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Podcast: Disappeared in Turkmenistan

In Turkmenistan, detainees serving long-term prison sentences often literally “disappear” into the notorious Ovadan Depe prison outside of Ashgabat. Disappeared prisoners have no access to medical care or legal assistance; no information is provided to their families about their well-being.

Current estimates indicate that more than 120 individuals are currently disappeared in Ovadan Depe, including Turkmenistan’s former foreign minister and former ambassador to the OSCE Batyr Berdiev, who disappeared into the Turkmen prison system in 2003.

Kate Watters of the Prove They Are Alive! Campaign joins Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Janice Helwig to discuss the tragedy of those who have been disappeared, as well as the current situation in Turkmenistan and the steps that are being taken to encourage the Government of Turkmenistan to halt the practice and live up to its international commitments to human rights.


"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 7 | Disappeared in Turkmenistan

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  • Remembering Sergei Magnitsky

    Madam President, 12 years ago this Tuesday, Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in Moscow at the hands of prison guards who, instead of treating him for the acute illness that his torturous, year-long detention provoked, beat him for over an hour.  He was found dead in his cell shortly thereafter.  His “crime” was exposing the largest tax fraud in Russian history, perpetrated by government officials.  He was 37 years old and left a loving family and many friends. At the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, we had heard of Sergei’s plight months earlier and we were saddened and outraged that such a promising life had been cut short and that so few expected his murderers to be held to any account. Impunity for the murder of journalists, activists, opposition politicians, and now a simple, honest citizen was, and remains, a depressing cliché in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s rule while his regime often ruthlessly punishes people for minor infractions of the law.  For those on the wrong side of the Kremlin, the message is clear — and chilling.  Even the most damning evidence will not suffice to convict the guilty nor will the most exculpatory evidence spare the innocent. The need for justice, in Russia, in this specific case does not diminish with the passage of time.  Moreover, the “doubling down” on the cover-up of Sergei’s murder and the massive tax heist he exposed implicates a wider swath of Russian officials with the guilt of this heinous crime.  It does not need to be this way, however; nor is it ever too late for a reckoning in this case in the very courtrooms that hosted the show trials that ultimately led to Sergei’s death and the obscenity of his posthumous conviction. As somber as this occasion is, there is reason for hope.  Vladimir Putin will not rule Russia forever and every passing day brings us closer to that moment when someone new will occupy his post.  Who that person will be and whether this transition will usher in a government in Russia that respects the rights of its citizens and abides by its international commitments remains unclear.  I hope it does.  A Russian government that returns to the fold of responsible, constructive European powers would increase global security, enhance the prosperity of its own citizens and trading partners, and bring new vigor to tackling complex international challenges such as climate change. Sergei’s work lives on in his many colleagues and friends who are gathering in London this week to celebrate his life and to recognize others, like him, who seek justice and peace in their countries, often facing, and surmounting, seemingly impossible obstacles.  All too often, they pay a heavy price for their courageous integrity. Sergei’s heroic legacy is exemplified in the global movement for justice sparked by his death, and in the raft of Magnitsky laws that began in this chamber and have now spread to over a dozen countries, including allies like Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.  Even as these laws help protect our countries from the corrupting taint of blood money and deny abusers the privilege of traveling to our shores, they also remind those who suffer human right abuses at the hands of their own governments that we have not forgotten them. Sergei Magnitsky is a reminder to all of us that one person can make a difference.  In choosing the truth over lies, and sacrifice over comfort, Sergei made a difference and will never be forgotten. Fifty-five years ago, Senator Robert F. Kennedy addressed the National Union of South African Students and spoke about human liberty.  He spoke about freedom of speech and the right “to affirm one's membership and allegiance to the body politic – to society.”  He also spoke about the commensurate freedom to be heard, “to share in the decisions of government which shape men's lives.”  And he stated that government “must be limited in its power to act against its people so that there may be … no arbitrary imposition of pains or penalties on an ordinary citizen by officials high or low”.  Senator Kennedy went on to say, Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. Madam President, Sergei Magnitsky stood up for an ideal.  He acted to improve the lot of others.  He struck at injustice.  He was – and remains – a ripple of hope.  On this sad anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s murder, let us all recommit ourselves to helping those in Russia, and around the world, who seek their rightful share in the governance of their own countries and who deserve the confidence of doing so without fear of harm.  If we do this, Sergei will not have died in vain. I am confident that one day, there will be a monument in stone and bronze to Sergei in his native Russia.  Until that day, the laws that bear his name will serve as his memorial.

  • Helsinki Commission Recalls Legacy of Sergei Magnitsky

    WASHINGTON—On the 12-year anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky, 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 statements: "Sergei Magnitsky’s heroic legacy is exemplified in the global movement for justice sparked by his death,” said Chairman Cardin. “Even as Magnitsky laws help protect the United States and other countries from the corrupting taint of blood money and deny abusers the privilege of traveling to our shores, they also remind those who suffer human right abuses at the hands of their own governments that they are not forgotten." “Finding justice for Sergei Magnitsky in Putin’s Russia seems more impossible with each passing year,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “However, we have not forgotten his tragic story and we will never stop calling for accountability for those who imprisoned him and ultimately killed him; those who enabled corruption and abetted murder. We are determined to not let his memory fade. Instead, he will serve as an indelible reminder of all those who suffer under corrupt regimes.” “It would have been much easier and much safer for Sergei Magnitsky if he had remained silent—but he was relentless in his desire to expose the truth,” said Sen. Wicker. “In a Russia ruled by Vladimir Putin, Mr. Magnitsky paid for it with his life. We look forward to the day when, in Russia and elsewhere, uncovering corruption is a public service rather than a death sentence.” “Sergei Magnitsky spent the last year of his life in prison because he refused to stop fighting for what was right,” said Rep. Wilson. “In honoring Sergei Magnitsky’s legacy today, we recall the many other political prisoners like him who have endured horrific conditions and even death simply for speaking truth to power. No one should have to experience what he did.” In 2008, Sergei Magnitsky, who advised Hermitage Capital Management in a dispute over alleged tax evasion in Russia, discovered a $230 million fraud being committed by Russian law enforcement officers assigned to the case. Magnitsky reported the fraud to the authorities and was arrested soon after by the same officers he had accused. For almost a year, Magnitsky was held in squalid prison conditions, denied visits from his family, and beaten by guards. Despite developing serious health conditions, he was denied medical attention. On November 16, 2009, Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in his cell. He had been imprisoned for 358 days, just seven days short of the maximum legal pre-trial detention period in Russia. In 2010, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act, directing the U.S. Secretary of State to publish a list of individuals involved in Sergei’s detention and death, and enabling the government to deny these individuals entry to the United States and freeze their American assets. The bill was reintroduced in the next Congress as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. This version covered all individual who commit extrajudicial killings, torture or otherwise egregiously violate the human rights of activists or whistleblowers in Russia. On December 14, 2012, the Magnitsky Act was signed into law, establishing severe consequences for the worst human rights violators in Russia. In 2015, Chairman Cardin introduced the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to expand the authorities established by the original Magnitsky Act to include the worst human rights violators and those who commit significant acts of corruption around the world. It became law in December 2016.

  • REMEMBERING AND HONORING SERGEI MAGNITSKY

    Mr. COHEN. Madam Speaker, today we remember and honor Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian tax lawyer who in 2008 uncovered a massive fraud scheme of hundreds of millions of dollars perpetrated by law enforcement officers. In any normal situation, Mr. Magnitsky would have been praised for his efforts. But this was Putin's Russia, and he was arrested by the very people whose nefarious dealings he exposed. The conditions Mr. Magnitsky faced in prison for almost a year were inhumane, and on November 16, 2009, already weakened and seriously ill, he did not survive the beatings he received from prison guards. Twelve years later, Putin still controls Russia. Throughout the country, hundreds of prisoners of conscience languish behind bars because of their political opinions, their activism, and even their religious beliefs. Thanks to Sergei Magnitsky's determination to stand up for what is right in the face of overwhelming state power, the laws that bear his name ensure they will not be forgotten. His story is the story of many others--not only in Russia, but worldwide. Exposing human rights abuses and corruption carries many risks in many countries. Yet there are many brave people who continue to reveal the truth. The Magnitsky Act has become a living memorial to Sergei Magnitsky's bravery. We in Congress originally passed this legislation to sanction those involved in the death of Mr. Magnitsky. Since then, we have expanded it to cover the world's worst human rights abusers. What began here has spread internationally as the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Canada have all adopted their own Magnitsky sanctions. Many others, such as Japan, Australia, and Taiwan, are considering their own legislation. Magnitsky sanctions have completely changed the nature of the fight for human rights and against corruption. They not only protect our own system against abuse but also provide a measure of justice to those denied it abroad. We will keep encouraging our democratic allies to adopt similar sanctions so that one day there will be no safe haven left for kleptocrats and their blood money. Finding justice for Sergei Magnitsky in Putin's Russia seems more impossible with each passing year. However, we have not forgotten his tragic story and we will never stop calling for accountability for those who imprisoned him and ultimately killed him; those who enabled corruption and abetted murder. We are determined to not let his memory fade. Instead, he will serve as an indelible reminder of all those who suffer under corrupt regimes.

  • Helsinki Commission Delegation Advances Priority Issues at First OSCE PA Annual Session Since Onset of Covid-19 Pandemic

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) last week led a U.S. delegation to the 2021 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Annual Session in Vienna, Austria. The assembly was the first major gathering with an in-person component since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The 2021 OSCE PA Annual Session was held in a hybrid format, with most of the approximately 250 delegates participating remotely and others convening in Vienna. The United States had more representatives to the in-person meeting of the OSCE PA Standing Committee—comprising the heads of national delegations and other OSCE PA leaders—than any other participating State: Chairman Cardin, as the head of the U.S. delegation; Sen. Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA; and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chairs the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Other members traveling to Vienna included Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01), and  Rep. Trent Kelly (MS-01). Remote participants in the Annual Session included Commissioners Sen. Tina Smith (MN), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), along with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). During the Annual Session, the American legislators engaged in debates on political affairs and security, economic and environmental matters, and democracy and human rights. The U.S. legislators also played key roles in the adoption of three resolutions reflecting the major issues confronting the OSCE today: rising hate and its use to bolster authoritarianism and conflict, a call for democratic change in Belarus, and continued opposition to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Chairman Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Intolerance, sponsored the first resolution, urging OSCE participating States to adopt an OSCE Anti-Discrimination, Equity, and Inclusion Action Plan, to strengthen the efforts of law enforcement, civil society, and others to tackle discrimination and extremism. In addition, parliamentarians held the first Assembly elections in two years, with both Sen. Wicker and Rep. Hudson easily retaining their leadership posts. Sen. Wicker received the most votes of any of the nine vice-presidential candidates, while Rep. Hudson was elected by acclamation. While in Vienna, members also met with OSCE Secretary General Helga Schmid and other senior OSCE officials, along with International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi. The in-person delegation also traveled to Estonia, where they met with Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets, former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and Chair of the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee Marko Mihkelson to demonstrate the strong U.S. support for the bilateral security relationship. During a visit to Narva, delegation members engaged with representatives of the local Russian-speaking community and visited the Russia-Estonia border to gain a better understanding of the security situation. “The American alliance with Estonia is based on shared democratic values. We appreciate our bilateral relationship and mutual efforts to support the democratic opposition in Belarus and independent voices in Russia,” said Chairman Cardin. “Across the 57 nations that are part of the OSCE, rising challenges to democratic norms require a sober and sustained response from those committed to the rule of law and the defense of human rights. Estonia and the United States are staunch allies in this effort.” “As the Baltic region faces serious and continuing security challenges, the United States is proud to support our steadfast NATO allies,” Sen. Wicker said. “This visit by a bipartisan and bicameral delegation is representative of the strong consensus in the U.S. Congress to push back against the Kremlin’s malign activities in the region. We also appreciate the important and growing contributions of Estonia and our other regional allies and partners as we work to address global security challenges.” Members then traveled to Bulgaria for the Three Seas Initiative Summit, designed to promote transparent and sustainable investments in energy, transportation, and digital infrastructure that contribute to an undivided, free, prosperous, and resilient Europe. While at the summit, they held bilateral meetings with President Andrzej Duda of Poland, President Rumen Radev of Bulgaria, and President Egils Levits of Latvia to discuss a broad range of security and human rights issues. The delegation also traveled to Varna to examine Black Sea regional security issues; visited a Roma community to better understand the current situation of Roma in Bulgaria and underscore U.S. support for the rights of Bulgaria's Roma population; and met with journalists of the recently re-established Bulgarian service of Radio Free Europe. “We brought a dozen members from the U.S. Congress to Sofia to demonstrate support for the Three Seas Initiative and also to engage with Bulgaria’s leaders and its people about our shared values and basic human rights,” said Chairman Cardin. “Protecting civil and human rights is an essential component of every democracy and we look forward to hearing more about how Bulgaria is safeguarding fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.” “The Black Sea region has seen a troublesome rise in tension recently,” said Sen. Wicker. “Our visit to the area was intended to keep us abreast of the situation and to demonstrate our strong, enduring, and bipartisan support to Bulgaria and our other NATO Allies and partners in the region.” En route back to the United States, the delegation visited the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program Norway, a cooperative effort with a stalwart NATO ally that reinforces regional security and offers direct support to U.S. deployments as far away as Iraq.  

  • Tribute to Erika Schlager

    I want to acknowledge one individual who recently announced that she is retiring, Erika Schlager, after 34 years of service to the Commission and to the global community. Erika received her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, where she graduated magna cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She earned her A.M. degree from Harvard University in Soviet Union studies and her juris doctor degree with honors from the George Washington University Law School. She studied at Warsaw University as a Fulbright fellow and received a diploma from the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Quite a record. She used that academic preparation to make a difference in the world—and what a difference she made. Erika has been an unfailing professional in her dedication to doing whatever is necessary to ensure that the commission meets its mandate and defends human rights abroad. Her deep expertise, which she has honed over decades of work, is renowned both among policy professionals in the United States and in the countries of Central Europe that she followed for the commission. Erika is one of our nation’s top experts on Europe’s most vulnerable communities. She is a leading voice on Roma rights—Europe’s largest minority, with significant populations also in the United States. I have joined Erika in the crusade to speak up for the Roma population, a group that has been denied citizenship in so much of Europe. What a difference she has made in their lives. Erika has worked with Members of Congress, the Department of State and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to address issues ranging from the enslavement and sterilization of Roma to a permanent memorial in Berlin dedicated to the Sinti and Roma victims of the Nazi regime, to annual recognition of International Roma Day. She has brought to my attention the candidacy of Ethel Brooks to be the first Roma board member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I know that Erika will continue to bring Roma perspective and history on the Holocaust to further the tolerance, education, and human rights work of the museum. I have the honor of representing the Senate on the Holocaust Memorial Museum board, and I can tell you that Erika is so deeply respected by the professionals at that museum for the work she has done in furthering the goal of that institution to prevent atrocities against any groups of people. Erika has long been one of my top advisers on the Holocaust restitution and Europe’s Jewish community. She has worked closely with me over the years to raise concerns about the rise of Holocaust revisionism in countries like Hungary and Poland; to foster implementation of the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets measures to right the economic wrongs that accompanied the Holocaust; and to hold accountable a French railway that transported thousands of Holocaust victims to their deaths. She worked on all of these issues and made significant progress. Erika has been instrumental in ensuring that the Helsinki Commission works to hold the United States accountable for our own human rights record, examining U.S. policies and conduct concerning Guantanamo Bay detention camps and U.S. policy regarding torture. Erika’s counsel greatly assisted me in my role as the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, where I was focused on human rights and justice here at home and across the expanse of the 57 participating States of the OSCE. From the plight of African Americans and Muslims to migrants and refugees, Erika has been integral to the Helsinki Commission’s mandate of upholding the myriad of human rights commitments defined in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE agreements. In addition to her many professional milestones and achievements, Erika retires from the commission having left a deeply personal mark on those she worked with, from diplomats and civil servants to the staff of the Helsinki Commission. She is a natural teacher with a gift of taking a complex issue and distilling it in a way that makes it both relevant and accessible. Erika has taught our diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute and spoken at international meetings and at universities across the nation and around the world. She displayed her exceptional teaching ability at the Department of State’s annual training program on Roma rights, and she has ensured that Roma civil society groups could also participate. She has actively sought out dialogue and collaboration with new colleagues to help deepen their understanding of the Helsinki Commission’s role, of the challenges the commission could usefully seek to address abroad, and of the unique tools at its disposal to do just that. Erika is always quick to ask about a colleague’s well-being or inquire after a family member’s well-being. She has fostered collegiality among the Commission’s staff through her unfailing kindness and good nature. In so doing, she has repeatedly demonstrated how deeply she cares, not just for the work she has dedicated her career to, but also for the people whose great privilege it is to call her a colleague and a friend. I will say on a personal basis that I have benefited so much from her friendship, from her understanding, from her strategic thinking, from where we can make a difference. We know there are a lot of problems around the world. We know we can’t settle all the issues. But Erika helped us focus on areas where we can make a difference, and thanks to her input, we have made a difference. I know I speak on behalf of all Helsinki Commission members and staff and scores of other individuals—many who may not know her name—and groups concerned about advancing human rights around the globe and here at home when I say how we will miss Erika. Henry David Thoreau said: ‘‘Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.’’ Erika has embodied that maxim in her professional career and in her life. She has made an enormous difference, and she will continue to do so. I wish her all the best with respect to her future endeavors. I know we will continue to hear from her. Thank you, Erika, for the way you served the commission, our country, and the global community.

  • Sweden's Leadership of the OSCE

    In 2021, Sweden chairs the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—which comprises 57 participating States stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. Even as the OSCE begins to emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is tackling other critical challenges, including Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the framework of the Minsk Group. Meanwhile, several countries are deliberately spurning their OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Participating States including Russia, Belarus, and Turkey not only stifle dissent in their own countries but also seek to undermine the OSCE’s work defending fundamental freedoms and curtail civil society’s participation in OSCE activities. Other shared challenges include combating human trafficking, countering terrorism and corruption, and protecting vulnerable communities, including migrants, from discrimination and violence. At this virtual hearing, Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde discussed Sweden’s priorities for 2021 and addressed current developments in the OSCE region. Related Information Witness Biography

  • Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde to Appear at Helsinki Commission Online Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: SWEDEN’S LEADERSHIP OF THE OSCE Priorities for 2021 Friday, June 11, 2021 9:15 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. Watch Live: https://www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2021, Sweden chairs the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—which comprises 57 participating States stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. Even as the OSCE begins to emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is tackling other critical challenges, including Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the framework of the Minsk Group. Meanwhile, several countries are deliberately spurning their OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Participating States including Russia, Belarus, and Turkey not only stifle dissent in their own countries but also seek to undermine the OSCE’s work defending fundamental freedoms and curtail civil society’s participation in OSCE activities. Other shared challenges include combating human trafficking, countering terrorism and corruption, and protecting vulnerable communities, including migrants, from discrimination and violence. At this virtual hearing, Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde will discuss Sweden’s priorities for 2021 and address current developments in the OSCE region.

  • Helsinki Commission Commemorates 45 Years of Advancing Comprehensive Security in the OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—To commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, on June 3, Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “The Helsinki Commission has played a vital role in elevating the moral dimension of U.S. foreign policy and prioritizing the protection of fundamental freedoms in our dealings with other nations,” said Chairman Cardin. “From fighting for fair treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, to developing landmark legislation to address human trafficking, to demanding sanctions on human rights violators and kleptocrats, and so much more, the commission consistently has broken new ground.” “For 45 years, the commission has flourished as a bipartisan and bicameral platform for collaboration within the federal government. Its purpose is not to support a specific party or administration, but instead to advance transatlantic cooperation, promote regional security and stability, and hold OSCE participating States accountable to their promises,” said Sen. Wicker. “Our commissioners’ united front against threats to democracy and human rights worldwide has become a pillar of U.S. international engagement.” “I am grateful to have experienced the crucial role played by U.S. engagement in the Helsinki Process, both as an election observer in Bulgaria in 1990, and later as a lawmaker and commissioner,” said Rep. Wilson. “The Helsinki Commission is unique in its ability to adapt to evolving global challenges. The defense of human rights and democracy looks different now than it did during the Cold War, but we continue to unite over the same resilient principles and commitment to fundamental freedoms.” On June 3, 1976, U.S. President Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Commission into existence through Public Law 94-304 to encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975—the founding document that lays out the ten principles guiding the inter-state relations among today’s OSCE participating States. The agreement created new opportunities to engage with European partners on human rights, cooperative security, economic opportunities, and territorial disputes, and the commission played an integral role in ensuring that human rights became a key component of U.S. foreign policy. Forty-five years after its founding, the Helsinki Commission continues to engage with participating States to confront severe and persistent violations of human rights and democratic norms. Since its establishment, the Helsinki Commission has convened more than 500 public hearings and briefings. It regularly works with U.S. officials in the executive branch and Congress to draw attention to human rights and security challenges in participating States, including racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance; corruption; human trafficking; and Russia’s persistent violations of the Helsinki Final Act in its relations with Ukraine and other OSCE countries.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

    WASHINGTON—Following Alexander Lukashenko’s order to divert and forcibly land a commercial plane in Minsk in order to arrest Belarusian activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich and civil society activist Sofia Sapega, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Commissioner Richard Hudson (NC-08) issued the following statements: “Dictators like Alexander Lukashenko increasingly seek to use extraterritorial surveillance, intimidation, harassment and even assassination against their political opponents,” said Chairman Cardin. “The kidnappings of Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega from a commercial aircraft illegally forced by military aircraft to land in Minsk creates a precedent of terror that, if unchecked, could limit dissidents’ ability to travel freely. An international crime of this magnitude, engineered by the self-styled leader of Belarus, requires a strong international response, starting with Magnitsky sanctions on those involved.” “Lukashenko has already rigged elections, restricted freedoms, and repressed thousands of Belarusians. He has stooped to a new and alarming low by using military aircraft to force down a civilian airliner,” said Sen. Wicker. “He will only continue escalating his attempts to retain power unless he faces real consequences for his actions. We should develop a full-spectrum strategy against transnational repression to deter such brazen actions by dictators.” “The shocking abduction of Raman Pratasevich demonstrates that Alexander Lukashenko will do almost anything to silence perceived opposition,” said Rep. Wilson. “We demand that Lukashenko release all political prisoners without exception, and end his attacks against journalists, civil society, and all Belarusians peacefully exercising their rights.” “Holding civilian passengers hostage by creating a false threat and forcing a plane to land is an act of state terrorism,” said Rep. Hudson. “Unfortunately, we now have proof that Lukashenko’s dictatorship is a grave threat not only to Belarusians, but to the rest of the world. His regime should be treated as the rogue state that it is.” On May 23, a Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius carrying over 120 passengers was notified of a bomb threat, met by a Belarusian military jet, and forced to land in Minsk. The bomb threat was false, and upon landing, Belarusian authorities detained journalist Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen studying in law at the European Humanities University, which was forced out of Belarus in 2004 and has relocated to Vilnius. Each could face up to 15 years in prison. Pratasevich, who had been living abroad for his safety since 2019, is a co-founder of the NEXTA Live Telegram channel, which has extensively covered this past year’s protests in Belarus and serves as a coordination hub for opposition activity. Belarusian authorities declared NEXTA an “extremist” outlet in October 2020. On May 24, video footage of Pratasevich appeared on Telegram, in which he states that his health is fine, the authorities have treated him lawfully, and that he is cooperating with them in their investigation. The Belarusian KGB is known for producing such videos of forced confessions. Lukashenko has crushed independent media and jailed journalists, activists, and political opponents in unprecedented numbers since Belarus’ falsified presidential elections in August 2020.

  • Cardin, Hudson Pledge Support to Ukraine in Bilateral Call Between OSCE PA Delegations

    WASHINGTON—In response to increased Russian aggression against Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) initiated an exceptional bilateral meeting with members of the Ukrainian Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) on April 30.  Chairman Cardin, who serves as Head of the U.S. Delegation to the Assembly, and Rep. Hudson, who is a member of the delegation and chairs the OSCE PA’s General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, sought the meeting to express the support of the United States for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and to solicit the Ukrainian lawmakers’ perspectives on the ongoing crisis. Ukrainian participants included parliamentarians Mykyta Poturaiev (Head of Delegation) and Artur Gerasymov (Deputy Head of Delegation).  The exchange, which focused on the recent massing of Russian forces on Ukraine’s eastern border and in occupied Crimea, and the closure by Russia of parts of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, also covered topics including: The militarization of occupied Crimea and widespread violations of fundamental freedoms there, with particular persecution directed toward Crimean Tatars The Crimean Platform, a Ukrainian diplomatic initiative to mobilize world leaders to raise the cost of Russia’s occupation of the peninsula, with the ultimate goal of de-occupation The effects of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on Russian influence in Europe  The importance of continued reform processes in Ukraine, including in ensuring the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary and of Ukraine’s anti-corruption bodies Chairman Cardin and Rep. Hudson reiterated Congress’ strong and bipartisan support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Chairman Cardin underscored that the United States stood with Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, which “violated every principle of the Helsinki Final Act,” he stated. He added that the Ukraine Security Partnership Act unanimously approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 21 codified the U.S. security commitment to Ukraine and support for the Crimean Platform initiative, among other measures designed to strengthen the bilateral relationship. The United States remained “strongly and firmly united in our support for Ukraine,” Rep. Hudson said, pledging continued resolve in ensuring this message was clear to Russian authorities. Hudson, recalling a statement issued in his capacity as OSCE PA committee chair on April 7, also expressed readiness to engage fully in the parliamentary dimension of the Crimean Platform. In addition, the U.S. and Ukrainian delegates discussed plans for the 2021 Annual Session to be held remotely in late June and early July. 

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “Press freedom is at the core of a healthy democracy,” said Chairman Cardin. “Over the last year, we have witnessed a sharp decline in access to information globally, and a rise in cases of violence against journalists. Some OSCE participating States have even used the COVID-19 pandemic as grounds to justify unnecessary restrictions on the press. Independent, professional journalism grounded in truth and transparency is the best antidote to the poison of disinformation and misinformation that plagues the OSCE region, during this global emergency and at all times.” “Strong democracies encourage a free press—one that informs the public, welcomes diverse voices, and holds leaders accountable,” said Sen. Wicker. “Unfortunately, in many nations autocrats abuse political, economic, and legal measures to intimidate, jail, and bankrupt members of the media who oppose them. On World Press Freedom Day, I commend the courageous journalists who work despite these threats.” “In the absence of press freedom, citizens are denied access to information and prevented from meaningful engagement in their communities,” said Rep. Wilson. “In some participating States, we continue to see violent attacks, arbitrary arrests, legal harassment, and other attacks against the legitimate work of journalists. These attempts to close off the information pipeline only highlight the weakness of such regimes, not their strength.” In its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders found that journalism is totally blocked, seriously impeded, or constrained in 73 percent of the countries evaluated. The data also reflect a dramatic deterioration in people's access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage. According to the study, Turkmenistan (at 178 of 180), Azerbaijan (at 167), Tajikistan (at 162), Belarus (at 158), Uzbekistan (at 157), Kazakhstan (at 155), Turkey (at 153), and Russia (at 150), rank the lowest in press freedom in the OSCE region. On April 30, Chairman Cardin and Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) reintroduced the World Press Freedom Protection and Reciprocity Act, which seeks to protect and promote worldwide press freedom and enhance reciprocity for U.S. news and media outlets. Earlier in April, Helsinki Commission leaders called on Belarusian authorities to release journalists and political prisoners. In 2020, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing to examine the troubling trend of violence against journalists, and review implementation of international press freedom commitments undertaken by the United States. In 2019, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media testified before the U.S. Helsinki Commission on the state of media freedom in the OSCE region.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: April 2021

  • Wicker, Shaheen Reintroduce Bill to Hold Russia Accountable for Its Religious Freedom Violations in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) today reintroduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (S.1310). It is a companion bill to H.R. 496, introduced by Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), which unanimously passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday. “The Kremlin’s current repression in Ukraine mirrors an ugly chapter from Soviet times when believers were persecuted for their religious faith,” said Sen. Wicker. “Vladimir Putin and his proxies should face real consequences for their brutal attempts to curtail the religious freedom of Ukrainians who suffer under this ruthless Russian occupation.” “There is a bipartisan urgency in Congress to demonstrate support for Ukraine in opposition to Putin’s cruelty, including his barbaric assault against peaceful religious communities. I’m proud to work with this group of lawmakers to reaffirm that sentiment and to stand up for democratic values around the world,” said Sen. Shaheen. “This legislation is an important step forward to hold Putin to account for his unlawful aggression against the Ukrainian people and the fundamental freedoms they hold dear.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would authorize and require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and the Donbas—not just violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders—when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). The bill reaffirms that “it is the policy of the United States to never recognize the illegal, attempted annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russia or the separation of any portion of Ukrainian territory through the use of military force.” Russian forces invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy and attempt to annex it. The Kremlin has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine since April 2014 with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it created and commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the occupied Donbas. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” including killings, torture, abduction, and detention. It also requires the president to then take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, unless exercising waiver authority, and to ban the foreign officials responsible from entering the United States. The Secretary of State has placed Russia on the Special Watch List for countries with severe violations every year since 2018. All participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Russia, have repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents detailing religious freedom commitments that OSCE participating States have made.

  • Helsinki Commissioners Reintroduce Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) yesterday reintroduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 496) in the House of Representatives. The House unanimously passed the original legislation, which targets Russia’s religious freedom violations in Ukraine, on November 18, 2020. “The Kremlin and its proxies continue to imprison and torture people on Ukrainian territory for their faith. Russian government perpetrators must be punished for these crimes,” said Rep. Wilson. “This legislation would ensure that the president of the United States has the authority and mandate to impose costs on Russian officials who are responsible for such assaults on religious freedom.” “The yoke of Putin’s occupation and oppression weighs heavily on Ukrainians. The desire to seek and follow the truth, to explore ultimate meaning, is written on every human heart,” said Rep. Cleaver. “We must stand up to the Russian government’s attempts to suppress the freedom of Ukrainians to follow their religious conscience.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill authorizes the president to hold Russia responsible for violations in Ukrainian territory it illegally occupies or controls, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom, including killings, torture, abduction, and detention. It also requires the president to then take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, and ban the foreign officials responsible from entering the United States. The Secretary of State has placed Russia on the Special Watch List for countries with severe violations every year since 2018. The legislation also states, “It is the policy of the United States to never recognize the illegal, attempted annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russia or the separation of any portion of Ukrainian territory through the use of military force.” Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy it. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. Participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Russia, have repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Gwen S. Moore (WI-04). Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (FL-12), Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), and Rep. Andy Harris, M.D. (MD-01) are also original cosponsors.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: January 2021

  • Ambassador Max Kampelman’s Contributions to the Helsinki Process

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow The Helsinki Commission’s flagship fellowship program recognizes former U.S. Ambassador Max Kampelman, who spent his life working toward comprehensive security at home and across the Atlantic. Over his career, which spanned more than half a century, Kampelman defended the principles of the Helsinki Final Act, strengthened the Helsinki process, and fought to reduce—and later eliminate—nuclear arms. One of his strongest legacies was his belief in bipartisanship, demonstrated by his service to both Democrats and Republicans and in his role as a U.S. ambassador. In the words of longtime Helsinki Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), “It was a privilege for me and so many of my colleagues to work with a great and good man, whose example reminded us every day: this is what leadership looks like.” Max Kampelman: The Ambassador Kampelman began his career as legislative counsel to Senator Hubert Humphrey before joining the private law practice of Fried Frank.  Although he practiced private law for the majority of his career, Kampelman continued to serve the United States when called on by presidents of both parties. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter asked Kampelman to represent the United States as the lead negotiator at the 1980 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) meeting in Madrid, which sought to bring eastern European countries into compliance with the Helsinki Final Act. The meeting was supposed to last two to three months. It lasted three years. Under President Ronald Reagan, Kampelman continued to lead these negotiations until an agreement was reached in 1983. In 1990, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, OSCE participating States gathered to unite their different definitions of European security. Kampelman led the U.S. delegation to this historic meeting and advocated for democratic elections and universal human rights.   “He played a pivotal role in securing agreement on the first international instrument to recognize the specific problem of anti-Semitism and the human rights problems faced by Roma,” said Sen. Cardin. “Moreover, at a moment when Europe stood at a crossroads, Max Kampelman negotiated standards on democracy and the rule of law that remain unmatched.” “The Copenhagen document has been called by a number of professors of international law the most important international human rights document since the Magna Carta, and it spells out what a democracy means. If anybody was to come and join this process, they would be joining what is apparent, a series of 'oughts;' and that’s our task. Once the 'oughts' are there, we have a leg up toward the 'is.'”  ​ Amb. Max Kampelman in a 2003 interview The Copenhagen document strengthened the Helsinki Process by including unprecedented provisions, such as the commitment to democracy as the only form of governance. It also emphasized the rights of national minorities and the right to freedom of association, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression. The CSCE eventually became today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest regional security organization. Max Kampelman: The Arms Advisor In addition to his work defending the Helsinki Final Act, Kampelman also negotiated arms control agreements and guided the United States through some of the most difficult periods of U.S.-Soviet relations. By the end of his career, Kampelman had engaged in more than 400 hours of face-to-face negotiations with the Soviets. He successfully protected the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a system designed under Reagan to protect against potential nuclear attacks, from Soviet efforts to stifle it. He led negotiation efforts on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), effectively reducing nuclear arms for the first time in history.   During the late phases of the Cold War, Kampelman helped arrange the release of political and religious dissidents from the Soviet Union. “We cannot wish it away. It is here and it is militarily powerful. We share the same globe. We must try to find a formula under which we can live together in dignity. We must engage in that pursuit of peace without illusion but with persistence, regardless of provocation." ​ Amb. Max Kampelman, ahead of 1985 arms negotiations Kampelman dedicated much of his later years to Global Zero, envisioning a world without nuclear weapons and encouraging statesmen Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz, to advocate for this goal. For his service to his country, Kampelman received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President George H.W. Bush in 1989 and the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from Bill Clinton in 1999. Max Kampelman’s Early Life Kampelman was born in New York in 1920 to parents who had immigrated from what was then part of Romania. He grew up in the Bronx and received a law degree from NYU in 1945. During World War II, he registered for alternate service as a conscientious objector. Kampelman enrolled in a strict food and work regimen known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment to help authorities understand how to treat prisoner of war and concentration camp survivors. During this time, he finished his doctorate in political science from the University of Minnesota, titled "The Communist Party and the CIO: A Study in Power Politics." He opposed Communism and opposed war, but his feelings regarding nonviolence changed over time with the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, later leading him to renounce his earlier pacifist beliefs. Kampelman said his prevailing desire for American foreign policy was to turn the 21st century into the century of democracy. He died on January 25, 2013, at age 92.

  • OSCE Ministerial Council Appoints Top Leaders, Adopts Several Key Decisions Amidst Constraints of COVID-19 and Conflict in Europe

    By Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE Foreign ministers of the 57 OSCE participating States convened on December 3 - 4, 2020, for the 27th OSCE Ministerial Council. For the first time, this annual gathering was convened in an entirely virtual format due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a turbulent year, which included managing not only the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic but also the global anti-racism protests initiated following the killing of George Floyd; ongoing protracted conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine; fraudulent elections and systemic human rights violations in Belarus; and a renewal of active conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, consensus was achieved on many, but not all, draft decisions. The United States delegation to the Ministerial Council was led by Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. The delegation and included Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State George P. Kent, Michael Murphy, and Bruce Turner; Acting Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker; U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James Gilmore; U.S Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex Johnson; and Helsinki Commission staff Robert Hand, Janice Helwig, Rebecca Neff, Erika Schlager, Shannon Simrell, Dr. Mischa Thompson, and Alex Tiersky. A Call to “Turn a Corner” from Crisis to Cooperation Leveraging the meeting’s virtual format, national statements were livestreamed, offering transparency of the proceedings. Albanian Prime Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Edi Rama opened the meeting by recalling the solidarity of the signatories of the Helsinki Final Act and Charter of Paris and requesting that ministers “turn a corner” and demonstrate the political will required to address the multiple and complex challenges faced by the organization and across the region. In his remarks, Deputy Secretary Biegun reaffirmed U.S. priorities for engagement at the OSCE, underscoring the commitment to European peace and security and highlighting key challenges facing the OSCE region including Russia’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and the destabilizing effect of its flagrant violations of the OSCE’s foundational principles.  He called upon Belarus to hold accountable those responsible for its human rights violations and electoral crisis, urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to engage with the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to attain a lasting end to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and warned States against using COVID-19 as a pretext to restrict civil society, independent media, or public access to information. Finally, he expressed concern about the increasing number of political prisoners and the rise in cases of anti-Semitism, anti-Roma racism, and other forms of hatred and hate crimes in the OSCE region since the onset of the pandemic.  Consensus Achieved on Organizational Leadership, Preventing Torture, Countering Corruption, and More Despite the challenges inherent in virtual negotiations, consensus was achieved on 11 texts spanning all three OSCE dimensions of comprehensive security and supporting the organization’s internal governance. Ministers agreed on the appointment of the OSCE’s top four leaders: Helga Schmid (Germany) as Secretary General, Maria Teresa Ribiero (Portugal) as Representative on Freedom of the Media, Matteo Mecacci (Italy) as Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and Kairat Abdrakhmanov (Kazakhstan) as High Commissioner on National Minorities.  The decisions broke a months-long impasse after Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and others blocked the reappointment of the previous executives, leaving the organization leaderless since July. Participating States also reached consensus on several decisions that added to OSCE’s body of commitments. One such decision concerned the prevention and eradication of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, building on existing OSCE commitments. A version of the text was originally proposed in 2014 by Switzerland during their 2014 Chairpersonship of the OSCE. The initiative reflected the country’s historic leadership in the area of international humanitarian law and profound concerns regarding torture in the context of counterterrorism efforts.  The proposal was reintroduced over successive Ministerial Councils before its adoption in 2020.  The widespread use of torture and other horrific abuse by Belarusian authorities, documented by the November 2020 report under the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, added urgency to this decision this year.  As adopted, the decision includes explicit references to enforced disappearances and to incommunicado detention. Participating States also adopted decisions on preventing and combating corruption; strengthening co-operation to counter transnational organized crime; deepening cooperation with OSCE’s Asian Partners;  supporting the Transdniestrian settlement process (also known in the OSCE as the “5+2” format, which brings together representatives of Moldova, Transdniestria, the OSCE, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States); and selecting North Macedonia to chair the organization in 2023. Unfinished Business Unfortunately, participating States did not reach consensus on several other important drafts, including one co-sponsored by the United States and Belarus based on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that would have set out new commitments for participating States to effectively combat human trafficking during times of emergency. Other proposals, including texts to modernize the Vienna Document (a wide-ranging confidence- and security-building measure that includes provisions requiring notification of significant military activities, as well as an exchange of information about armed forces, military organization, and major weapon and equipment systems), enhance public-private partnerships to counter terrorism, and counter trafficking in natural resources were scuttled by Russian, Azerbaijani, and Armenian intransigence.  Some drafts which did not reach consensus among all 57 states were turned into statements issued and signed by those countries that had supported their adoption. The United States signed onto nine such statements to support the concept of women, peace and security outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 1325; modernization of the politico-military framework of the Vienna Document; and a number of statements related to the OSCE’s role in addressing regional challenges like ending the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, improving human rights compliance by Belarus, countering Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia, and addressing challenges relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.   The Albanian Chairperson, together with the OSCE’s 2019 Slovak Chairperson, and the OSCE’s three incoming Chairpersons (the “Quint”) issued two joint statements, one expressing concern about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and another reaffirming the principles enshrined the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Side events highlight continuing challenges The Ministerial Council’s four side events highlighted priority areas for participating States and for the Parliamentary Assembly. Due to the virtual format, events on the Belarus Moscow Mechanism report, human rights violations in Crimea, combatting human trafficking during the COVID-19 crisis, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s call for renewed political will to address contemporary challenges, attracted hundreds of participants. Deputy Assistant Secretary Kent closed the Moscow Mechanism side event by promising to maintain a focus on the situation in Belarus, to support efforts to hold authorities accountable for torture and other human rights violations, and to ensure the voice of the Belarusian people is heard in determining their country’s future. At a side event organized by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly titled “A Call to Action: Reaffirming a Common Purpose,” Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) affirmed the strong bipartisan support in the United States for the OSCE, and recognized it as vital forum to promote security, defend human rights and encourage democratic development in all OSCE countries. He argued that greater political accountability rather than organizational reform would make the OSCE more relevant and effective in the years ahead. “It remains the responsibility of the participating States to hold each other to account. In the face of repression at home or aggression abroad, the OSCE will succeed as a multilateral forum as long as those who are true believers stand united in defending the ten Helsinki principles and forthrightly raise violations in this forum.” ​ Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Member, U.S. Helsinki Commission, OSCE MC 2020 Side Event on “A Call to Action” Due to challenges related to convening during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NGO network Civic Solidarity Platform did not organize its annual Civil Society Conference, which had been held in conjunction with each OSCE Ministerial Council since its first convening during the 2010 OSCE Summit in Astana. Instead, the network organized a series of webinars in December to maintain focus on key issues of concern. 2021: OSCE’s Swedish Chairpersonship “Back to Basics” Looking ahead to its 2021 Chairpersonship, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said that Sweden will work to get “back to basics:” defending the European security order, contributing to resolving conflicts, and upholding the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security with a special focus on human rights, democracy, and gender equality.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: December 2020

  • Retrospective on the 116th Congress

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow “For more than four decades, the Helsinki Commission has championed human rights and democracy across North America, Europe, and Central Asia. While we have worked to keep these concerns on the U.S. agenda, much remains to be accomplished.” ​ Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission In the OSCE region, 2019 and 2020 were marked by unprecedented challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, calls for racial justice, systematic human rights issues, and ongoing regional conflicts amidst U.S. presidential, Congressional, and regional and local elections. Through these crises, U.S. Helsinki Commission leadership worked tirelessly to ensure that human rights and comprehensive security continued to be promoted through the United States’ foreign and domestic policy agendas. 2020 also marked the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris, which set unprecedented commitments to human rights, providing an opportunity for OSCE participating States to reflect and bolster human rights commitments during such a crucial time. Through hearings and briefings, legislative activities, public statements and reports, and engagement with other foreign policy actors, the Helsinki Commission has focused on human rights and security challenges both in the United States and abroad to advance the commission’s priorities in the 116th Congress: principled foreign policy; human rights at home; parliamentary diplomacy; and safe, inclusive, and equitable societies. Additional policy focuses include regional security, election observation, OSCE engagement, and anti-corruption work. View a comprehensive list of activities in the Helsinki Commission's report on the 116th Congress.  Principled Foreign Policy From respect for sovereignty and the territorial integrity of states to human rights and fundamental freedoms, commitments undertaken by OSCE participating States underpin peace and stability in the OSCE region and form the basis of comprehensive security for all people. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and democratic development are central to a principled U.S. foreign policy. During the 116th Congress, Belarus, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine/Crimea, and the Balkans attracted particular attention, given the ongoing human rights and regional conflict issues in those countries. Belarus Following over two decades of authoritarian rule supported by the Kremlin, a political crisis erupted in Belarus in the summer of 2020. After August 9 elections, the Alexander Lukashenko regime claimed victory, and the country saw an unrelenting crackdown by Belarusian authorities on peaceful protests, civil society, and the media. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994. Unprecedented crowds continue to protest the election. Ahead of the election, Lukashenko eliminated his main political competition through disqualification or imprisonment. Numerous protestors, supporters of opposition candidates, and journalists were arrested as last-minute candidate Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya drew unprecedented crowds to her rallies. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) called on President Lukashenko “to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” After the elections and in reaction to the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime, Chairman Hastings wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin requesting that the U.S. administration revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus. “The United States stands with the people of Belarus, who have a right to make free choices about their country’s future and to protest peacefully.” ​ Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission After the invocation by 17 OSCE participating States of the Moscow Mechanism to report on human rights concerns in Belarus and subsequent investigation, Professor Wolfgang Benedek—the selected rapporteur—joined the Helsinki Commission for a podcast to discuss his findings, including evidence of fraudulent elections, systematic human rights violations, and a general situation of impunity for perpetrators. Regional Security and Stability In May 2020, following reports that the Trump administration planned to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Chairman Hastings urged Congress to support the United States’ allies and partners in Europe, as “withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors.” Chairman Hastings also authored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2021 Fiscal Year to reflect support for the Open Skies Treaty and stated his regret in November when the U.S. withdrew from the treaty. The Helsinki Commission held a joint hearing in November 2019 with the House Foreign Affairs Committee concerning the importance of the Open Skies Treaty for security and stability in Europe and released a podcast on the treaty’s benefits, the complexity of execution, and current challenges in implementation. In July 2019, for the first time in its 43-year history the Helsinki Commission convened outside of the United States for a field hearing to underscore America’s commitment to Baltic Sea regional security and emphasize its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies. The commission also held a briefing to discuss the potential use of energy, specifically oil and gas projects, to achieve foreign policy goals, as well as the extent to which energy independence can reduce the ability of hostile actors to destabilize the European region by threatening to cut off access to energy supplies. Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine/Crimea, and the Balkans In April 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act to address arbitrary arrests which contribute to Turkey’s deteriorating respect for human rights under President Erdogan. In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing on recent developments in Hungary concerning a steady erosion of freedom, the rule of law, and quality of governance. Later that year, the commission reported on an amendment to the Hungarian religion law, which continues to discriminate against people on the basis of their faith. In late 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker successfully pressed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to stop the blockage of the European Union version of the Magnitsky Act. The U.S. Magnitsky Act allows the use of sanctions as a tool to target alleged human rights abusers and corruption, and its European counterpart would do the same. In May 2020, Co-Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Cardin urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to work with the European Union’s High Representative to advance EU Magnitsky Sanctions.  Following a mob attack in October 2019 on a Jewish community center providing office space to civil society groups in Budapest, Chairman Hastings and Ranking Member Cardin called the Hungarian government to take action during this “alarming escalation of violence toward minorities and civil society groups.” In 2020, the commission released a report detailing the escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions against civil society as Orban continues to consolidate power in Hungary. In December 2019, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver II (MO-05) introduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act in the House of Representatives, and Co-Chairman Wicker introduced the act, cosponsored by Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), to the Senate. The act, which would combat Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine, unanimously passed in the House of Representatives in November 2020 and awaits Senate action. In July 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing about reunifying societies divided by war, genocide, and other tragedies in areas such as the Balkans, as well as promoting reconciliation and healing for Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution who continue to seek justice worldwide. Twenty years after two U.S. citizens were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir joins the Helsinki Commission to share his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Election Observation In 1990, all OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite international observers. 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). These election observation missions have been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and have become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to provide feedback on the election processes to the benefit of candidates and voters alike. Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990, and in 2020 alone, the OSCE has been invited to observe elections in nearly 20 OSCE participating States, including the United States. In 2019, the commission held a briefing focused on the benefits and challenges of international election observation, best practices, and emerging issues such as voting technology and security. In addition, the use of disinformation to influence elections has become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States. Ahead of the 2020 general elections, the commission held a briefing on the intersections and influences of disinformation and COVID-19 on the electoral process. Election observation is an important way to help monitor these effects on the workings of democracy. A limited election observation mission was deployed by the OSCE to observe the 2020 general election in the United States. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the OSCE team was confident it produced a thorough, impartial, fact-based assessment that concluded the elections were free and fair, as well as “competitive and well managed despite legal uncertainties and logistical challenges” posed by the pandemic and the polarized political climate. OSCE Institutions and Policy During the past two years, the Helsinki Commission hosted hearings featuring both the Albanian and Slovakian OSCE Chairs in Office, as well as the OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir, to discuss OSCE institutional priorities such as human rights violations, conflict resolution, and the safety of journalists. In January 2020, the Helsinki Commission welcomed OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, in her first appearance before Congress, to address challenges in the OSCE region related to human rights and democracy.  In December 2020, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing, “U.S. Priorities for Engagement at the OSCE,” where Ambassador Philip T. Reeker U.S. State Department Senior Bureau Official, who has been serving in the role of Acting Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia since March 2018, emphasized that the United States is focused on upholding Helsinki Final Act commitments and pushing all participating States to live up to their own commitments to these principles. Human Rights at Home Like all other OSCE participating States, the United States must also examine how well—or how poorly—it is living up to its own OSCE commitments. In the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission took a hard look at human rights at home. “If the United States wants to remain a credible voice in the promotion of human rights abroad, we must fiercely protect them at home.” Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission In summer 2020 the Helsinki Commission launched a series of hearings focused on restorative justice related to public monuments and memorials, the safety of journalists, and implications of domestic human rights issues for U.S. leadership. The commission also convened political and civil rights leaders to discuss the impact of George Floyd’s tragic death on the need to shape policies that confront and prevent racism and racist acts. The Helsinki Commission dealt at further length with the safety of journalists and freedom of the media in the United States. In the aftermath of attacks on journalists covering protests calling for racial justice, Chairman Rep. Hastings expressed the need to take an “honest and critical look at America’s own record in recent weeks on protecting journalists and safeguarding press freedom.” The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) supports networks that reach more than 350 million people across the world, many of whom otherwise would not have access to independent, unbiased news. When USAGM failed to renew J-1 visas for foreign Voice of America (VOA) journalists, Chairman Rep. Hastings, Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, and Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) demanded that U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Michael Pack provide a detailed explanation and called for new policies to protect the personal security of VOA journalists working under the USAGM. Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Civil rights are human rights, and advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. Anti-racism initiatives have always been a priority for the commission, but they found particular focus in 2020 in conjunction with the exposure of systemic racism in police brutality and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on minority populations.  Commissioners looked inward to the United States’ own domestic policies, as well as outward to other OSCE countries, to develop ideas and policies that promote principles of social inclusion, empowering diverse populations and enhancing the ability for everyone to fully participate in society. Over the past decade, Chairman Hastings has drawn attention to the racism and discrimination faced by black Europeans, recognizing their fight for inclusion. In March 2019, he introduced legislation establishing a strategy to protect the collective history and achievements of people of African descent and to promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide, and a year later, he introduced a bill to implement a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan. “Across the globe we find racial disparities between those of African descent and other populations in education, employment, health, housing, justice, and other sectors. At the same time, hate crimes and racial profiling targeting black populations are increasing,” said Chairman Hastings. “A global strategy ensures we are monitoring whether countries around the world are providing equal protections and opportunity to all within their borders.” Chairman Hastings also collaborated with other Helsinki Commissioners to address racism globally. In July 2020, Chairman Hastings, along with Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Cleaver, Rep. Veasey, and 35 other Members of the United States Congress, including the Congressional Black Caucus Chair, called for a sweeping plan of action following the European Parliament’s Juneteenth Day resolution supporting protests against racism and police brutality. Chairman Hastings and Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (NY-05) also issued a statement regarding foreign affairs funding for diverse, global anti-racism programs, commemorating John Lewis’ yearly leadership in securing these appropriations requests. In September, Chairman Hastings and other Helsinki Commissioners joined members of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee and Subcommittee on Human Rights to discuss combating racism and systemic discrimination on both sides of the Atlantic. In October, Ranking Member Cardin joined the office of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities for an online event that evaluated the applicability of the 2006 Recommendations on Policing in Multi-Ethnic Societies, highlighted relevant legislation, and discussed structural changes to address discriminatory police violence. Ahead of International Roma Day in 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted a discussion about racism against Roma, the largest ethnic minority in Europe who have historically faced enslavement and continue to battle discrimination. The conversation focused on the state of Roma rights in Europe, as well as resolutions introduced by Helsinki Commission leaders to celebrate Romani American heritage. Reports from nearly every corner of the OSCE region suggest that minority groups have been impacted especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and an extended episode of "Helsinki on the Hill" takes an in-depth look at the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable populations, such as the Roma, and the role of governments in addressing that impact. In December 2019, the Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance. The commission also released a podcast discussing how to achieve equitable and inclusive democracies  through political inclusion and economic empowerment. Guests discussed their experiences on the front lines of the fight for greater diversity and inclusion in Europe, and in the transatlantic policymaking space more broadly.  Members of the Helsinki Commission have long supported diversity and inclusion efforts in international affairs including through the annual Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) workshop, a hearing about the state of diversity and inclusion in Europe, and a new transatlantic democracy program for youth “On the Road to Inclusion.” In March 2020, Chairman Hastings introduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act, calling for the creation of a transatlantic institute focused on strengthening democratic principles and values in the West, as well as pioneering inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges that would empowering individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. The commission also supports diversity in the diplomatic corps. Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Wicker, and Ranking Member Cardin joined bipartisan Congressional efforts to support annual funding for State Department and USAID diversity fellowship programs, as well as study abroad opportunities. Parliamentary Diplomacy Parliamentary diplomacy advances comprehensive security and democratic institutions in the OSCE region and acts as a tool to promote safe, inclusive and equitable societies. Commissioners have championed the development of parliamentary assemblies for regional organizations throughout the world and participate regularly in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), which offers opportunities for engagement among parliamentarians from OSCE participating States. The Helsinki Commission organizes bicameral U.S. delegations to OSCE PA meetings throughout the year. With 17 of 323 seats, the United States has the largest representation in the assembly. In the 116th Congress, commissioners explored ways to defend human rights, hold the Kremlin accountable, and maximize cooperation with OSCE Mediterranean partners at OSCE PA meetings. Commissioners visited Hungary, Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco in bipartisan delegations aiming to strengthen shared principles, and Commissioners reported on these visits at OSCE PA meetings as well. Co-Chairman Wicker led the largest bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation in history to the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE PA in July 2019 in Luxembourg. At this annual session, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Cardin, who also serves as OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, hosted a U.S. side event in his capacity as Special Representative on the topic of adopting an action plan to counter hate and foster inclusion. Following a two-day seminar organized by Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA in February 2020, Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region: A Seminar for Young Parliamentarians, nearly 20 young legislators from OSCE participating States issued a joint declaration emphasizing the important role young people must play in addressing human rights and security challenges across the world. The commission hosted OSCE PA officials for a briefing in December of 2019 to share a parliamentary perspective on the priorities and objectives of the Albanian chairmanship of the OSCE amid regional conflicts and resistance to democratic reforms in some countries in the OSCE region. The commission also regularly hosts hearings, convenes panels, and participates in events related to parliamentary diplomacy, highlighting the important role the OSCE PA and other parliamentary assemblies play in holding governments accountable to standards of cooperation and human rights. Corruption During the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission promoted efforts to combat corruption in the OSCE region, recognizing it as a threat to democracy, security, and human rights. The commission’s work focuses on authoritarian kleptocracy, a form of autocratic government that relies on financial globalization and secrecy to steal and maintain power. Members of the Helsinki Commission introduced the Rodchenkov Act, the Kleptocrat Exposure Act, the Combating the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products Act (CITTPA), the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act, the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act, and the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act. The Rodchenkov Act passed through both chambers of Congress and was signed into law by President Trump on December 4, 2020. The act establishes criminal penalties for doping schemes, provides restitution for victims, protects whistleblowers from retaliation, and shares information with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Passage of the bipartisan legislation was spearheaded by Co-Chairman Wicker and Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) in the Senate and former Commissioners Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Michael Burgess (TX-26) in the House of Representatives. “This legislation is a great bipartisan accomplishment for the rights of athletes, the protection of whistleblowers, and our common goal of keeping criminals out of international sports,” said Co-Chairman Wicker.  The commission also organized briefings to draw attention to issues like money laundering and official corruption, as well as to share best practices on innovative corruption policies.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker on Secretary of State’s New Designations under International Religious Freedom Act

    WASHINGTON—Following U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s December 7 designations for Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) and the Special Watch List for the worst religious freedom violations, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Secretary Pompeo rightfully redesignated Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern. These governments continue to arrest, detain, and torture people for their faith, despite repeated CPC redesignations. It is time for the president to take actions required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which include sanctions against foreign government officials who have committed or are responsible for severe and egregious religious freedom violations. “Russia’s continued presence on the Special Watch List underscores the need for the Senate to pass the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act. The Kremlin brutally persecutes religious communities in the parts of Ukraine it illegally occupies or otherwise controls by force. This legislation would ensure the president has the authority necessary to hold Russian government officials accountable for their brutality in Ukraine. “Under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan commendably has released religious prisoners, registered more religious organizations, and maintained the ban on police raids against religious communities. However, it is essential that reforms continue. Uzbekistan should work with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Council of Europe’s Venice Commission on its draft religion law to ensure that the final version complies with Uzbekistan’s OSCE commitments and international obligations.” As participating States of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan have repeatedly made commitments to recognize, respect, and protect religious freedom. Even though Turkmenistan has been a CPC since 2014 and Tajikistan since 2016, presidents have always waived taking the presidential actions against them required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Russia has been on the Special Watch List since 2018. In November 2020, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 5408) introduced by Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05). The Senate companion (S. 3064), introduced by Sen. Wicker and cosponsored by Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), also awaits Senate action. Under binding international humanitarian law, like the Geneva Conventions, the Russian Government is responsible for religious freedom violations in Ukrainian territory it occupies or controls through armed groups it commands. The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would authorize the president to consider Russia’s worst religious freedom violations in Ukrainian territory—not just violations in Russia—when determining whether to designate Russia as a CPC. Uzbekistan was a CPC from 2006 to 2017 and on the Special Watch List from 2018 to 2019. Sen. Wicker has repeatedly urged Uzbekistan to request a review of its draft religion law by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institution for Human Rights. Sen. Wicker made the requests in a 2018 letter to Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, during a 2018 Helsinki Commission hearing, and in a 2019 public statement. A recent joint review by ODIHR and the Venice Commission review concluded that although “the Draft Law brings some improvements compared to the existing legislation…the Draft Law also maintains major restrictions and suffers from deficiencies that are incompatible with international human rights standards.” The review included recommendations to make the law compliant.

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