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Podcast: Seeking Justice in Serbia

Twenty years after U.S. citizens Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir documents his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Ilir is joined by family lawyer Praveen Madhiraju and Helsinki Commission senior policy advisor Robert Hand.


"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 2: Seeking Justice in Serbia | Helsinki on the Hill

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  • Congress Wants to Boot Russia From U.N. Security Council

    Two U.S. lawmakers heading up an independent U.S. government human rights watchdog have introduced a resolution that calls on President Joe Biden to boot Russia from the United Nations Security Council, just days before the Kremlin’s flagging full-scale invasion of Ukraine is set to hit its 10-month mark.  The bipartisan Helsinki Commission, which called on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to protest Russia’s standing as a permanent Security Council member in October, wants Congress to argue that Russia’s war has violated the “purposes and principles of the United Nations” and asks U.S. government agencies to take steps to limit Russia’s privileges at the U.N., though it gives the administration some free rein to determine how it might act.   In the congressional resolution shared with Foreign Policy, Reps. Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson said that Russia had committed “flagrant violations” of the U.N. Charter that call into question its right to hold a Security Council seat, including the illegal annexation vote in four Ukrainian oblasts, the perpetration of atrocities in Ukrainian cities such as Bucha, nuclear saber-rattling, and creating risks to the world’s food supply.  Ukraine has also advocated for Russia to be removed from the council, though experts remain skeptical that such efforts will work. The U.N.’s governing charter doesn’t contain any provisions for removing a permanent member of the Security Council. While countries can be removed from the United Nations altogether, doing so would require a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly, including the consent of the council itself. “Russia would have to agree to it, and it’s just not going to happen,” said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director with Human Rights Watch. China is also unlikely to agree to such a precedent.  Though House resolutions are not binding law, the move solidifies thinking both on Capitol Hill and within the Biden administration about how to curb Russian influence in Turtle Bay. The resolution pushes forward a previous effort from the Helsinki Commission—which was created in 1975 as part of a U.S. law that solidified the brief detente between the United States and the Soviet Union—calling on the State Department to initiate a process to strip Russia’s seat on the top U.N. body. One idea, backed by the commission as well as some legal scholars, seeks to challenge Russia’s status as the heir of the Soviet Union’s seat at the Security Council. As one of the initial signatories of the treaty that founded the Soviet Union, alongside Russia and Belarus, Kyiv could make a convincing claim to be the only successor state of the Soviet Union not to have flagrantly violated the principles of the U.N. Charter and issue credentials for one of its own diplomats to take the seat. As deciding on credentials is a procedural matter, it would only require nine of the 15 members of the council to vote in support of Ukraine, Thomas Grant, a senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge, has noted.  The feasibility of such a plan remains a subject of debate. And three decades after Russia took over the Soviet Union’s seat, challenging such precedent could also prove to be an uphill battle. “You’re looking at three decades of recognition of Russia in this place,” Charbonneau said.  But Russia’s long-standing intransigence, along with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has gotten both the United States and Ukraine to begin thinking about alternatives to diminish Moscow’s influence. Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in September, Biden called for reforms of the Security Council, including the possibility of adding more permanent and nonpermanent members, such as for countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The United States also succeeded on Wednesday in ousting Iran from a United Nations panel on women’s rights.

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Hearing on Crowdsourcing Victory for Ukraine

      WATCH LIVE                                                                                                                                  CROWDSOURCING VICTORY Inside the Civil Society Campaign to Improve the Lethality and Survivability of the Ukrainian Military   Wednesday, December 7, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 A unique aspect of Ukraine’s decentralized defense has been the rise of civil society organizations marshalling grassroots support for the Ukrainian war effort and humanitarian response. Unlike the USO or care packages Americans send our overseas troops, NGOs are effectively serving as the quartermaster for Ukraine’s troops, supplying tactical gear such as commercial drones, night and thermal vision optics, encrypted radios, and body armor. In many cases, these organizations have supplied this war-winning gear in greater volumes than Ukraine’s government itself, freeing agencies like the Ministry of Defense to focus on securing advanced weapons systems from Western suppliers. These civil society organizations exemplify the total mobilization of Ukrainian society at levels that have only been seen in the West during the Second World War. The hearing will examine logistical and regulatory challenges that often stymie efforts to surge needed gear to the front and will identify policy options for Washington and Brussels to declutter and harmonize an export framework that was never intended for a massive land war in Europe. It will also seek to answer the question of why frontline units with advanced Western weaponry still lack battlefield essentials such as combat optics, secure communications, and vehicles needed to transport casualties from the red zone to hospitals in the rear. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Dora Chomiak, President of U.S.-based NGO Razom for Ukraine Taras Chmut, Director of the Ukraine-based foundation Come Back Alive Serhiy Prytula, Founder and Chairman of the Ukraine-based Prytula Charity Foundation   Jonas Öhman, Founder and Head of the Lithuania-based NGO Blue/Yellow for Ukraine    

  • Congressmen Cohen and Wilson Introduce Resolution Recognizing International Day of Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Commission’s Ranking Member, Congressman Joe Wilson (SC-02), today introduced a resolution recognizing October 30 as International Day of Political Prisoners. Congressman Cohen was recently named the Special Representative on Political Prisoners by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and has been speaking out and calling attention to the treatment of an estimated 1 million political opponents, dissidents, academics, human rights activists, journalists and others worldwide imprisoned for their commitment to democracy and transparency. The resolution calls attention to repressive regimes engaged in “systematic destruction of independent voices, including but not limited to the Russian and Belarusian Governments.”  It clarifies that October 30 was chosen because on October 30, 1974, “Soviet human rights activists and dissidents initiated the idea of marking the day of political prisoners in the USSR and consequently held a hunger strike that day while in jail.” The measure also says that the U.S. House of Representatives “deplores all forms of political repression and imprisonment” and supports State Department efforts to call attention the problem. See the entire resolution here.

  • Congressmen Cohen and Wilson Introduce Resolution Recognizing International Day of Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Commission’s Ranking Member, Congressman Joe Wilson (SC-02), today introduced a resolution recognizing October 30 as International Day of Political Prisoners. Congressman Cohen was recently named the Special Representative on Political Prisoners by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and has been speaking out and calling attention to the treatment of an estimated 1 million political opponents, dissidents, academics, human rights activists, journalists and others worldwide imprisoned for their commitment to democracy and transparency. The resolution calls attention to repressive regimes engaged in “systematic destruction of independent voices, including but not limited to the Russian and Belarusian Governments.”  It clarifies that October 30 was chosen because on October 30, 1974, “Soviet human rights activists and dissidents initiated the idea of marking the day of political prisoners in the USSR and consequently held a hunger strike that day while in jail.” The measure also says that the U.S. House of Representatives “deplores all forms of political repression and imprisonment” and supports State Department efforts to call attention the problem. See the entire resolution here.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Putin's Attacks on Civilians and Declaration of Martial Law

    WASHINGTON—In light of Vladimir Putin’s continuing terror attacks on Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin has no right, or military ability, to claim swathes of Ukraine’s territory as part of Russia, including areas that Ukrainian forces have recently liberated. Attempting to declare martial law in these areas is a cynical ploy to legitimize the illegitimate, to make real the unreal, and paves the way for further Russian terror and genocide against the Ukrainian nation. “This month’s widespread and deadly strikes on civilian targets—including apartment buildings, playgrounds, and energy facilities and other critical infrastructure—demonstrate a desperate effort to conceal the Kremlin’s ongoing military collapse and to break the will of the Ukrainian people. But Ukrainians’ resolve will not waver, nor will our commitment to their freedom. “We will continue to support Ukraine in every way we can so that they can defend themselves and the democratic ideals we share. And we will call this war what it is—Russia’s genocidal, imperial conquest against a free people.”

  • Tribute to Robert Hand for Forty Years of Service at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

    Recognizing Robert “Bob” A. Hand for 40 years of service to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Whereas Robert (Bob) Hand has given 40 years of faithful service to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, making him the longest serving staff of the United States Helsinki Commission to date; Whereas he is a highly respected expert on the Western Balkans with his work being invaluable during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, he was focused on holding accountable those responsible for atrocities such as the Srebrenica genocide in 1995 and the murder of the Albanian-American Bytyqi brothers in Serbia in 2001, and he kept Commissioners up to date on developments in the region, including in Albania, where he is also known for his expert analysis; Whereas having served on numerous United States delegations to Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meetings, observed dozens of elections, and served as a mission member on one of the OSCE’s first field missions, the OSCE Missions of Long Duration in Kosovo, Sandjak, and Vojvodina while stationed in Novi Pazar in 1993, Bob’s institutional expertise and memory on the OSCE has been vital to both the Helsinki Commission and the Department of State; Whereas in his role as the Secretary of the United States delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), Bob deftly and tirelessly guaranteed that the delegation was always well-prepared to engage with our counterparts from other countries and that our proposals and resolutions had the best possible chance for adoption; Whereas his deep expertise on procedural matters and election monitoring, among other processes, made him an extraordinarily effective advocate and negotiator for United States interests and for human rights and democracy throughout his time as Secretary of the United States delegation; Whereas no major meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly could be considered “typical”, with an enormous variety of subjects discussed, new procedures created, and different Members of Congress participating on the United States delegation from meeting to meeting, Bob rose to a huge diversity of challenges as Secretary of the United States delegation, and he ensured that Members could meaningfully participate and contribute, and that the United States presence was impactful in every meeting he coordinated; Whereas during annual sessions in particular, Bob’s calm demeanor and deep knowledge of OSCE Parliamentary Assembly processes helped all members of the delegation, whether Commissioners or not, whether it was their 1st or 15th time at an OSCE PA meeting, to know where they were supposed to be, when they were voting, what issues were at stake, and when they were scheduled to speak; Whereas ahead of OSCE’s yearly gatherings, Bob skillfully collected signatures from other delegations for United States initiatives in the Parliamentary Assembly as well as secured support from Members for important supplementary items and amendments fielded by other delegations; Whereas at the 2022 OSCE PA Annual Session in Birmingham, Bob worked diligently with several other delegations to ensure that a critical resolution condemning Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine was adopted with the strongest possible language; Whereas the United States delegation had a 100-percent success rate at the 2022 OSCE PA Annual Session with the joint Ukraine resolution submitted by the United States, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian delegations, and all United States amendments to committee resolutions and supplementary items adopted; Whereas over the years, Bob guided the United States delegation through elections for OSCE PA leadership and helped secure positions for United States Members as OSCE PA President, Vice Presidents, and committee Chairs to make up the OSCE PA Bureau as well as positions on ad hoc committees and appointments as Special Representatives on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, Human Trafficking Issues, and on Political Prisoners; Whereas Bob was instrumental in ensuring that the COVID pandemic in no way diminished the United States delegation’s consistent and meaningful impact, and that United States objectives were advanced at each and every opportunity despite the unprecedented shift to online formats spanning multiple time zones; Whereas Bob was always guided by a clear sense that what the United States says matters in a body such as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, he prioritized principles over dialogue for its own sake, and he served the Commission’s mandate faithfully and tirelessly; and Whereas his longstanding relationships with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly leadership, staff, and other parliamentarians mean his departure will be felt not only by the Commission but by many of our friends in the OSCE region who have worked with him over the years: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the House of Representatives— (1) recognizes Robert A. Hand’s 40 years of dedicated service to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (United States Helsinki Commission); (2) appreciates his sound policy guidance on the Balkans and other regions throughout his time with the Commission; (3) congratulates him on his successes as Secretary of the United States delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly; and (4) wishes him all the best in the next chapters of his personal and professional endeavors.

  • Decolonizing the Russian Empire

        Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine has shocked the world for its brutality and aggression. But the Kremlin’s violent designs in Ukraine, and other military adventures in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, are part of a larger and longer legacy of Russian imperialism that directly threaten its neighbors and imprison a multitude of nations within its authoritarian empire. This side event explores the destructive effects of Russian imperialism and how the unfolding genocide in Ukraine is a natural outgrowth of these colonial policies. Drawing on regional perspectives of those victimized by Russia’s brutal empire, the panel will highlight the realities of Russian colonialism and what a process of decolonization—elevating marginalized voices and providing for their full political and civic self-expression—would mean for Russia and for its neighbors.

  • Cardin, Shaheen, Wicker Introduce New Bipartisan Bill to Support Economic Development, Promote Democratic Resilience & Combat Corruption in the Balkans

    WASHINGTON – Helsinki Commission Chairman Ben Cardin (MD) with Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation and member of the Helsinki Commission, introduced new bipartisan legislation with Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) called the Western Balkans Democracy and Prosperity Act. This legislation would support economic development in the region through initiatives on infrastructure, trade and anti-corruption, including codification of sanctions to deter destabilizing activity In the Western Balkans. Sens. Durbin (IL), Tillis (NC), Van Hollen (MD) and Murphy (CT) also are original cosponsors of the bipartisan legislation.  “While the Western Balkan nations have made great strides towards democratic governance since the end of the Yugoslav Wars, increasing political divisions and corruption threaten to erode this progress,” said Chairman Cardin. “We must continue to support our democratic partners and allies in the Balkans. This bipartisan bill will advance regional stability and anti-corruption efforts by establishing programs that encourage inclusive economic development, national anti-corruption strategy, and hold accountable those who threaten peace in the Western Balkans.” “Amid Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine and Putin’s clear ambitions to spread malign influence across Eastern Europe, the United States’ relationship with the Western Balkans is pivotal. That’s why I’m proud to introduce new bipartisan legislation that strengthens trade and investments between the U.S. and Western Balkans, while rooting out local corruption and codifying sanctions against destabilizing actors – all of which pave the way for greater Euro-Atlantic integration,” said Sen.Shaheen. “When I traveled to the Western Balkans in the Spring, I met with young leaders who shared their dreams of building a prosperous future in countries with strong democratic institutions and economic opportunity. Their stories – their visions of building a brighter future for the next generation – inspired my legislation. This region deserves every tool possible to build sustainable democracies, and I’m proud to lead this bipartisan bill that would foster relations between the U.S. and our Balkan partners and encourage greater regional integration.”  “The Balkans are countries with a rich and varied heritage, and they also occupy an increasingly important position in European affairs,” said Sen. Wicker. “This bill would send a strong bipartisan signal that the United States is committed to supporting diplomacy in the region.”  “As Putin’s unprovoked war in Ukraine rages on, we must not forget the hard won peace in the Balkans, which suffered terrible violence after the breakup of Yugoslavia.  The United States and our allies contributed greatly to ending that horrific conflict, and this legislation reaffirms our commitment to seeing a stable future for the region—one squarely rooted in the West,” said Sen. Durbin.  “The Balkans region is critical to Europe’s security, and we must deepen existing engagement with our partners as Russia continues its illegal war against Ukraine and threatens our NATO allies,” said Sen. Tillis. “In the spring, I was proud to visit Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Belgium with Senator Shaheen to hear from leaders of these countries and relay to our colleagues the importance of expanding economic opportunity and combating corruption. This bipartisan legislation will demonstrate our support for their efforts to advance democracy, and I will work with my colleagues to build support and pass it out of Congress.” “Despite Putin’s intent, his bloody war in Ukraine has not weakened our global alliances, but bolstered them. Increasing our partnerships with the Western Balkans will allow us to build on this and spur new economic cooperation between our nations. This legislation will help us capitalize on these opportunities as we continue to support strengthening democracy in the region,” said Sen. Van Hollen. “Maintaining peace in the Balkans is critical to European security, especially as Putin grows more desperate in Ukraine and may turn to other countries for a victory. During my trip to the region this spring, it was clear the United States must deepen our engagement. This legislation will strengthen U.S.-Balkan ties, expand economic opportunity, and support efforts to advance democracy and root out corruption,” said Senator Murphy. Specifically, the Western Balkans Democracy and Prosperity Act:  Establishes a regional trade and economic competitiveness initiative, which would support democratic resilience, economic development and prosperity in the region.  Establishes an anti-corruption initiative that directs the Secretary of State to provide technical assistance for each country in the Western Balkans to develop a national anti-corruption strategy.   Codifies two U.S. executive orders that would grant authority for sanctions against those who threaten peace and stability in the Western Balkans and are engaged in corrupt behavior.   Boosts university partnerships, encourages Peace Corps engagement in the region, creates a Balkans Youth Leadership Initiative and requires the Development Finance Corporation to open a previously announced office in the region.  Full text of the bill is available here. 

  • The Helsinki Process: An Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • Long Shadow of Russian Money Raises Tricky Questions for Swiss Bankers

    January used to be a big month for Swiss bankers and their Russian clients. Many of the Moscow elite had made a tradition of coming to the Alps for the orthodox new year, skiing with their families, then catching up with their financial consiglieri. In St Moritz, one banker recalls how he would book blocks of rooms for his clients. He would entertain them with snow polo, rolling out the charm as they clinked champagne glasses and watched horses charge across a frozen lake. This year he couldn’t tempt a single one. For the best part of a decade, Russian money has coursed through the Swiss banking world. But, as Russia’s relationship with the west has soured in recent years, what was once a source of bumper new profits for Switzerland’s banks has become a financial and reputational risk. In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, many wealthy Russians were moving to better safeguard their money from political interference, putting assets in the names of relatives or shifting them to less closely scrutinised jurisdictions, such as Dubai. In its wake, a vast sanitisation operation is under way at Swiss banks, to try and wind down relationships with sanctioned individuals. Neutral Switzerland has matched all of the EU’s punitive financial measures against Russia. More than 1,100 of the Russian elite — including figures such as coal and fertiliser billionaire Andrey Melnichenko and banker Petr Aven, both regular visitors to Switzerland — have become financial personae non gratae in a country many had assumed would keep their fortunes safe. The biggest banks, such as the publicly listed trio of UBS, Credit Suisse and Julius Baer, have declared they will cease all new business in Russia. For critics, though these are weasel words. It is their existing Russian clients that are the problem. No one is expecting many new fortunes to be minted in Russia any time soon. “Switzerland has a terrible history when it comes to Russian dirty money,” says Bill Browder, a longstanding Kremlin critic and a former Russian investor. He is sceptical of how much commitment there is among Swiss bankers to enforcing sanctions. “The Swiss want to be seen as doing something, but they don’t actually want to do anything,” he says. The US Helsinki Commission, an independent US government agency that observes human rights and the rule of law in Europe, agrees. In a report issued in May, it labelled the alpine state and its banks “a leading enabler of Vladimir Putin and his cronies”. The Swiss government responded by calling US secretary of state Antony Blinken in protest. A spokesperson for the Swiss government said president Ignazio Cassis “rejected the [report] in the strongest possible terms”. Like their counterpart in St Moritz, Swiss bankers the FT interviewed for this story all declined to be identified. Many more refused to speak at all. Switzerland’s banking secrecy laws are draconian — talking about clients can earn a lengthy jail term — and talking about Russian clients is even more taboo. “When we were onboarding a lot of these clients [in the 2000s], the entire approach was just very different. And you can’t really say that publicly now,” says one former banker who handled eastern European and Russian clients until retiring two years ago. “These [Russians] were people who had earned so much money, so quickly, that they didn’t know what to do with it. They were basically ideal clients. As long as you had no questions about where that money had come from . . . and, basically, we didn’t.” Quite how much Russian money there is in Switzerland is open to question. In March, the industry body representing Switzerland’s banks, the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA), caused a stir when it released details of a study estimating there was SFr150bn-SFr200bn ($154bn-$205bn) held in accounts for Russian citizens. At the end of last year, the total cash held on behalf of customers by Switzerland’s banks was SFr7,879bn, more half of which was wealth from abroad, according to the SBA. The disclosure prompted hand-wringing in the Swiss media. Commentators, even at conservative outlets such as the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, asked whether Switzerland should do business with autocratic regimes anywhere in the world any more. But others in the country have defended its economic relationships with Russia. The outspoken finance director of the canton of Zug, an important low-tax centre, said in March it was not his job to “act like a detective” and make judgments on Russian assets. In April, he announced that Zug, home to 37,000 companies, had no sanctioned assets to report back to Bern. Nevertheless, by April, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) announced that it had frozen SFr9.7bn of Russian assets. Authorities have insisted that the amount is proportionate to the scale of asset freezes in other leading financial centres. But Bern has been forced to row back in some cases, and in May it announced it was unfreezing SFr3.4bn of funds. Switzerland cannot freeze funds “without sufficient grounds”, says Erwin Bollinger, a SECO official, who adds that the government has received data on sanctioned accounts at more than 70 of the country’s banks. Direct disclosure by the banks has been patchy. Credit Suisse chief executive Thomas Gottstein told a conference in March that about 4 per cent of assets in his bank’s core wealth management business were Russian — a proportion that would equate to roughly SFr33bn. Meanwhile, UBS, the world’s largest private wealth manager, has disclosed it has $22bn of assets of “Russian persons not entitled to residency in the European Economic Area or Switzerland”, leaving open the question of how much it holds overall. Some 16,500 Russians are permanently resident in Switzerland, and more Russians are accepted for Swiss citizenship than any other nationality, according to the State Secretariat for Migration. Julius Baer has made no direct disclosure of the size or wealth of its Russian client base, though it has said, somewhat elliptically, that the value of assets held by its Moscow-based subsidiary is some SFr400mn. Information from the dozens of other smaller Swiss private banks is even scantier. Even leading industry figures wonder what is being left unsaid. One executive, who for the past two decades has been a senior figure in the private banking world in Switzerland, says he has almost no doubt that the significance of many banks’ close working relationships with sanctioned individuals is being underplayed. “You don’t have dozens and dozens of people employed on your Russia desks if you are not making money in Russia,” he says. Moreover, he adds, many Russian clients have done their business through Swiss banks’ subsidiaries abroad, such as those in Monaco, London or Asia. It is not clear to him whether all these assets have been caught by the Swiss rules. Swiss banks have a legal obligation to record the ultimate beneficial owners of all assets they handle worldwide, but doing so accurately can be tricky in jurisdictions where it is easy for third parties to mask who the owners are. Switzerland’s banks have moved dramatically from the freewheeling approach of previous years, when there was “a run on Russia”, says Thomas Borer, a former leading Swiss diplomat turned consultant, who has worked with prominent Russian clients. He now supports Switzerland’s sanctions policy. “Being militarily neutral does not mean being economically indifferent,” he says. But he argues that Swiss banking culture is still very different from elsewhere in the west. Even the biggest banks, he says, were clinging to relationships with Russian clients as the Ukraine crisis unfolded. The Financial Times revealed that, as late as March, Credit Suisse was asking investors to destroy documents that might expose Russian oligarchs it had done business with to legal risks. One senior relationship manager at a Zurich-based bank agrees. Even as sanctions came in, he says, the dominant approach was to ask, “how can we make this work for the client?” rather than “how do we do this for the government?”. But he defends the approach, saying: “Doing everything you can for your client is a Swiss commitment to excellence. If I was a watchmaker I would want to make the best watches with many complications. And if I was a policeman, then maybe I would want to be the best at catching Russian criminals. But I’m a banker.” There is still legal ambiguity in Switzerland over whether sanctions apply to family members and friends of listed individuals. This has provided a loophole bankers have helped at-risk clients to actively exploit in recent years. Swiss banks have seen “billions” of assets transferred to the names of spouses and children of Russian clients, in a trend that accelerated in the run-up to the war, says one banker. One bank chief executive admitted recently to the FT that there were many “grey areas” in applying sanctions. Part of the problem, he said, was that bank legal departments were struggling to obtain clarity from Bern on which asset transfers were deemed to be evading sanctions and which were not. Many who have been in the industry for a long time decry the new rules they must follow around taking new clients and being certain of the source of their wealth. “Know your customer used to mean just that: do you know the person? Now it is supposed to mean: do you know every little thing about their financial and private life?” says one Geneva-based banker. Many Russians themselves knew the banks were no longer safe havens, particularly since 2018 when Swiss banks began making significant concessions to information sharing on client accounts with other governments. Swiss residency did not protect billionaire Viktor Vekselberg in 2018, for example, when he was targeted by US sanctions; both Credit Suisse and UBS moved to terminate loans with him. The SBA says its members adhere to the highest international standards. Chief executive Jörg Gasser, argues Swiss banks have “no interest in funds of dubious origin” and have rigorous procedures in place to rapidly screen for sanctioned assets. “Swiss banks have been — and still are — very careful and diligent when it comes to accepting client funds,” he says, adding it is important to recognise the huge amount of legitimate business done with Russian entrepreneurs who are not subject to sanctions. For Mark Pieth, emeritus professor of criminal law at the University of Basel and a specialist in white-collar crime, the real story of the past decade is how Switzerland’s lawyers, rather than its bankers, have become the facilitators of hidden foreign money. “Swiss bankers were extremely cosy with Russians in the past,” he says. “Alongside London, this country was the porch for Russians into the west . . . but now I wouldn’t say the problem is so much with the banks — it is all the other intermediaries.” Swiss law gives remarkable sweep to attorney-client privilege, says Pieth, meaning lawyers can refuse to disclose almost anything to the authorities about their clients. The Swiss Bar Association strongly rejects this. “Professional secrecy does not protect against criminal acts,” it says. “Lawyers know the law and know what to do.” One senior industry figure defends the banks’ position unapologetically. He says everybody now wants to know the origins of their luxury jackets. But 10 years ago nobody was asking where they were made, by whom and with what materials. In banking, as in fashion, things have changed, he says, but nobody is haranguing the fashion world in the same way they are criticising banks. Fashion companies, though, have moved with the times and opened up, whereas Switzerland’s banks, for all their insistence on change and compliance, still want to maintain as much of the secrecy surrounding their clients as possible — even at a time of international crisis.  

  • Why I’m Sad to Be on Russia’s All-Purpose Payback List

    Reading Russia’s latest sanctions list, permanently banning travel to the country by 963 people, saddened me — and not just because my name is on it. It’s a catalogue of hurt from a nation that seems ready to blame everybody but its leaders for its current troubles. The list is very long indeed, running to nearly 100 pages in my printout. Reading so many names, you sense that Russia is deliberately burning nearly all its bridges to the United States. Russia’s ruling elite feels abused by American politicians, business leaders, journalists, judges, think tanks — nearly everyone, it seems. Donald Trump can still visit Moscow, but scores of Republican members of Congress can’t. The list of excluded GOP senators ranges from moderates such as Roy Blunt of Missouri and Mitt Romney of Utah to hard-right stalwarts Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. The GOP doesn’t fare much better in the House. Moderates Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin can’t tour the Kremlin anymore, but neither can Jim Jordan of Ohio or Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. As for Democrats, forget about it. The sanctions list includes the Democratic House leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Democratic Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina. The Congressional Progressive Caucus can save its rubles, too. The members of “the Squad” are all banned. So are Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and Ro Khanna of California. It’s the same on the Senate side. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois: Nyet, nyet.

  • Helsinki Commission on Sanctions Extended by Russia on Commissioners and Staff

    WASHINGTON—After Saturday’s announcement by the Russian foreign ministry that the latest list of Americans permanently banned from traveling to Russia includes all members of Helsinki Commission leadership, the overwhelming majority of commissioners, and nearly 20 current and former commission staff members, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “The Helsinki Commission and our professional staff have worked consistently throughout our history to ensure that all OSCE participating States—including Russia—live up to their commitments to human rights and the rule of law. Clearly our work has made a significant impression on Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies, if even staff who left the commission years ago are being sanctioned by the regime. With these actions to bar travel to Russia by experts on the country, Putin continues his campaign to isolate Russians from the international community. “We will continue to hold Russia to account for its clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of the Helsinki Final Act, including the war crimes committed during its invasion of Ukraine, its suffocation of free media and civil society domestically, and its egregious attempts to undermine democracy across the OSCE region.”   While this latest list is one of the largest issued by Russia, Chairman Cardin and many other members of the Helsinki Commission had previously been barred from traveling to Russia.

  • Swiss Release Some Frozen Russian Assets

    The Swiss government on Thursday reported 6.3 billion Swiss francs ($6.33 billion) worth of Russian assets frozen under sanctions to punish Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, a drop from early April as around 3.4 billion francs in provisionally blocked assets were released. The figure marked a decrease from roughly 7.5 billion Swiss francs in funds the government reported frozen on April 7. Government official Erwin Bollinger pointed to fewer funds -- 2.2 billion francs -- newly frozen than those that had been released. read more "We can't freeze funds if we do not have sufficient grounds," Bollinger, a senior official at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) agency overseeing sanctions, told journalists. Pressure has increased on Switzerland -- a popular destination for Moscow's elite and a holding place for Russian wealth -- to more quickly identify and freeze assets of hundreds of sanctioned Russians. read more The U.S. Helsinki Commission, a government-funded independent commission which looks at security, cooperation and human rights issues in Europe, in early May called Switzerland "a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies", who the commission said used "Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes". The Swiss government rejected the accusations "in the strongest possible terms", while Swiss President Ignazio Cassis had requested the U.S. government "correct this misleading impression immediately" during a telephone call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Swiss banks hold up to $213 billion of Russian wealth, Switzerland's bank lobby estimates, with its two largest lenders UBS (UBSG.S) and Credit Suisse (CSGN.S) each holding tens of billions of francs for wealthy Russian clients. read more Credit Suisse alone froze some 10.4 billion Swiss francs of that money through March under sanctions imposed in connection with the invasion. read more Credit Suisse's reporting did not make clear how much of that money was frozen in Switzerland. While banks and asset managers can provisionally freeze funds, SECO officials on Thursday said funds needed to be released if they could not establish the assets were directly owned or controlled by a sanctioned individual. "The amount of assets frozen is not a measure of how effectively sanctions are being implemented," Bollinger said, adding asset freezes were "by far" not the most important measure in a wide-ranging packet of sanctions. ($1 = 0.9948 Swiss francs)

  • Helsinki Commission Calls on Russia to Release 'True Patriot' Kara-Murza

    A U.S. human rights monitor is calling for the release of journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent Russian opposition figure who has spoken out against what he has called his government's crackdown on dissent. The U.S. Helsinki Commission on Monday raised alarm over the detention of Kara-Murza in Moscow a month after he outlined the Kremlin's increased use of propaganda and censorship. His arrest is the latest report of authorities attempting to silence critics since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February. "We are alarmed to learn that Vladimir Kara-Murza has been detained in Moscow. Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people," the commission said in a statement. "He must be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately." The commission, a U.S. government agency comprised of members of Congress and representatives from federal agencies, heard testimony from Kara-Murza who described how the Russian government has used disinformation and the growing struggles of independent media outlets. The Russian government in March enacted new restrictions, criminalizing media from using the word "invasion" to describe the conflict in Ukraine. Those who violate them could face up to 15 years in prison. Speaking before the commission, Kara-Murza said that following the invasion, Putin moved swiftly against "what remained of independent media in Russia." Kara-Murza said that within days, authorities shuttered independent outlets, including Echo of Moscow, a radio station where he hosted a weekly program. He also pointed to how the Russian government has blocked access to social media networks. Other news outlets, such as highly respected Novaya Gazeta, ceased publication because of censorship, he said. Calling many Russians "brainwashed," he said many are not even aware of potential war crimes their government is alleged to have committed in Ukraine. "Today, most Russians are in an Orwellian parallel reality created by the Kremlin propaganda machine," Kara-Murza told the commission. "And I mean, Orwellian in the literal sense, what's being said on Russian state television might as well have come out of George Orwell's 1984: 'War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.'" Since Russia's new censorship laws have gone into effect, reports have emerged of students or parents turning in teachers who spoke disapprovingly of the war. Nobel Prize laureate and editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, was attacked on a train. Russian authorities have also threatened Wikipedia with a nearly $50,000 fine for refusing to delete "illegal information." Kara-Murza, an author and politician who was repeatedly poisoned, has continued speaking out despite his arrest, making an appearance on MSNBC on Sunday.

  • Helsinki Commission Remembers Late Chairman Alcee Hastings

    WASHINGTON—On the anniversary of the death of former Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee Hastings of Florida, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Alcee Hastings was a giant in foreign affairs, knowledgeable on all issues relating to security in Europe. As the only American to serve as President of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, he led that organization in cementing its members’ commitment to peace, security and human rights. Wherever he traveled on OSCE business, he was universally respected and liked. A year after his passing, he remains a revered figure and world-renowned leader.”

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Ways to Counter Oligarchs, Enablers, and Lawfare

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: COUNTERING OLIGARCHS, ENABLERS, AND LAWFARE Wednesday, April 6, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission As influential proxies of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, Russian oligarchs work to weaken Western democracies from within. They pay Western enablers—especially lawyers and lobbyists—millions to use their standing in democratic societies to generate policies favorable to the authoritarian regime in Russia and to silence its critics. This hearing will examine ways to counter tactics oligarchs use to launder their money and reputations and stifle dissent. Witnesses will discuss their experiences investigating oligarchs and enablers, as well as the risks of doing so, which include abusive lawsuits filed by Western lawyers on behalf of Putin’s proxies. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Shannon Green, Executive Director, USAID’s Anti-Corruption Task Force; Senior Advisor to the Administrator Bill Browder, Head, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Daria Kaleniuk, Executive Director, Anti-Corruption Action Centre Scott Stedman, Founder, Forensic News  Anna Veduta, Vice President, Anti-Corruption Foundation International

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) last week led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) in Vienna, Austria, which focused almost exclusively on responding to the full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine.  A sizable and active U.S. presence at the hybrid event helped generate nearly united condemnation of the Kremlin attack and provided assurance of the U.S. commitment to European security during a time of great uncertainty. “Our bipartisan delegation actively and adamantly defended Ukraine’s rights as a sovereign nation in the face of unchecked Russian aggression,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The European security architecture that has supported peace and prosperity on the continent and around the world for decades must not be allowed to crumble at the whim of a dictator with grandiose aspirations of returning to some imagined past glory. It is long past time that democratic nations—including all other OSCE participating States—unite to firmly put Putin back where he belongs: isolated and outside the bounds of international society.” Other members of Congress traveling to Vienna included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). Remote participants in the Winter Meeting included Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). Although the meeting included a wide range of OSCE issues of concern, Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine dominated all discussion.  “Fundamental underpinnings of our security order, including commitments to respect other countries’ territorial integrity, sovereignty, and choices of security alliances, are at this moment being breached, flagrantly and deliberately, by one of our participating States, which is—as we speak—conducting an unprovoked invasion of another participating State,” said Rep. Hudson, who chairs the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security. “If Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will not stop there—just as he did not stop with Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbass. How can any of us realistically believe he will stop with Ukraine?” asked Sen. Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA. “According to Putin’s twisted rationale, every former republic of the USSR is at risk. NATO is at risk. Every member of the peace-loving international community is at risk of being swept up into this conflict.” Members of the U.S. delegation directly challenged the egregious assertions of the few Russian delegates who attempted to justify their country’s naked aggression. Other issues raised by the U.S. delegation included human rights violations within Russia, as well as in Belarus and in areas of Ukraine under illegal occupation; ongoing concerns regarding human trafficking; and the assault on free media throughout the OSCE region.  Ahead of the Winter Meeting, members of the in-person delegation traveled to Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO Ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, they met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area for briefings on U.S. and Allied military activities conducted in the region, and met with Belarusians and Russians who have fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, members of the business community, civil society organizations, and the media.

  • Ahead of OSCE PA Winter Meeting, Co-Chairman Cohen Reiterates Support for Ukrainian Sovereignty

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) today issued the following statement: “Over the upcoming Congressional recess, I am proud to be leading a bipartisan, bicameral delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. In today’s climate of global uncertainty, engagement between foreign officials and members of Congress offers reassurance to U.S. allies about the commitment of the United States to peace, security, and prosperity in Europe and beyond. “Our delegation also will take the opportunity to visit other NATO Allies to consult with government officials in light of the unprecedented number of Russian forces deployed in and around Ukraine. While we originally planned to stop in Kyiv, the relocation of embassy staff necessitated the unfortunate cancellation of that portion of our itinerary. However, I would like to take this opportunity to reassure the Government of Ukraine of the steadfast support of Congress for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression. Rest assured we will bring up support for your nation’s security at the OSCE PA meetings.”

  • Conflict of Interest?

    Turkey is at a crossroads. Even as the Turkish Government insists that it remains committed to its NATO partners and to future EU integration, its actions—both foreign and domestic—call those promises into question. Turkey has been a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and Turkish officials have announced plans to normalize relations with Armenia and moved to restore ties with several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. At the same time, the government has reiterated its commitment to the use of Russian military equipment, eroding relations with the United States and other members of NATO. Despite being a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is struggling to live up to the principles of respect for fundamental freedoms outlined in the Helsinki Final Act.  A record number of Turkish journalists are behind bars. The failure of the Turkish government to comply with a ruling of the European Court for Human Rights on the case of Osman Kavala paved the way for the country’s potential expulsion from the Council of Europe, and thousands of others arrested following the attempted 2016 coup also languish in prison on dubious charges.  The briefing, held on February 16, 2022, investigated the intersection of Turkey’s OSCE and NATO commitments related to human rights and security, and its domestic policies that fail to hold true to these principles. Panelists also explored practical policy recommendations to help Turkey overcome this disconnect. During the briefing, attendees heard from Dr. Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for the Near East, and Deniz Yuksel, Turkey Advocacy Specialist with Amnesty International. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Bakhti Nishanov. Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) opened the briefing by remarking on the importance of Turkey and his personal history with Turkey.  He also emphasized that human rights abuses in Turkey have long been a subject of concern, particularly those brought about by President Erdogan’s empire-building attempts. “We need to do what we can to see that the whole world is fair for citizens to express themselves, for press to express themselves, and for people to get information, without which we will not have independent democracies,” he said. Mr. Nishanov explained in opening remarks that Turkey’s position is complex and multi-faceted—while Turkey has been making efforts to normalize relationships with Armenia, Israel, and Egypt as well as bearing a large refugee burden, recent years have been challenging as Turkey experienced economic pain, inflation, and governance issues. Additionally, Turkey’s record of human rights abuses, anti-immigrant sentiments, and other obstacles cast a pall on recent progress, and bring into question the future of Turkey’s democratic development. Dr. Soner Cagaptay spoke about President Erdogan’s declining domestic popularity and the looming threat of economic hardship in Turkey. He also remarked on President Erdogan’s attempts to restore ties with Turkey’s Gulf neighbors, as well as with the United States and Europe. Dr. Cagaptay asserted that as tensions heightened between Russia and Ukraine, Turkey would adopt a neutral public-facing identity, but support Kyiv militarily. While Russia and Turkey are often compared, he pointed out that Turkey has measures of democracy that Russia does not. “The lesson of Turkey under Erdogan is that it takes a long time to kill [democracy]. Turkish democracy is resilient, it is not dead,” he said. Deniz Yuksel spoke to Turkey’s human rights crisis and the dangers opposition politicians, journalists, and citizens face. Reports of torture and detention are common, and those calling out such abuses face persecution themselves. She recommended that U.S. officials raise human rights concerns in every engagement with Turkey. She emphasized, “From the record-breaking imprisonment of journalists to the persecution of LGBTI people, an ongoing crisis of gender-based violence, and the unlawful deportation of refugees, the failures of Turkey’s judicial system cut across societal lines and undermine the human rights of all.” During the question-and-answer segment of the briefing, panelists addressed a range of questions including how specific ethnic minorities are treated in Turkey, how human rights abuses may affect Turkey’s relationship with the United States, and what challenges will arise alongside Turkey’s 2023 elections. Related Information Panelist Biographies Will Turkey Help Washington If Russia Invades Ukraine? | The Washington Institute Human Rights in Turkey | Amnesty International – USA: Turkey Regional Action Network  Turkey’s Careful and Risky Fence-Sitting between Ukraine and Russia | Foreign Policy Research Institute 

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Intersection Between Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: CONFLICT OF INTEREST? Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Turkey Wednesday, February 16, 2022 11:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3Je5Ck4 Turkey is at a crossroads. Even as the Turkish Government insists that it remains committed to its NATO partners and to future EU integration, its actions—both foreign and domestic—call those promises into question. Turkey has been a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and Turkish officials have announced plans to normalize relations with Armenia and moved to restore ties with several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. At the same time, the government has reiterated its commitment to the use of Russian military equipment, eroding relations with the United States and other members of NATO. Despite being a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is struggling to live up to the principles of respect for fundamental freedoms outlined in the Helsinki Final Act.  A record number of Turkish journalists are behind bars. The failure of the Turkish government to comply with a ruling of the European Court for Human Rights on the case of Osman Kavala paved the way for the country’s potential expulsion from the Council of Europe, and thousands of others arrested following the attempted 2016 coup also languish in prison on dubious charges.   The briefing will investigate the intersection of Turkey’s OSCE and NATO commitments related to human rights and security, and its domestic policies that fail to hold true to these principles. Panelists also will explore practical policy recommendations to help Turkey overcome this disconnect. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Soner Cagaptay, Director, Turkish Research Program, Washington Institute for the Near East Deniz Yuksel, Turkey Advocacy Specialist, Amnesty International  

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