscow a greater stake in the OSCE; others see Moscow’s obstructionism succeed and are tempted to play the same game. Such efforts only encourage greater intransigence and move the OSCE away from the core principles and values around which all participating States once rallied. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, and Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law

  • Chairman Wicker Questions SACEUR about Russian Activity, OSCE

    WASHINGTON – Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, today questioned Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, Commander, U.S. European Command / Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, about ongoing Russian activities in the European region. Chairman Wicker discussed the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) mission monitors on the ground in Ukraine, as well as the organization’s work to provide an accurate depiction of activities and compliance with international treaties. He also asked about Russian “snap” military exercises and whether or not those actions are in line with agreements currently in place. Gen. Scaparrotti stated that there is reason to be concerned about Russian activity trends in the Arctic and North Atlantic regions, as they are more aggressive and are expanding their posture in the area. He went on to recommend that the U.S. reestablish Cold War deterrence practices in the region. 

  • Chairman Wicker Highlights Importance of OSCE Mission in Stabilizing Europe

    At a March 21 U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on “U.S. Policy and Strategy in Europe,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker underlined his commitment to Ukraine’s future and highlighted the importance of the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). “The more Ukraine succeeds, the better off it is for us in the United States and the West, and I think it is one of the most profoundly important issues that we face in the next year or two,” stated Senator Wicker, who also serves as a senior member of SASC. Praising the OSCE’s monitoring mission in Ukraine as providing the “international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone,” Chairman Wicker underlined the challenges facing the consensus-based OSCE in addressing the increased aggression in Europe by Russia, one of its participating States. Citing the fundamental “Helsinki principles” on which the OSCE is based, Senator Wicker pressed a panel of experts for their views on the continued value of the OSCE. Ambassador William J. Burns, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State who also served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, stated that despite the OSCE’s limitations, the organization has continuing value. “It embodies some of the core values that we share with our European allies and partners in terms of sovereignty of states and the inviolability of borders—so that the big states don’t just get to grab parts of smaller states, just because they can,” he said. Burns further called for continued U.S. investment in the OSCE. Former NATO SACEUR General Philip M. Breedlove, USAF (Ret.), suggested that the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine was a particularly valuable expression of the OSCE’s work, underlining that “…with some of the fake news that was created in the Donbass and other places as Russia invaded, even though OSCE was challenged … often, [the monitoring mission] was the source of the real news of what was actually going on on the ground.” Ambassador Alexander R. Vershbow, former Deputy Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who also served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, stated that the OSCE remains valuable, despite the challenges inherent in Russian actions, “…because of the norms and values that it upholds – even though the Russians are violating a lot of those right now – it gives us a basis on which to challenge their misbehavior.”  Praising the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine as “very courageous,” Vershbow underlined that while the OSCE faces serious limitations, “I don’t see any alternative right now in trying to manage a conflict like in Eastern Ukraine.”

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