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Podcast: Equitable and Inclusive Democracies

How can the United States and Europe achieve a long-term vision of stable, and sustainable, and inclusive democracies?  Political inclusion and economic empowerment in the face of discrimination and intolerance are imperative. Samira Rafaela, the first woman of Afro-Caribbean descent to win a seat in the European Parliament, European activist Alfiaz Vaiya, and Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex T. Johnson discuss their experiences on the front lines of the fight for greater diversity and inclusion in Europe, and in the transatlantic policymaking space more broadly. 


"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 5 | Equitable and Inclusive Democracies

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  • Status of the Russian Religious Law

    Congressman Chris Smith and other lawmakers criticized the Russian Federation law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations signed by Boris Yeltsin for the threats it posed to religious liberty for minority religious faith. The scope of the law, including the terms of its formal implementations regulations and its actual implementation on the ground were topics of discussions. Those who testified at the briefing provided their insights on this law, its status at the time, and their perspective of developments in Russia in light of the law. Dr. James Billington, a distinguished author and Russian scholar, spoke to the decline in the standard of living and social services that the Russian people had suffered in the post-Soviet era. Another witness, Dr. Anatoly Pchelintsev, Director of the Christian Legal Center of the Institute on Religion and Law in Moscow, attributed the existence of the law to the tide of nationalist and Communist movements that were on the rise in Russia.

  • Status of Religious Liberty for Minority Faiths in Europe and the OSCE

    The purpose of this hearing, which the Hon. Christopher H. Smith chaired, was to discuss the reality of disturbing undercurrents of subtle, but growing, discrimination and harassment of minority religious believers, as opposed to discussing the widespread documentation of torture and persecution of practitioners of minority faiths. In a number of European countries, government authorities had seemed to work on restricting the freedoms of conscience and speech in much of their governments’ actions. For example, in Russia, on September 26, 1997, President Boris Yeltsin signed the law called “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations,” which blatantly violated agreements of the OSCE which the former U.S.S.R. helped to initiate. Through use of witnesses, then, attendees of this hearing, namely commissioners, gained a deeper understanding of the religious liberty violations within OSCE member countries and insight into how to best influence governments to adhere more closely to internationally accepted human rights standards.

  • The Meaning of Yeltsin's Veto of Russia's Law on Religion

    This briefing provided an analysis of the events surrounding President Yeltsin's veto of the proposed law on religious organizations in Russia which would have effectively banned the activities of certain religious minority groups including Protestants and Catholics. The bill passed emphatically in both houses of the Russian Parliament, mounting great domestic pressure on the President to approve it. Larry Uzzell of the Keston Institute credits the blocking of the bill to international pressure from both the US and the EU, which were vocal in their opposition. Congress sent several letters to Mr. Yeltsin, including one which was signed by 160 senators and members of the House of Representatives. The discussion in the question and answer period centered around more concrete measures taken by the US Congress to persuade Yeltsin to veto the bill, including economic incentives tied to foreign aid and trade.

  • Russia’s Religion Law

    This briefing addressed Congressional concerns about a draft law regarding religion that was making its way through the Duma. Given that this draft was vetoed by President Yeltsin, the Commission took special care to highlight this act standing for religious freedom and the efforts that were made to respect and adhere to the Russia’s international commitments. Larry Uzzell of the Keston Institute provided an analysis of the events surround President Yeltsin’s recent veto of the proposed law on religious organizations in Russia. The roles of domestic and international influences in this resulting veto were each evaluated. Trends of religious freedom in Russia were also examined in the context of how much progress the defeat of this law would actually make.

  • The Current Situation in Croatia

    This briefing addressed the political situation in Croatia in the context of impending elections for offices at the municipal and county levels, as well as for seats in the Chamber of Counties of the Croatian Sabor, that would be an important step in the process of reintegrating Easter Slavonia. Some issues that had been noted during past election monitoring operations, such as problems with the development of the independent media, a lack of transparency in the electoral system, and a tendency for decisions to favor the ruling party, were discussed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Jonas Rolett of the National Democratic Institute; Vesna Pusic, a professor for the University of Zagreb; Milbert Shin of Human Rights Watch; and Nenad Porges, Deputy Chief of Mission for the Croatian Embassy – evaluated the opportunity for improvement in the elections, and the role that nongovernmental organizations like NDI and Human Rights Watch would play in this process. Several tactics for improving the electoral process in Croatia, including strengthening political parties and providing neutral, accessible information, were topics of discussion.

  • Religious Freedom in Russia

    Helsinki Commission Staff Advisor John Finerty presented the question of the quality and depth of religious freedom in Russia currently, and allowed for an evaluation of the progress, or lack thereof, of religious liberty following the fall of the Soviet Union. Larry Uzzell, the Moscow representative of the Keston Institute of England, one of the oldest organizations specializing in religious life and religious freedom in Communist and former Communist countries, was asked to address the issue of religious freedom in Russia and had several key points to say on the matter. In his testimony, Mr. Uzzell emphasizes discrimination in the practice of registration in giving provincial governments the power to regulate all aspects of religious life, which is detrimental to religious liberty, and asserts that the prospects of religious freedom in Russia have suffered a setback in recent years.

  • U.S. Statements on the Human Dimension, 1996 OSCE Vienna Review Conference and Lisbon Summit

    This compendium of statements illustrates the U.S. perspective that one of the key and distinguishing features of the OSCE is the interlocking framework of critical, politically binding commitments which provide a common set of principles to which all participating States can aspire. The OSCE draws its real strength and practical flexibility from participating states' commitments to the values of the original Helsinki Act, rather than from a legalized, treaty-based institutional structure. A fundamental strength of the OSCE is the review process, which provides a regular opportunity to assess a participating states' efforts to further the realization of the Helsinki Accords within its own borders, and in its relations with other OSCE states. The OSCE is increasingly a pillar of European security. By facilitating honest implementation review the OSCE can strengthen security links based on common values.

  • Serbia and Montenegro: The Prospects for Change

    A staff delegation of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) traveled to Serbia and Montenegro for one week in April 1996 to assess the situation in these republics in light of changes in the region resulting from the implementation of the Dayton Agreement and the end of the conflict in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition to meetings in the Federal and Serbian capital, Belgrade, and the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, the delegation traveled to Vojvodina, Kosovo and the Sandzak, where large non-Serb/Montenegrin populations reside. A seminar on refugees in the former Yugoslavia, held in Kotor, Montenegro, was also attended. The delegation met with federal, republic and regional officials, as well as representatives of independent media, opposition political parties, and human rights or humanitarian groups in each location. Upon the conclusion of their visit, the staff reported the delegation's findings and recommendations to the countries belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and gave a public briefing immediately upon its return to Washington. Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, has been viewed as largely responsible for the conflict associated with former Yugoslavia's demise, especially in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and for un- democratic and ethnically intolerant conditions within Serbia itself. Montenegro, having some cultural af- finities with Serbia but also a desire for distinctness, is viewed as Serbia's reluctant accomplice, especially when the two proclaimed a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. The new, or "rump," Yugoslavia has largely been isolated by the international community as far as bilateral relations and multilateral activity. After almost four years of conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, the signing of the Dayton Agreement in December 1995 changed the regional environment in southcentral Europe significantly. Not only did the Agreement propose a settlement for Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is now being implemented, but it also created a more positive regional environment in which other problems plaguing the region might be resolved. Dayton could not have been achieved without the international community again working with the Serbian regime.

  • Property Restitution, Compensation and Preservation: Competing Claims in Post-Communist Europe

    This hearing, which Rep. Christopher H. Smith (NJ – 04) presided over, focused on how to rectify transgressions against individuals by former totalitarian regimes, which Smith called one of the most challenging issues confronting post-Communist societies in the OSCE region. This specifically related to the wrongful confiscation of property. Even though some Communist regimes were required by the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty to make restitution of Jewish property, these governments duly ignored such directives. In fact, Communist regimes were infamous for their complete disregard for private property, nationalizing factories, etc. Likewise, more recently, efforts to return property to former owners had been uneven and oftentimes unsuccessful, stymied by complex moral and legal obligations.

  • Turkish Minority in Western Thrace

    This briefing presented an overview of the problems and the situation of the Turkish minority in Thrace, which had suffered from human rights abuses, including the deprivation of citizenship, denials of the right to buy land or houses, restriction of freedom of expression, movement, and religion, and the degrading treatment of ethnic Turks by Greek government officials. In spite of some reforms taken to improve this situation, many issues still remain, involving education, the expropriation of land, and religious discrimination. Witnesses providing testimony at this hearing – including Tozun Bahcheli, Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace; Van Coufoudakis, Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at Indiana University/Purdue; and Western Thrace residents Adem Bekiroglu and Irene Laganis – discussed the limitations established by the Greek government’s failure to acknowledge without restriction the existence of the Turkish minority. Issues such as arbitrary deprivation of citizenship, the election of muftis, job discrimination, and discrimination in providing public services were identified as obstacles faced by the Turkish minority.  

  • THE CHECHEN CONFLICT AND RUSSIAN DEMOCRATIC DEVELOPMENT

    The hearing addressed the OSCE-brokered military agreement in July 1995 between Russian and Chechen representatives to end ethnic conflict among Chechens, Russians, Ingush, and other ethnic groups caught up in the terror of war. The Commissioners discussed the disappearance of people, including a prominent American humanitarian aid worker and an American freelance journalist.  The witnesses gave testimony on the visible breakdown in law and order which has forced humanitarian organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders, to withdraw to a safer location.

  • Religious Liberty: The State Church and Minority Faiths

    Samuel G. Wise, Director for International Policy at the US Helsinki Commission, presented the second briefing in a series focusing on religious liberty in the participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This particular discussion was intended to evaluate the relationship between state churches or traditional religious and freedom of religion for minority faiths in the OSCE region through an analysis of the effects of certain historical legacies on individual states. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Father Kishkovsky, Ecumenical Officer of the Orthodox Church in America; Father George Papaioannou, Pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church; Gerard Powers, Foreign Policy Advisor for the U.S. Catholic Conference; Lauren Homer, Founder of Law and Liberty Trust; and Lee Boothby, Vice President of the Council on Religious Freedom – focused on the issue of minority and majority in society as it relates to religion and the potential for this issue to result in conflict. The historical origins of these tensions, especially in Eastern Europe, were particularly emphasized. 

  • Religious Liberty in the OSCE: Present and Future

    Speaking on behalf of Congressman Christopher H. Smith and Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, chairman and co-chairman of the Helsinki Committee, the Committee’s Director for International Policy, Samuel G. Wise, addressed the improvements made by the countries of the OSCE in religious liberty since the demise of communism. Observed deficits in this particular subject were also evaluated, including acts of OSCE governments perpetrating religious intolerance and discrimination against people of faith by passing laws favoring certain religions, turning a blind eye to harassment, and establishing bureaucratic roadblocks to prevent religious minorities from practicing their faith. Each panelist – including Dr. Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow of Political Theory for the Institute for Christian Studies; Dr. Khalid Duran, Senior Fellow for the Institute for International Studies; and Micah Naftalin, National Director for the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews – spoke to the overall factors affecting religious freedom in the OSCE, including: respect for other freedoms such as freedom of speech and religion, ethno-cultural tensions, and the relevance of old prejudices. These ideas were presented in the context of moving towards a more comprehensive respect for religious freedom among OSCE member states in the future.

  • Banja Luka-Ethnic Cleansing Paradigm

    Samuel Wise, international policy director of the Commission, addressed the political setting in Bosnia before elections in 1995 and the possibility of having a free and fair environment, especially in regards to human rights like freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. The briefing focused on Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia-Herzegovina that is located in the northwest. Since the beginning of the Bosnian conflict, the city was firmly in the hands of the Bosnian Serb rebels until the Dayton Accords placed the city in the Republika Srpska, the newly created Serbian republic. The city and the region surrounding it had a significant non-Serb population (Bosniacs or Muslim Slavs, Croats, Ukrainians, and ethnically mixed Yugoslavs), which was ethnically cleansed on behalf of the Serbian government. While some instances of ethnic cleansing there took the form of subtle measures, the most notorious concentration camps, including Omarska, were in the Banja Luka region. The witnesses – Catholic Bishop of Banja Luka  Franjo Komarica,  Obrad Kesic from the International Research and Exchanges Board, and Diane Paul, a nurse from Baltimore – discussed the city as a scene of apparent differences among Serb political activists with highly divergent points of view. They emphasized that Bosnia’s future hinged on whether moderates or radicals won in the elections in that region.

  • Human Rights in Turkey

    Sam Wise, director for international policy at the Commission, led a discussion on the human rights situation in Turkey in 1995, specifically regarding Turkey’s Kurdish minority and the human rights implications of terrorism.  Wise highlighted the human costs of both terrorism itself and efforts to combat it, which has mainly affected civilians. Panelists Akin Birdal and Yavuz Onen spoke of the assassinations and disappearances of prominent human rights activists, journalists and others that unfortunately became routine by 1995. Those who publicize human rights violations in Turkey faced official harassment or jail for their efforts.

  • The United Nations, NATO and the Former Yugoslavia

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

  • The Crisis of Chechnya

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

  • Status of Media Freedom in Democracies

    This briefing detailed the progress of media freedom in newly democratic states, especially within Eastern Europe. The role of the media in the democratization process and methods for promoting freedom of the media were examined as well. Witnesses testifying at the hearing – including David Webster, Chairman of the  Trans-Atlantic Dialogue on European Broadcasting and Sandra Pralong, President of Democracy Works – detailed several major values that a free media promotes in the democratic process, including peaceful social change, education of the democratic electorate, dissenting opinions about the government and society in general, and transparency of political corruption.

  • Banned Turkish Parliamentarians Discuss State of Democracy in Turkey

    The briefing addressed the limitations of free speech in Turkey, which fell victim to the government’s war against the Kurdish minority. The Commission brought to attention the arrests and detention of Democracy Party parliamentarians and others who spoke out in support of rights for Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, which brought the Turkish government’s commitment to free speech and other basic human rights into question. On June 16th, the Democratic Part was banned by the Turkish Constitutional Court. Remzi Kartal, a member of Turkish Parliament, was among those who were forced to flee the country as a result. He was joined by Ali Yigit, a member of the Turkish Parliament who was also stripped of his status. At the briefing, Kartal and Yigit jointly addressed the political and economic problems in Turkey, centered on the 20 million Turkish Kurds who do not have a voice in Turkey’s government.

  • Human Rights and Democratization in Romania

    Romania's ongoing journey toward democracy is generally viewed, even by the government of Romania, as slower and more circuitous than that of its neighbors. Romania has certainly had farther to go; Nicolae Ceausescu's regime was the most repressive and demoralizing of the Warsaw Pact countries. Yet Romania's gloomy distinctiveness carried into the post-Ceausescu era. The Romanian revolution of December 1989 was the bloodiest of the region. The early months of 1990 were marked by confusion and tension, including violent inter-ethnic clashes. The first free elections of May 1990 were tainted by serious irregularities in the campaign period; one month later, thousands of pro-government miners rampaged through Bucharest, bludgeoning anti-communist demonstrators and ransacking opposition party headquarters. This report examines the developments in the areas of human rights and democracy in post-Ceausescu Romania.

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