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Podcast: Communities at Risk

The Impact of COVID-19 on the OSCE’s Most Vulnerable Populations

Reports from nearly every corner of the OSCE region suggest that minority groups and vulnerable populations have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and sometimes by the policies enacted by governments to address it.

This extended episode of "Helsinki on the Hill" takes an in-depth look at the pandemic’s impact on minority groups and vulnerable populations, and the role of governments in addressing that impact.

Margaret Huang, president and chief executive officer of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Karen Taylor, chair of the European Network Against Racism, share insight about the reality on the ground for minority communities, including African Americans, who are suffering disproportionately from both the pandemic and systemic discrimination.  

Lamberto Zannier, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, joins the discussion to offer recommendations on meeting the needs of national minorities and marginalized communities in the new world of the COVID-19 pandemic.


"Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America.

Transcript | Episode 11 | Communities at Risk: The Impact of COVID-19 on the OSCE’s Most Vulnerable Populations

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  • Russia sent troops near Ukraine and to Kazakhstan. The U.S. is watching and waiting

    Transcript   SCOTT SIMON, HOST: The Biden administration is heading into an intense week with Russia. The U.S. has already condemned the massing of tens of thousands of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine. But the White House seems to be taking a different approach to Russian involvement in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. NPR's Michele Kelemen explains. MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: First, a word on why Kazakhstan matters to the U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, who chairs the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, puts it this way. BEN CARDIN: It does bridge between Russia and China, Asia and Europe. It really is one of the key locations. It is a country that's rich in resources. It's a country that has a critical location from a security point of view, from a counterterrorism point of view. KELEMEN: U.S. companies are heavily invested in Kazakhstan's energy sector, and the U.S. saw the country as a relatively stable, though not a democratic partner. Cardin, who was speaking via Skype, says he was disappointed to see Kazakhstan's president invite in troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a group of ex-Soviet states led by Russia. CARDIN: When Russia sends troops, they rarely remove those troops. And it's not what the Kazakhs need. It's not what the people need in that country. KELEMEN: The latest turmoil started with protests over gas prices and corruption. But some major cities also saw mobs taking over government buildings. And experts point to another layer of conflict, an attempt by the country's president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to sideline other government elites linked to Kazakhstan's longtime ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev. And in that complex picture, the U.S. has little leverage, according to Emma Ashford of the Atlantic Council. EMMA ASHFORD: Even if we wanted to intervene, even if there was a clear side upon which we thought we could intervene - which I don't think there is - we just don't have that much leverage in Kazakhstan. We have limited ties in the country, and they're almost all commercial in the energy sector. KELEMEN: She thinks the U.S. needs to be cautious and not feed into Russian conspiracies. ASHFORD: We know that Vladimir Putin in particular, you know, the Russian government, has this historical tendency to see American fingers in every pot - you know, American action in every protest in the post-Soviet space. And even though that's not true, I think we should probably avoid giving the impression that we're going to get more involved. KELEMEN: Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been on the phone with his counterpart in Kazakhstan, calling on authorities to protect the rights of peaceful protesters and raising questions about why the government felt the need to invite in Russian-led troops. (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) ANTONY BLINKEN: It would seem to me that the Kazakh authorities and government certainly have the capacity to deal appropriately with protests, to do so in a way that respects the rights of the protesters while maintaining law and order. So it's not clear why they feel the need for any outside assistance. So we're trying to learn more about it. KELEMEN: For now, those Russian troops seem to be focused mainly on protecting key infrastructure. And Blinken is reluctant to conflate the situation in Kazakhstan with Ukraine, where Russia has seized territory and is threatening to take more. (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) BLINKEN: Having said that, I think one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it's sometimes very difficult to get them to leave. KELEMEN: Regional experts say if Kazakhstan's president is able to reinforce his political power in the midst of this crisis, he will be indebted to Moscow. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

  • Defending Ukraine, Deterring Putin

    The Kremlin has dramatically increased its military activities and capabilities in and around Ukraine, leading to predictions that the regime may be preparing for an aggressive military operation in the coming months. Russian military movements have sufficiently concerned U.S. and allied observers that CIA Director William Burns was personally dispatched to Moscow to telegraph U.S. concerns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has added to a chorus of alarm, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has described Russia’s movements as preparations for an invasion. On December 7, President Biden held a two-hour phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the apparent buildup. The Helsinki Commission, including Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Commissioner Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33),  convened a virtual briefing to evaluate the Russian regime’s actions and capabilities near Ukraine and assess potential options for U.S. and Western countermeasures to deter aggression and preserve Ukrainian sovereignty.  Panelists included Dr. Andrew Bowen of the Congressional Research Service, Robert Lee of Kings College London, Dr. Mary Vorotnyuk of the Royal United Services Institute, and Katsiaryna Shmatsina of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague. The discussion was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Michael Hikari Cecire. Cecire began the discussion by describing the apparent urgency of the situation on Ukraine’s border, noting that more than 100,000 Russian troops and heavy offensive equipment had amassed in a potential war footing, in addition to thousands more troops already in states of high readiness and propositioned in and around Ukrainian territory. Dr. Andrew Bowen described the strategic environment in which the buildup is occurring, and noted that Russian political leadership has asserted that it regarded the presence of NATO and Western military and political influence on its border as a red line. Although Ukraine has no immediate likelihood of joining NATO, the Russian regime may regard Ukraine’s growing independent capabilities and partnerships with the West as indicative of a graduate deterioration of its own relative security position. As such, its military buildup may be intended to either compel a diplomatic accommodation with the West to forestall Ukraine’s continued Western path, or, if necessary, launch military operations to do so through the use of force. Dr. Bowen noted that Congress has played a significant role in supporting activities to bolster Ukraine’s defenses, including through the provision of lethal aid, and has also supported efforts to reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank in response to Russia’s aggressive actions. Robert Lee focused on Russian military capabilities currently arrayed at Ukraine’s border. He noted that tens of thousands of troops had been mobilized from Russia’s other geographic combatant commands and deployed to Ukraine’s border, including significant heavy offensive weaponry and specialized assets. According to some assessments, total Russian deployments may represent as much as two-thirds of its total combat power to in and around the Ukraine theater, suggesting a nationwide military mobilization and all the preparations for a major invasion. While the preponderance of Russian offensive assets suggests that it may have the capabilities in place for any number of offensive scenarios, including a move on Kyiv, it is not necessarily a foregone conclusion that the Kremlin has any intent to seize and hold territory. The Kremlin’s intent may be just to destroy or significantly degrade Ukraine’s military and undermine its broader strategic situation to achieve its aims. However, Russia also has activated some 100,000 additional reserve forces, which may be employed for a number of scenarios. Responding to a question from Co-Chairman Cohen, Lee observed that it was hard to determine the likelihood of a renewed Russian invasion, but that the risk is certainly greater than it has been at any point since the conflict began in 2014, and that the capabilities are all in theater for war. Co-Chairman Cohen also asked if the buildup today was proportionally similar to past buildups in 2014-2015, which was the last time Russian forces semi-overtly invaded Ukraine in large numbers. Lee replied that the current buildup is much more significant, though it is also true that the Ukrainian military is more capable today than it was in the past. Co-Chairman Cohen then inquired about past Russian casualties, which Lee described as being in the “hundreds” at least, though exact figures were not made publicly available. Co-Chairman Cohen then reiterated the gravity of the situation, and the seriousness with which he and the U.S. government was taking the issue. Cecire then introduced Dr. Maryna Vorotnyuk, who also made the point that the Russian regime’s full intentions were obscure, and not entirely knowable. However, she noted that the array of capabilities that the Kremlin has assembled on Ukraine’s border is suggestive, as are the demands the Kremlin has made in combination with the military buildup. On the latter point, she noted that there was an internal logic to Moscow linking its threatening posture over Ukraine with its demands with the West, because Russia’s war on Ukraine could be regarded as a kind of proxy war against the West as a whole. In a more comprehensive way, Russian demands seek a revised security architecture that would effectively undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine as well as other non-NATO states like Georgia, giving Russia free rein over its periphery. While this may be a nonstarter for the West, Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that Russia likely would settle for an accommodation from the West that would reduce Western involvement in the region and leave Ukraine and other countries weak and vulnerable to Russian pressure. While some may find such a route appealing, she noted, such a response would not likely lead to a more constructive Russia, and could even invite more aggression as Moscow’s intent was never solely about or limited to Ukraine. As such, it is important for the West to remain resolute in defending and advocating for Ukraine’s sovereignty. Katsiaryna Shmatsina spoke about Belarus’ role in the broader calculus. She recalled how, after Belarusian protests were being crushed by the regime, EU diplomatic leaders asked how Belarus might be used as an appendage of Russian strategic power. She noted that this appears to be the case in the ongoing episode with Ukraine, with the hybrid migrant crisis at the Belarusian border, the mooted possibility that Russian forces might use Belarusian territory to attack Ukraine, and the solidarity Russia has showed with the regime in Minsk through the flights of nuclear-capable bombers—suggesting that Belarus is not merely a side act, but a key element of Russian strategy in the region. For his part, Belarusian President Lukashenko has been severely weakened by the protests and his subsequent reliance on Russian support, leaving him nowhere else to turn and cementing Belarus’s place in the Kremlin’s alliance system and regional strategy. Shmastsina counseled that the situation in Belarus should merit greater international attention, particularly from the West, because it is inseparable from the ongoing military buildup in and around Ukraine and another aspect of Russia’s broader campaign against the West. Rep. Veasey noted that in a past visit to Ukraine, the assessment was that Russia was not necessarily interested in taking and holding territory and asked whether this view was still accurate. Dr. Vorotnyuk replied that this was very likely the case, but ultimately that the likely Russian aim was to permanently weaken Ukraine and be able to “veto” its alignments with the West. Particular territorial objectives could also be under consideration, such as a land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea—both of which Russia already holds—or a particular city, such as Odesa, and its port access to the Black Sea. Rep. Veasey then asked why Ukraine, but not Georgia, was being targeted in this way. Lee responded that Georgia no longer threatens to retake the Russia-held separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force, and that Ukraine is a much larger country with a more capable military and economic capacity, which holds a unique place in Russia’s historical narrative. Rep. Veasey then raised the issue of corruption, which continues to be seen as a major issue in Ukraine as compared to, for example, Georgia, and asked whether this is a serious problem. Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that it was a major issue, but that it is not a justification for Russian aggression, and that Western assistance with Ukraine is very much helping to address issues like corruption and democratic governance. Related Information Panelist Biographies

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes Passage of Trap Provision in 2022 National Defense Authorization Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today welcomed the passage of the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) provision as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022. “By co-opting and undermining the rule of law to harass and intimidate dissidents and political opponents, corrupt regimes threaten our national security,” said Chairman Cardin. “Our provision will make it U.S. policy to fight exploitation of INTERPOL, including by naming and shaming member states that abuse its mechanisms. This amendment will protect the United States, our allies, and all those fighting or fleeing authoritarian regimes from extraterritorial and extrajudicial abuse.” “We’ve seen time and again how corrupt dictators take advantage of INTERPOL to intimidate and harass those who expose their immoral deeds, even after they have fled their homes and their country in search of safety,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The TRAP provision will protect these dissidents and ensure that our own institutions are not used against us—or them.” “There is no reason for any democracy, especially the United States, to be forced to play a part in authoritarian regimes’ blatant abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices,” said Sen. Wicker. “I am pleased Congress has taken action to name publicly the abusers, such as Russia and China, and prevent American law enforcement from having to do the dirty work of these repressive autocrats.” “INTERPOL should enable us to crack down on criminals worldwide,” said Rep. Wilson. “Instead, the criminals have taken over the institution, using it to target those who oppose them. The TRAP provision will protect the United States from this abuse and ensure that we do everything we can to restore the rule of law to INTERPOL.” “Increasing transparency and accountability at INTERPOL underscores the bipartisan commitment of the United States Senate to push back against countries, large or small, seeking to distort legitimate law enforcement cooperation to instead pursue political opponents or personal vendettas,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This new provision will strengthen protections for human rights defenders, political dissidents, and journalists, and pave the way for the international community to join the United States in pressing for reforms and standing against the abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices by China and Russia, among others.” The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act was introduced in 2021 in the Senate by Sen. Wicker and Chairman Cardin and in the U.S. House of Representatives by Co-Chairman Cohen and Rep. Wilson. The legislation makes fighting abuse of INTERPOL a key goal of the United States at the organization, mandates that the United States name the worst abusers of INTERPOL and examine its own strategy to fight INTERPOL abuse, and protects the U.S. judicial system from authoritarian abuse.

  • Russian Military Buildup to be Scrutinized at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: DEFENDING UKRAINE, DETERRING PUTIN Thursday, December 16, 2021 10:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3DHAGWu The Kremlin has dramatically increased its military activities and capabilities in and around Ukraine, leading to predictions that the regime may be preparing for an aggressive military operation in the coming months. Russian military movements have sufficiently concerned U.S. and allied observers that CIA Director William Burns was personally dispatched to Moscow to telegraph U.S. concerns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has added to a chorus of alarm, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has described Russia’s movements as preparations for an invasion. On December 7, President Biden held a two-hour phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the apparent buildup. The Helsinki Commission will convene a briefing to evaluate the Russian regime’s actions and capabilities near Ukraine and assess potential options for U.S. and Western countermeasures to deter aggression and preserve Ukrainian sovereignty. The briefing will include U.S. and international experts on Russian military capabilities and Eurasian security. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Dr. Andrew Bowen, Analyst in Russian and European Affairs, Congressional Research Service Dr. Maryna Vorotnyuk, Expert on Black Sea security; Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute Katsiaryna Shmatsina, Belarusian analyst on Eurasian politics and security; Visiting Fellow, European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague Robert Lee, Expert on Russian military capabilities; PhD candidate, Kings College London

  • Uniting Against Corruption

    At a virtual kickoff event on December 7, leaders of the U.S. Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy, the EU Parliament Anti-Corruption Intergroup, and the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Corruption and Responsible Tax formally launched the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy. Members of the alliance are politicians leading the fight in their respective parliaments against corruption and kleptocracy.  The launch immediately precedes to President Joe Biden’s December 9 – 10 Summit for Democracy, where approximately 110 countries will commit to fighting corruption and renewing democratic values. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), who has championed anti-corruption efforts throughout Congress, will welcome the formation of the alliance at the kickoff event. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy aims to build a transparent and accountable global financial system; promote government transparency, allowing for effective public oversight; disable transnational corrupt networks, while deterring the movement of dirty money into democracies; support the role of free media and journalists in exposing the risks from kleptocracy; and advocate for strong anti-corruption standards for public officials and their enforcement. Planned projects include coordinating targeted sanctions and public visa bans, synchronizing anti-money laundering frameworks, harmonizing cross-border investigations into grand corruption, and promoting robust anti-corruption ethics frameworks for public officials. Members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy subscribe to the principles that democratic states are based on the rule of law and must safeguard this system against the taint of corruption and illicit finance; that kleptocracy is an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit democracies to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy; and that kleptocracy poses the most profound challenge for democratic governance in the 21st  century as it corrodes the rule of law from within.

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Senator Bob Dole

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of Senator Bob Dole, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Senator Dole, who served as the co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission from 1981 to 1985, will be remembered for his efforts to elevate the role of the Senate in the work of the Helsinki Commission and for his support for peace, security, democracy, and human rights for all. “As a participant in early meetings of the Helsinki diplomatic process, he helped develop a tradition of frank and direct exchanges of views between participating countries on human rights concerns, particularly the incarceration of Helsinki human right monitors in the Soviet Union and crackdowns on dissent in Eastern Europe. In the early 1990s, he worked closely with commission leadership advocating for a decisive international response, led by the United States, to the aggression and ethnic cleansing taking place in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After leaving the Senate, Senator Dole traveled to Kosovo in 1998 to document atrocities occurring there and subsequently testified about his findings at a Helsinki Commission hearing.  “We will always be grateful for Senator Dole’s enormous contribution to the Helsinki Commission and to its mission.”

  • Inter-Parliamentary Alliance Against Kleptocracy to Unite Political Leaders in Transatlantic Battle Against Corruption

    BRUSSELS, LONDON, WASHINGTON—At a virtual kickoff event on December 7, leaders of the U.S. Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy, the EU Parliament Anti-Corruption Intergroup, and the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Corruption and Responsible Tax will formally launch the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy. Members of the alliance are politicians leading the fight in their respective parliaments against corruption and kleptocracy.  The launch immediately precedes to President Joe Biden’s December 9 – 10 Summit for Democracy, where approximately 110 countries will commit to fighting corruption and renewing democratic values. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), who has championed anti-corruption efforts throughout Congress, will welcome the formation of the alliance at the kickoff event. UNITING AGAINST CORRUPTION Launch of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy Tuesday, December 7, 2021 11:00 a.m. ET Register: https://bit.ly/3IsbbvY “Countering corruption—a clear national security threat—is one of the three pillars of the upcoming Summit for Democracy. For me, it is an essential aspect of the meeting,” said Chairman Cardin. “It isn’t enough that the United States prioritizes the fight against corruption. To curb this global scourge, democracies must work together. I welcome the formation of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy, which will help harmonize our approaches to countering corruption and closing our systems to dirty money.” The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy is an alliance of legislative groups committed to countering the threat of global corruption. The new alliance will focus on fighting kleptocracy, an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit democracies to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy. Because the fight against foreign corruption spans the globe, the alliance will enable members and staff to share perspectives and coordinate efforts to confront the growing threat of authoritarian corruption. The alliance will hold periodic events, sponsor informal roundtables and briefings with leading experts, and coordinate initiatives across borders. “Nothing gets under the skin of dictators more than democracies working together—and confronting corruption is the best way to align ourselves with public sentiment in their countries. This parliamentary alliance will help ensure that lawmakers from the world’s democracies are working together to pass and enact laws against amassing and hiding illicit wealth,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07), Co-Chair of the U.S. Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy. “Corruption is at the heart of all human rights abuse. Journalists are silenced and civil society is attacked because these individuals threaten to expose the corruption that underpins all strongmen,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), a member of the U.S. Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy. “By uniting with our allies to root out corruption, we take aim at the very essence of authoritarianism. That is why the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy is so important. Corruption is global by nature. But if all democracies close their doors to it, we can succeed.” “Corruption is the new communism. It is the uniting force of dictators and the system they seek to export. And like communism, the USA needs to join together with its allies to defeat it. I am pleased to welcome the establishment of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy, which will unite democratic allies against the corruption of Russian oligarchs, CCP princelings, Venezuelan thugs, and Iranian mullahs,” said Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02). “We have been seeing autocrats like Viktor Orbán successfully undermining European democracy for years from within, with increasing support from their experienced counterparts in Russia and beyond. If they close their ranks, all democratic parties need to do the same. This is not a fight that a single actor can win alone,” said MEP Daniel Freund of Germany, Co-Chair of the EU Parliament Anti-Corruption Intergroup. “Kleptocrats are destroying democracy and undermining the European Union. With this alliance we can stop European autocrats like Viktor Orbán and could be a powerful tool to influence not only national legislation but agreements on fighting corruption, transparency, accountability and criminal cooperation between the EU and the US. We should keep this alliance open for national lawmakers as well within the EU, allowing for example the devoted members of the Hungarian opposition parties also to join and commit themselves to such a noble cause. We have to fight together and we will fight together,” said MEP Katalin Cseh of Hungary, Member of the EU Parliament Anti-Corruption Intergroup’s leadership bureau. “Dirty money is at the root of many evils. From drug smuggling to terrorism, from money laundering to human trafficking, and from fraud to corruption. But if we can follow the money then we can start to put a stop to all manner of heinous crimes. That's why the launch of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on Kleptocracy represents a powerful moment as the world's democracies come together for the fight against illicit finance,” said UK MP Margaret Hodges, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Corruption and Responsible Tax. “The movement of illicit finance is a global problem that requires a global solution.  The harm caused to global security and democracy is facilitated by lack of coordination between different legislatures, and I am delighted to be part of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on Kleptocracy.  I look forward to working with colleagues across the world to ensure that we give Kleptocrats nowhere to hide,” said UK MP Kevin Hollinrake, Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Corruption and Responsible Tax. “It is not enough that America fight dictators – our friends and allies must also fight them. By working together to reject blood money, we can successfully deny dictators and their cronies access to our markets. I am thrilled about the formation of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy. This international alliance of like-minded kleptocracy fighters will ensure that killers and thugs have no safe haven,” said Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (FL-27), a founding member of the U.S. Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy aims to build a transparent and accountable global financial system; promote government transparency, allowing for effective public oversight; disable transnational corrupt networks, while deterring the movement of dirty money into democracies; support the role of free media and journalists in exposing the risks from kleptocracy; and advocate for strong anti-corruption standards for public officials and their enforcement. Planned projects include coordinating targeted sanctions and public visa bans, synchronizing anti-money laundering frameworks, harmonizing cross-border investigations into grand corruption, and promoting robust anti-corruption ethics frameworks for public officials. Members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy subscribe to the principles that democratic states are based on the rule of law and must safeguard this system against the taint of corruption and illicit finance; that kleptocracy is an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit democracies to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy; and that kleptocracy poses the most profound challenge for democratic governance in the 21st  century as it corrodes the rule of law from within.

  • Human Rights Seminar Returns to the OSCE with a Focus on Women and Girls

    By Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE and Dr. Mischa E. Thompson, Director of Global Partnerships, Policy, and Innovation On November 16-17, 2021, for the first time since 2017, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Right (ODIHR) held its annual Human Rights Seminar on preventing and combating violence against women and girls. The event assessed participating States’ implementation of OSCE commitments on preventing and combating violence against women, identified continuing challenges and successes in addressing the problem, and examined opportunities to further engage OSCE institutions and other stakeholders in finding solutions. Given continued efforts by some participating States to block the OSCE’s human rights agenda, including Russia’s successful blockade of the 2021 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the return of the Human Dimension Seminar was lauded by Ambassador Ulrika Funered of the Swedish Chair-in-Office (CiO) and Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs UN Director Pawel Radomski of the incoming Polish CiO.  Noting “the particular importance of regular gatherings in promotion of human rights” and the “unique meetings characterized by meaningful discussions between civil society and participating States,” Director Radomski underlined Poland’s staunch commitment to holding human dimension events during its upcoming 2022 Chairmanship. Other speakers at the hybrid event—hosted in Warsaw, Poland, as well as online—included ODIHR Director Matteo Meccaci; Special Representative of the OSCE Chairpersonship on Gender Liliana Palihovici; and Special Representative of the OSCE Parliament Assembly (PA) on Gender Issues Dr. Hedy Fry. Speakers underscored the prevalence of violence against women in political and public life; violence against women belonging to vulnerable groups, especially migrants, refugees, and persons with disabilities; and the impact of the pandemic on women and girls.  Dr. Fry shared her alarm at recent violence targeting women in politics, from the January 6 violence at the U.S. Capitol that targeted Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to the physical and online violence targeting British parliamentarian Diane Abbott.  She attributed the violence to the “boldness” of women daring to enter spaces traditionally dominated by men and the subsequent efforts by men to silence them.  Dr. Mona Lena Krook, Professor and Chair of the Women & Politics Ph.D. Program at Rutgers University, highlighted the physical and psychological violence targeting women in politics and the subsequent but related dangers of women exiting politics to avoid harm to them and their families.  The work of Edita Miftari, an alumna of TILN, the young leaders program organized by the Helsinki Commission and the German Marshall Fund, was highlighted by Adnan Kadribasic of the Bosnian management consulting company, Lucid Linx.  In discussing the Balkan situation, he observed that female politicians experience discrimination and harassment but do not have reliable mechanisms for redress. Discussion panels and side events focused on the escalation of violence experienced by women during pandemic quarantines, the impact of the pandemic on women returning to the workforce, and strategies to protect migrant and refugee women.  Several speakers raised the intersectional nature of violence against women, including increased violence towards women of color, and special circumstances faced by disabled women.  Representatives of participating States showcased efforts to support women in leadership positions and programs to address violence.  Civil society participants from Central Asian and other countries expressed concern about some participating States using women’s initiatives to cultivate political favor instead of addressing issues of disparities and discrimination.  Others noted that progress had been made but voiced ongoing concern about how the pandemic negatively affected gains made previously in the workforce and in addressing domestic violence.   The event was attended by more than three hundred participants, including representatives from more than 50 OSCE participating States.  Dr. Mischa Thompson attended on behalf of the Helsinki Commission.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest November 2021

  • 30 Years After Ovcara

    By Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor On November 20, 1991, after the fall of the city of Vukovar in Croatia, militant Serb forces removed 265 ill and injured Croats from a hospital. They were taken to the nearby Ovčara farm southeast of Vukovar, where they were abused before being shot and killed, with their bodies dumped in a mass grave. In addition to wounded members of the Croatian armed forces were civilians, including some women and children.   The Helsinki Commission strongly supported the international effort to prosecute those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, including those most responsible for the crime at Ovčara, which took place early in a series of conflicts associated with Yugoslavia’s disintegration throughout the 1990s.  Many obstacles stood in the way, but after years of persistent effort justice prevailed. However, malicious acts supporting territorial aggression continue in the OSCE region and elsewhere. When remembering Ovčara, it is important to acknowledge the brave few in Serbia—civil society advocates, political activists, journalists, lawyers and judges, and everyday citizens—who consistently have refused to associate themselves with the terrible crimes committed in their name in the 1990s, and seek to this day not only justice but a needed acknowledgement of reality in the face of continued denial and revisionism. A wider acknowledgement led by those holding power today will mean a better future for Serbia and its neighbors tomorrow.

  • Confronting Kremlin & Communist Corruption

    The Kremlin and the Chinese Communist Party, as well as other U.S. adversaries, practice kleptocracy, an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit democracies to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy. Kleptocracy now poses the most serious challenge to democratic governance worldwide. President Biden has declared countering corruption a core national security interest and Congress has responded with a series of legislative proposals to fight kleptocracy both at home and abroad. On November 18, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe brought together experts on kleptocracy to examine how the United States can confront foreign corruption. In particular, witnesses discussed the ways that the United States can fortify its system against the taint of corruption and hold kleptocrats to account. The first panel featured testimony by Representatives Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) and María Elvira Salazar (FL-27), while the second panel included witnesses Leonid Volkov, Chief of Staff to Alexei Navalny; Elaine Dezenski, Senior Advisor at the Center on Economic and Financial Power; and Scott Greytak, Advocacy Director at Transparency International. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing, noting that corruption both sustains dictatorships and helps them conduct foreign policy. Corruption also erodes democratic structures from within and creates patronage-based systems in which autocrats pay their cronies to retain power. Chairman Cardin thanked Representatives Malinowski and Salazar for their work on the counter-kleptocracy caucus and highlighted several of the counter-kleptocracy bills currently in the House and the Senate. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) stressed the importance of going after the enablers of corruption, not just the kleptocrats, saying, “They work with these folks to poison the system, so they are in essence agents of corruption.” He added that the United States needs to clean up its act at home and reinforce its defenses against the national security threat of corruption. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) called corruption a “pernicious foreign policy tool” that undermines and co-opts democratic systems, and highlighted the corruption and abuse of INTERPOL, which he described as being hijacked by mafia states and weaponized to pursue political opponents. China and Russia are the most prolific abusers of the system, he said, pointing towards the TRAP Act as a legislative tool to counter such behavior. Sen. Wicker, who co-leads the Global Magnitsky Reauthorization Act alongside Chairman Cardin, stressed the bipartisan nature of this issue. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) echoed Sen. Wicker’s statement, adding, “It is not an exaggeration to say that corruption is the new communism.” Rep. Wilson mentioned the six Helsinki Commission counter-kleptocracy bills in the House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), underlining the bipartisan nature of the fight against corruption. “To protect American families we must fight corruption,” he said. During the first panel, Rep. Malinowski described fighting corruption as the key to winning the contest between democracy and dictatorship. Corruption is not only a way for autocrats to stay in power, he argued; it also is their greatest weakness. “When we catch them stealing from their people and putting their money in our banks, that is what embarrasses them,” he said. Referencing the six counter-kleptocracy bills currently pending in Congress, Rep. Malinowski suggested the United States. has potent tools to go after corruption. Rep. Salazar testified that corruption is a threat to freedom and human rights. Using Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua as examples, Salazar explained how corrupt leaders use stolen funds to finance campaigns that portray them as the saviors of the countries that they actually loot. Salazar pointed towards her work as founding member of the bipartisan Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy (CAFCAK), as well as the importance of the Combating Global Corruption Act, introduced by Chairman Cardin in the Senate, and the bipartisan ENABLERS Act Leonid Volkov began his testimony by describing a natural pathway from corruption to authoritarianism, born out of the necessity to hide crimes by silencing the press and co-opting the courts. He outlined how the Navalny anti-corruption initiative, through hundreds of investigations, found billions of dollars stolen from Russian taxpayers. What stood out, he said, was how successful kleptocrats need to operate in two countries: their home country, where the absence of rule of law allows them to steal, and another country, where the rule of law ensure the safety of their money. Therefore, corruption is a global phenomenon, which also necessitates fighting corruption on both fronts. Volkov endorsed the series of Helsinki Commission anti-kleptocracy bills and asked to “fight this fight together.” Scott Greytak described corruption as the lifeblood of autocrats abroad and pointed toward the Pandora Papers, which revealed that the United States is a leading secrecy jurisdiction for stashing offshore funds. He emphasized the importance of Congress ensuring that the six counter-corruption bills in the House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) make it into the final NDAA. Doing so would enhance the U.S. ability to deny kleptocrats access to the financial system and increase transparency. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is legislation that Congress passes each year to make changes to the policies and organization of United States defense agencies and provide guidance on how military funding can be spent. Greytak also mentioned the Corporate Transparency Act and expressed hope that Congress would ensure that the new Treasury FinCEN rules are in keeping with the spirit of the law. He added that passing the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (FEPA), which would criminalize foreign officials requesting bribes from American companies, is an important step many of our allies already have taken. Lastly, Greytak emphasized the need to target enablers of kleptocracy in the U.S. via the ENABLERS act, to prevent crimes such as the theft of over $4 billion from the public investment fund of Malaysia, aided and abetted by U.S. law firms. Elaine Dezenski’s testimony focused on China and corruption through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). She described the BRI as a geopolitical enterprise through which China seeks to redefine its engagement with more than 140 countries. Because the BRI is designed to undercut normal development, it gets rid of safeguards such as anti-corruption, environmental, and labor standards as well as open and transparent bidding, according to Dezenski. By doing so, it creates long-term dependencies fueled by corruption and debt traps. More than 40 countries are now indebted to China equal to or greater than 10 percent of their GDP, Dezenski said. A slim window exists during which the U.S. can offer clean alternatives to the BRI, alongside increased efforts to educate citizens and support civil society to counter this threat. One key step, said Dezenski, is pivoting critical supply chains out of China and towards allied countries. Another step is taking care not to give domestic infrastructure contracts to foreign kleptocrats’ companies. Finally, countering disinformation and misinformation campaigns is of the essence. Responding to a series of questions from Co-Chairman Cohen, Volkov explained that his organization had to move outside of Russia due to being designated an extremist organization but nonetheless is working to produce content highlighting Russian corruption. On the topic of censorship by Apple and Google during the Duma elections in 2021, Volkov stated that the threat by the Russian regime to imprison employees of U.S. companies should they not go through with the censorship is serious and should not be dismissed. Asked by Rep. Wilson what he saw as Russia’s future in five to 10 years, Volkov explained that Putin is unpopular among Russia’s youth and that many people want change. Putin’s strength lies in his TV propaganda machine, which is less effective at reaching younger, more internet-savvy people, he said. Volkov explained that under Putin, Russia has more political prisoners than the Soviet Union ever had after Stalin and expressed hope that this would lead to cracks in the system and, finally, regime change. On the question of how present-day corruption differs from that of 30 years ago, Scott Greytak explained that corruption is more sophisticated than ever, aided by complex financial vehicles created by Western enablers which make it easier to move money. Responding to a question from Helsinki Commission Member Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), Greytak explained that although Russian and Chinese corruption are similar, Russia perfected state-run corruption, while China adopted corruption to grow its geo-political influence. Dezenski answered a question on China’s long-term view by explaining that the United States needs to be more strategic about the short-term implications of individual actions and ensure long-term commitment to democratic norms. Because China takes a longer view than the United States, they have outmaneuvered us, Dezenski said. Asked if any projects concerned her most, she answered any projects related to digital infrastructure, due to the risk of authoritarian regimes monitoring and managing communications lines. In addition, Dezenski mentioned projects that would give Beijing military influence, such as strategic ports in the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea. Chairman Cardin thanked the witnesses for their expert testimonies and said he looked forward to consulting with them on several of the points brought up. To end the hearing, the chairman pointed out South Korea as an example of a country that turned around its corruption problem, stating, “We can make change and plant the seeds to enhance the welfare of all the people.” Related Information Witness Biographies Bipartisan Counter-Kleptocracy Legislative Initiatives  Counter-Kleptocracy Measures Included in the House Defense Bill 

  • Fifteen Years of the Recommendations of Policing in Multi-Ethnic Societies

    By Nathaniel Haas, Max Kampelman Fellow On November 5, 2021, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities convened a hybrid conference commemorating the 15th anniversary of “Recommendations on Policing in Multi-Ethnic Societies.” The conference focused on continuing challenges and new perspectives related to policing in diverse societies and was attended by more than 200 participants from thirty participating States and civil society, including Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin. Helsinki Commission staff Shannon Simrell and Dr. Mischa Thompson also attended. OSCE High Commissioner Kairat Abdrakhmanov opened the meeting, stating, “The Policing Recommendations provide guidance on how to enhance communication and trust between the police and national minority communities, thereby strengthening inter-ethnic relations, as well as increasing the operational effectiveness of the police.” He also noted the importance of the recommendations in assisting policymakers in ensuring police represent the societies they serve. Citing the urgent need to address discriminatory policing following the tragic death of George Floyd, Chairman Cardin said, “Strengthening cooperation between law enforcement and civil society, providing victims assistance, and promoting democracy and equal opportunity must become key aspects of the OSCE effort to address hate crimes and intolerance in the region.” As the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, Chairman Cardin also called attention to the urgent item recently adopted by the OSCE PA calling for an OSCE plan of action to address bias motivated violence, including in policing. Against the backdrop of high-profile cases of discriminatory policing, speakers discussed barriers and solutions to addressing police misconduct, increasing diversity in police forces, strengthening police-community relations, and incorporating minority and gender perspective in policies relating to police recruitment, training, and operations. Recommendations included training law enforcement officers on language and multicultural communications skills and developing inter-ethnic trust building measures to foster better community relations. Other speakers recalled the important role of police in working with communities following terrorist attacks such as the Pittsburgh Tree of Life and Norway attacks, as well as addressing issues of radicalization within police forces.   Several panelists recommended developing targeted outreach and recruiting campaigns to need for ethnic and gender diversity to increase police effectiveness and decrease violence.  Senior Police Advisor Kara Rose of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs offered examples of U.S. programs addressing implicit and explicit bias in the criminal justice system.  She highlighted gender strategies and programs that promote the protection of women and minorities in law enforcement careers.  Theresa Segovia, Associate Director of the Community Relations Service of the U.S. Department of Justice, discussed her work with religious communities and how working with youth was key to developing strong relations with multi-ethnic communities.  Given the duty of police to protect and serve, speakers also discussed the importance of depoliticizing the police and ways to keep police safe on the job amidst continuing societal tensions.

  • Threat of Foreign Corruption to Be Explored at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: CONFRONTING KREMLIN & COMMUNIST CORRUPTION Thursday, November 18, 2021 10:30 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room G-50 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The Kremlin and the Chinese Communist Party, as well as other U.S. adversaries, practice kleptocracy, an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit democracies to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy. Kleptocracy now poses the most serious challenge to democratic governance worldwide.  President Biden has declared countering corruption a core national security interest and Congress has responded with a series of legislative proposals to fight kleptocracy both at home and abroad. This hearing will bring together experts on kleptocracy to examine how the United States can confront foreign corruption. In particular, witnesses will discuss the ways that the United States can fortify its system against the taint of corruption and hold kleptocrats to account. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Representative Tom Malinowski (NJ-07), Member of Congress, Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy Representative María Elvira Salazar (FL-27), Member of Congress, Member of the Congressional Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy Leonid Volkov, Chief of Staff to Alexei Navalny Elaine Dezenski, Senior Advisor, Center on Economic and Financial Power, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Scott Greytak, Advocacy Director, Transparency International U.S. Office

  • Helsinki Commission Supports Invocation of OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism in the Face of Sustained Human Rights Crisis in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—Following the invocation of the OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism to address the mounting human rights crisis in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “One year after the release of a comprehensive, unbiased, and damning report detailing human rights abuses by the Lukashenko regime, Lukashenko has not simply failed to act on the report’s recommendations—he has intensified his brutal crackdown on those in Belarus who continue to fight for their fundamental freedoms. “Among its other commitments as an OSCE participating State, Belarus is bound to respect human rights and hold free and fair elections. By invoking the Vienna Mechanism, the United States and 34 other countries demand that the authorities in Belarus finally address the violations raised in the 2020 report and inform the international community about the steps the Lukashenko regime is taking to investigate those serious allegations. Ensuring human rights violators are held to account is of importance to us all.” In September 2020, 17 OSCE participating States, including the United States, invoked the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism to investigate credible accounts of widespread human rights violations perpetrated in the aftermath of Belarus’ fraudulent August 2020 elections. The Moscow Mechanism allows a group of OSCE participating States to appoint independent experts to investigate a particularly serious threat to the fulfillment of human rights commitments in a participating State. On November 5, 2020, the Moscow Mechanism report substantiated numerous allegations of torture and repression and included recommendations and advice for the Government of Belarus, the OSCE, and the international community. Lukashenko’s government failed to cooperate with the investigation. On November 4, 2021, as a follow-up to the 2020 report, 35 OSCE participating States posed detailed questions to the Lukashenko regime via OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism, which obliges participating States to respond to formal requests for information from other States about serious human rights concerns. The commission convened a hearing on human rights in Belarus on September 21, 2021.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSIONERS JOIN OSCE PA MEETING ON AFGHANISTAN, DEBATE POLICY RESPONSES

    On November 4, 2021, more than 40 members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) met remotely to discuss the current security challenges posed by developments in Afghanistan and the future of OSCE engagement with Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule. Since 2003, Afghanistan has been an OSCE Partner for Cooperation and shares a border with several OSCE countries. The debate, which was attended by seven members of the Helsinki Commission, took place as part of the OSCE PA’s annual Autumn Meeting. Each year, the Autumn Meeting focuses on debating one or more currently relevant issues confronting the OSCE region.  This year’s Autumn Meeting was originally planned to be in Dublin, Ireland, but a resurging COVID-19 pandemic forced the OSCE PA to rely on emergency procedures that allow for statutory meetings to be conducted remotely. OSCE PA Leaders Outline Challenges Posed by Afghanistan OSCE PA President Margaret Cederfelt opened the debate with an overview of the challenges presented by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. While three OSCE countries—Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan—share a border with Afghanistan, developments there also have serious implications for the rest of the OSCE participating States. The worsening humanitarian crisis, the Taliban’s historical connections to terrorism, the negative economic fallout, the potential impact on neighboring countries, and deteriorating human rights, particularly for women and girls, were all of concern. “Those who will suffer most from this is, of course, the ordinary people,” President Cederfelt emphasized, while highlighting the impending economic turmoil Afghanistan faces. “It is essential that human security is protected by safeguarding the fundamental rights of all Afghans.” President Cederfelt also underscored the need for international cooperation while addressing this situation, given its global security implications. The three leaders of the PA General Committees highlighted aspects of the crisis related to their specific mandates. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson, who chairs the General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted, “Perhaps most alarming is the return of an international terrorist threat from Afghanistan. He also highlighted the production and trade of narcotics and illegal drugs backed by the Taliban as a serious challenge with global implications, thanks to major trafficking routes. “The security situation in Afghanistan is intrinsically linked with that of the OSCE region as a whole—but it will first and most immediately affect Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central Asia,” he said. “We must all be especially concerned about threats to the three OSCE participating States that have borders with Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This is perhaps the area in which our organization can have the greatest and most immediate impact." The other two general committee chairs shared their concerns as well. Pere Joan Pons of Spain, who chairs the General Committee on Economia Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, highlighted Afghanistan’s current economic and environmental challenges, especially given the country’s vulnerability in the face of climate change. Sereine Mauborgne of France, who chairs the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions, discussed the serious human rights violations faced by women, girls, and other vulnerable populations. In addition, many Afghans face urgent or extreme food and security issues; the Taliban lacks the capability to provide either for the Afghan people. Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center Tuula Yrjölä discussed Afghanistan’s relationship to the OSCE as a Partner for Cooperation and the potential role of the OSCE role in addressing the situation. She concluded that Afghanistan’s partnership status in the OSCE was based on shared values; its future may be in question under a Taliban government. Helsinki Commissioners Participate in the General Debate Following the introductory remarks, six members of the Helsinki Commission—including all four senior commission leaders—took the floor to voice their concerns and engage with other parliamentarians. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the Head of the U.S. Delegation and the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, expressed disappointment at how quickly the democratic government and institutions in Afghanistan deteriorated, despite years of investment and support. “One of the prime reasons was corruption,” explained Chairman Cardin. The rights of women and girls and ensuring humanitarian assistance reaches populations in need were two areas that he insisted be of focus as international efforts move forward. Media freedom was of particular concern for Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen. “Lower-level Taliban forces threaten and harass journalists,” he stated. “RFE/RL has reported that over the past weeks, its remaining journalists have been questioned by armed Taliban and door-to-door searched have been conducted looking for journalists affiliated with the United States.” Media freedom is among the fundamental freedoms the OSCE seeks to protect, and Co-Chairman Cohen insisted the Taliban must be held responsible for violating these rights. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker, who also serves as an OSCE PA Vice President, shared legislation he is sponsoring in Congress that seeks to strengthen the American response to Afghanistan and reiterated the dangers that religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan currently face. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson highlighted the dangers of terrorism and the oppressive rule of the Taliban. “It cannot be business as usual with the Taliban,” he stated.  “Together, we must use our leverage to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist haven devoid of human rights.” Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Wilson all expressed concern over Afghanistan’s status as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation. “Before we recognize any representative of Afghanistan in our assembly, we should make sure that they will adhere to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” Chairman Cardin stated. Rep. Wilson argued that Afghanistan’s partner status should be reconsidered, and Sen. Wicker also emphasized the importance of the values shared by OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation. “I would hope that it is our position going forward that the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan not be recognized as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation,” Sen. Wicker said. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore focused on the dangers for women and girls and the human rights violations they face. Despite advances made in women’s rights in Afghanistan during the past two decades, the return of Taliban rule has brought a resurgence of violence and restrictions, endangering the lives of women throughout the country. Many have fled Afghanistan, fearing for their safety, while others have remained to fight for their country. While Rep. Moore strongly advocated for supporting resettlement efforts, she also emphasized that resettlement was a last resort. “We must continue to press for the protection of these women in their own country,” she said. Ms. Moore also proposed that the OSCE PA create and maintain a project to monitor and support Afghanistan’s female parliamentarians. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego stressed the importance of aiding Afghans still in Afghanistan. “We must find ways to support Afghans in-country who are bravely calling for progress, and we must stand up for the human rights of those who suffer at the hands of the Taliban,” he said. Rep. Gallego further argued that the international community must do more than simply aid in the evacuation of those fleeing the Taliban’s rule. “We must also ensure that those who have been evacuated have long-term support in the resettlement process. The United States must do its part in accepting the bulk of Afghan refugees, and I have personally pushed in Congress to provide Afghans with the long-term resources they need to settle into a new life,” he stated, and asked all the participating parliamentarians to urge their countries to do the same. OSCE Efforts Moving Forward Throughout the debate, which highlighted various vulnerable populations and severe security threats that must be addressed in the future, one recurring theme was the need for international cooperation. While President Cederfelt began the meeting by observing that it will be impossible to know the future, Rep. Gallego expressed one certainty. “The end of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan does not mean we will turn a blind eye to Afghanistan’s people or the security of the region,” he said.

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes Confirmation of Michael Carpenter as U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE

    WASHINGTON—Following the November 3 confirmation of Michael Carpenter as Permanent Representative of the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are delighted that the Senate has confirmed Michael Carpenter as our next ambassador to the OSCE. He is an expert on European security, has the ear of the president, and his confirmation clearly demonstrates the strong commitment of both Congress and the administration to upholding Helsinki commitments and the OSCE’s concept of comprehensive security. “We look forward to working closely with Ambassador Carpenter to confront the threats to U.S. interests across the region and to realize the potential of our investment in a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Countering Vladimir Putin’s dangerous behavior on the ground and within the OSCE itself is paramount. Russia’s war against Ukraine, its illegal troop presence in neighboring countries, and its efforts to undermine the OSCE’s human dimension require a robust response from the United States and our allies.   “We further pledge our support to Ambassador Carpenter as he works to enhance the capacity of the OSCE to counter corruption, mediate conflicts, promote tolerance and non-discrimination, and address the alarming increase in political prisoners across the region.” Ambassador Carpenter will lead the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, comprising a multi-agency team of more than 30 staff members, including a representative from the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest October 2021

  • 30th Anniversary of OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights

    Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I rise to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s—OSCE—Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—ODIHR—one of the world’s most preeminent and comprehensive human rights protection bodies. In 1990–1991, during the signing of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe that created ODIHR, a spirit of ‘‘profound change and historic expectations’’ prevailed among the United States, nations of Europe, and the Soviet Union. Revolutionary for their time, heads of state and governments resolved to ‘‘build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.’’ Further, by affirming that government’s first responsibility is to ensure the ‘‘protection and promotion of human rights,’’ they explicitly linked the full attainment of those rights with ‘‘the foundation of freedom, justice and peace’’ and set the standard for relations and security within and among nations. Now, 30 years later, I am deeply concerned that the fundamental freedoms that ODIHR was founded to safeguard are in peril. Authoritarianism is on the rise in Europe. Credible reports allege there are more than 750 political prisoners in Belarus, many detained for participating peacefully in protest of the fraudulent elections of August 2020 and the brutal government crackdown that followed. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s administration continues its unprecedented consolidation of Hungary’s media, even as opposition figures organize to resist him. In many countries across the OSCE area, we have witnessed an alarming rise in anti-Semitism, racism, religious and other intolerance, and violence against women. These scourges have worsened the conditions imposed by the COVID–19 pandemic that disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in our communities. With these and other challenges in mind, ODIHR’s valuable work to assist nations to live up to their commitments is more relevant and more needed than ever. ODIHR is empowered by states to ensure respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, and to promote and strengthen democratic institutions and tolerance. ODIHR actively partners with OSCE’s 57 participating states, civil society, and international organizations to support human rights defenders, enhance the independence of judiciaries, and promote human-rights-based policing. It offers legislative reviews and develops tools to support local government officials, including the Words into Action project, which enhances social inclusion within local communities and for which I proudly help secure funding. The most visible demonstration of ODIHR’s collaboration with the United States is perhaps in the field of election observation, where its methodology is rightly seen as the gold standard in international election observation. Since its founding, ODIHR, the Department of State, and the U.S. Congress, through the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, have deployed thousands of American citizens and legislators to observe the conduct of elections across the OSCE area, including in the United States. Since OSCE states pledged in 1990 to hold free and fair elections, elections observation has been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage states’ commitment to democratic standards and is a hallmark of ODIHR’s work. For nearly 30 years, ODIHR has organized Europe’s largest human rights review conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting—HDIM—gathering thousands of representatives of governments, parliaments, and civil society for 2 weeks around the same table to review progress on human rights commitments. Unfortunately, the HDIM did not take place this September. Russia blocked consensus to hold the meeting, thereby denying the OSCE region’s nearly 1 billion citizens of a meaningful and sustained opportunity to hold their governments to account. In September, Russia also prevented ODIHR from deploying a full and independent election observation mission to observe its Duma elections. Likewise, Russia was responsible for the closure of OSCE’s border observation mission, which provided valuable insight into the personnel and materiel flowing across Russia’s border into the temporarily occupied areas of eastern Ukraine. ODIHR’s work is more important and relevant than at any time since its founding at the end of the Cold War. I would like to take a moment to extend my heartfelt appreciation to ODIHR’s 180 staff from 35 countries, upon whose dedication and professionalism we rely as we strive to realize an equitable and just future for all. ODIHR is not only the human rights arm of the world’s largest regional security organization; it is also the independent body endowed to assist us as we pursue this important goal. The phrase ‘‘Vancouver to Vladivostok’’ is routinely invoked to describe the organization’s broad geographical reach. However, it is perhaps ODIHR—and OSCE’s—revolutionary and comprehensive concept of ‘‘security,’’ which includes military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights, that is its defining characteristic and most important contribution to world peace and the reason why we should all be celebrating ODIHR’s 30th anniversary this year and take steps to ensure its success for years to come.

  • Experts raise alarm bells in Congress over ‘Europe’s most contested domain’

    With a handful of frozen conflicts, hybrid warfare, rising autocracy, and political instability, the Black Sea region may be Europe’s most volatile and most overlooked. This week, policy experts are testifying in Congress and calling for the United States to step up its involvement in the Black Sea region, a critical geopolitical crossroads where U.S. allies and adversaries coexist. “The region is Europe’s most contested domain,” said Ian Brzezinski, a former deputy assistant Defense secretary for Europe and NATO who testified to Congress on Wednesday. “It’s where you have the most intense confrontation and the most violent conflict in Europe in the last decade and a half. It’s high time we start addressing what needs to be done to bring greater peace and stability to that region,” Brzezinski told National Journal. Last week, Russian fighter jets intercepted two U.S. bombers over the Black Sea while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was visiting Romania, a member of the European Union and a NATO ally that hosts nearly 1,000 U.S. servicemembers. During his trip, Austin also visited two other Black Sea countries, Georgia and Ukraine, a move many saw as a sign that the U.S. was beginning to focus on the region ahead of a key NATO ministerial meeting. High on the agenda during Wednesday’s congressional hearing, however, was the U.S. relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally that under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had an increasingly fraught relationship with the West. Despite being part of the Western military alliance, Turkey has consistently opposed strengthening NATO’s presence in the Black Sea and courted Russia, opting to purchase a Russian missile-defense system that military experts say poses a risk to NATO equipment. “We have got to repair our relationship with Turkey. It’s not impossible. Erdoğan is a deal-maker,” said Jim Townsend, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former deputy assistant Defense secretary European and NATO policy, who also testified Wednesday. Over the weekend, Erdoğan ordered the country’s Foreign Ministry to declare 10 ambassadors, including the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, persona non grata after they called for the release of an imprisoned civil-society leader named Osman Kavala. Erdoğan later walked back the statement, but the incident highlighted the volatility of Turkey’s relationship with the West. “Because Turkey is pursuing its own Russia-friendly policy and is often antagonistic towards the U.S., that makes our Black Sea policy so much more difficult,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, who argues that NATO allies should be more active in the region. Sen. Ben Cardin, the chair of the Helsinki Commission, said the U.S. and Turkey share many interests in the Black Sea region but that shouldn’t stop Washington from speaking out on human rights. “Mr. Kavala, a Turkish philanthropist, has been in detention for four years despite being acquitted by a Turkish court," Cardin said in an email. "In their joint statement, the ambassadors simply asked that Turkey adhere to its international obligations and domestic law. “This kind of straight talk is important among NATO allies and did not warrant such a disproportionate response.” Despite the tensions with Turkey, Russia is the primary adversary in the region. Many lawmakers note that Moscow has trampled the rules-based international order by invading its neighbors and propping up separatists to prevent countries along the Black Sea from forming closer ties with the West. Russian forces currently occupy around 20 percent of Georgian territory and support separatists in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They also annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014—in large part to maintain access to the Black Sea—and support pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe, said she convened Wednesday’s hearing to learn how lawmakers can holistically approach the region to address patterns of Russian encroachment. “Over the last two decades, the Black Sea has become an increasingly important region for Russia, which has repeatedly disregarded international norms to expand control of the region, waging war and deploying illegal and belligerent tactics to secure these goals,” Shaheen told National Journal. “Russia has made it clear that it is willing to exert economic, military, and political power to thwart NATO expansion and expand its control in the Black Sea.” Experts are arriving in Congress with a laundry list of recommendations, including building up Bulgaria's and Romania’s navies, sending brigade combat teams to both countries, investing in initiatives to counter Russian disinformation, and providing Ukraine with more lethal weaponry. Some are advocating for the creation of a NATO readiness action plan for the Black Sea, and for moving forward with NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Both countries are angling to join the Western military alliance. Still, the alliance’s commitment to collective defense prevents countries already in a state of conflict from entering, a fact that Russia exploits. Because Georgia is not yet a NATO member, the U.S. recently renewed a six-year security pact with Tbilisi designed to bolster the defense capabilities of the country’s military. The U.S. is moving away from training battalions in Georgia and will focus instead on building sustainable institutional capabilities at the executive levels of the military. Still, experts warn that nearly all the countries in the region are dealing with political instability, Russian interference, or both. Georgia, heading for a second round of local elections on Saturday, has been accused of Democratic backsliding. Romania and Bulgaria, both EU members, are also in contentious election cycles and debates over government formation that will determine their future political trajectories. Ruslan Trad, an author researching Russian influence in Bulgaria, told National Journal there are several popular pro-Russian political movements in Bulgaria. Russian spies are active in the country and allegedly monitored European Union leaders during their visits. There’s also an urgent need to counter Russian disinformation and anti-NATO propaganda in the country, Trad said. What’s most important, said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general now at the Center for European Policy Analysis, is to have a robust strategy for the entire region. “Having a strategy for the region has to be the first priority because then you can develop the right policies for each of the countries in the region,” Hodges said. The Biden administration is now working on a global-force-posture review, which should shed light on U.S. policy towards the region, and the State Department is also developing a Black Sea strategy. Alina Polyakova, the president of CEPA and another witness in Wednesday’s hearing, said it would be important to pinpoint the specific areas in which each partner country in the region can contribute to broader security. “The Black Sea region is critical to broader transatlantic stability,” Polyakova told senators. “It is where Russia, Europe, the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus come together, and it’s also the locus of the Kremlin’s test of the alliance’s credibility and resolve.”

  • In Pursuit of Truth

    A free press is the lifeblood of democracy; without independent media, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. In many of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), autocrats exploit financial and legal means, alongside physical violence, to intimidate and silence independent media. Journalists and their associates are attacked both online and offline; jailed on phony charges; and even killed for the secrets they expose. Leaders undermine public trust in the press to hide their misdeeds. Disinformation—particularly lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to pollute the information landscape. In her first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro assessed the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses discussed recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by stating that media freedom is the bedrock of the democratic process, making it possible for citizens to make informed decisions on their political reality. He also addressed COVID-19 and disinformation, citing the need to safeguard fundamental freedom of expression while performing the vital task of reporting the truth. Chairman Cardin cited a Freedom House report showing a decline in democracy in some countries, often overlapping with a decline in media freedom, and expressed a concern over the silencing of media in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Turkey, and Russia to name a few. As a co-sponsor of the Global Press Freedom Act, Senator Cardin expressed his wish for the U.S. to become more involved in press freedom across the globe. The OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media (RFOM), Teresa Ribeiro, thanked the Helsinki Commission for the strong support for the RFOM as an institution and media freedom and expression. Ribeiro seconded Chairman Cardin’s statement that free and independent media is a core pillar of democracy, adding that media is more than just a provider of daily news. Ribeiro addressed the steady decline of media freedom all over the OSCE region and decline in trust in the media. “We live in a time where accusing media outlets and individual journalists of false news has become the norm,” she said. Key issues, according to Ribeiro, include rising violence against journalists, abuse of the legal system to silence their work, restrictions imposed by authoritarian governments on the media, declining trust in the media, as well as the power of social media companies and their ability to shape the media landscape. Ribeiro argued that governments have a positive obligation to protect both the freedom of expression and a free press that delivers truthful information to citizens. In her opinion, the best way to fight disinformation is not through restrictive laws, but rather by promoting independent journalists. Robert Mahoney, the deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), reported on his organizations efforts to track media freedom across the OSCE region. He stated that journalists and media have come under attack in almost all OSCE countries. Some of these attacks are by private citizens, but most attacks on press freedom are carried out by governments such as those in Hungry, Poland, Tajikistan, Serbia, Turkmenistan, Belarus, or Russia. Specifically, Mahoney mentioned the number of journalists behind bars in Turkey and the use of foreign agent laws in Russia to sideline media. He also expressed concern over the targeted murders of journalists in the OSCE in countries including Ukraine, Slovakia, and Malta. Mahoney recommended fully implementing the 2018 OSCE ministerial council agreement on the freedom of the media, supporting the RFOM mandate and urging the mandate holder to challenge those countries with the worst press freedom records, implement the policies outlined in the 2020 resource guide by the RFOM on the safety of female journalists online, and considering the use of targeted sanctions to gold governments within the OSCE region accountable for their violations of press freedoms. Jamie Fly, President of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, gave an update on his organizations efforts to provide news and media to 27 countries across Eurasia. Much of his testimony was focused on Russia and Belarus, where the gravest violations of press freedom occur. In Russia, foreign agent laws are increasingly being used to violate the freedom of the press and fines connected to these laws (such as $4.4 million owed by RFE/RL to Russia) are used to pressure news outlets financially. Fly believes the Kremlin is seeking absolute control over the information space in advance of the end of President Vladimir Putin’s current term in 2024. In Belarus, RFE/RL officers were raided, and equipment was confiscated. Meanwhile, many journalists threatened by the new government in Afghanistan are still hoping to evacuate and require outside support. Fly called for more advocacy for journalists in critical regions, funding for unbiased media to counter the large sums of money authoritarian governments spend on their biased media outlets, as well as pressure on those governments which jail journalists. Peter Pomerantsev, Director of the Arena Program and Senior Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, testified that the principles we use to defend journalists are being weaponized to attack journalists in other countries. He argued that the crushing of media voices happens not only through censorship, but also through the flood of disinformation. These mass inauthentic campaigns take away the fundamental right to receive information and know its origins, Pomerantsev said, and argued that the best way to counter such disinformation is through better transparency on the origins of content encountered online. Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) asked the witnesses about steps the United States could take to counter disinformation and misinformation, especially strategies that have been found to be successful in Europe. Ribeiro answered that media literacy and better training for journalists to become fact checkers are key. Additionally, building back trust between the media and the public is vital, and the local level is the best way to do so. Mahoney agreed, stating that local news is generally trusted more than the news at a national level, but the decline in local news outlets in the U.S. has pushed people towards getting news from social media. Acknowledging various levels of media freedom across the OSCE, Chairman Cardin asked what best practices are to protect the freedom of the media. Ribeiro replied that different tools need to be used in different countries. Some countries have strong rule of law, yet still have issues with media freedom. In her capacity as RFOM, her tools include voice, advocacy, and assisting participating states to improve media freedom. Chairman Cardin also asked what should be done to protect journalists against indiscriminate arrests, detentions, and physical violence. Mahoney answered that the number one focus must be on bringing those who murder journalists to justice. Too often the murderers go free, sending the signal to others that journalists can be silenced this way. Next, to pressure governments that imprison journalists, including calling them out at conferences on the international stage. Lastly, the OSCE and EU must lift their standards and prevent capture of the media by the state. Chairman Cardin thanked Mahoney for his comments and added that the Helsinki Commission and the U.S. Congress is happy to help, but needs specifics like names and stories, not numbers, to advocate for journalists across the world. Asked about where the United States needs to concentrate its priorities regarding RFE/RL in the OSCE region, Jamie Fly noted the importance of social media in reaching audiences, and therefore the power social media companies have over RFE/RL. Social media algorithms dictate which content users see, and often authoritarian regimes intervene and pressure social media companies to remove content critical of them because of supposed terms-of-service violations, as was the case with Navalny’s election app in Russia. Fly affirmed the need for pressure and targeted sanctions on regimes violating press freedom, as well as support for journalist who cannot work safely in their home countries. Pomerantsev expanded on the issues of social media algorithms, explaining that understanding why an algorithm promotes some content over another is key to slowing disinformation. He emphasized that transparency, not regulation of content, is the best way to do so. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) addressed the rising violence against journalists worldwide, including 29 killings in 2021, and increased imprisonment of journalists. Calling out Turkey, a NATO ally, for severe transgressions, Sen. Wicker asked if there is hope for improvement. Mahoney responded by saying the decline of press freedoms in Turkey has been happening for 20 years, but the coup attempt in 2016 worsened it. In his opinion, the OSCE and EU have been unsuccessful in attempting to bring change to media conditions in Turkey and must be more forceful in their critique of Erdogan and his regime. Chair Cardin closed the hearing by stating, “This commission stands ready to work with you to protect individual journalists as well as to put a spotlight on counties which are violating the freedom of the media.” Related Information Witness Biographies  

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