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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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  • 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.

  • Summary of the OSCE Rule of Law Seminar

    From November 28 to December 1, 1995, the participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) convened a seminar on the rule of law. The meeting was organized by the Warsaw-based OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Thirty-eight of the 53 fully participating States attended, along with representatives from two Non-Participating Mediterranean States, six international organizations, and 25 non-governmental organizations. Over the course of two days, a number of emerging democracies described the constitutions and other legislative provisions that had been adopted in their countries to provide for the rule of law, at least on paper. Western participants, for their part, generally spoke of the specific and concrete challenges faced in their countries in actually implementing safeguards for the rule of law. In general, the participation of East-Central European and former Soviet countries—most of which attended this meeting—was more active than at the 1991 Oslo meeting, and Western participants, for their part, avoided the West-West bickering that marred the earlier seminar. At the end of the meeting, the rapporteurs produced summaries of the discussions.

  • 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.

  • Armenia's Parliamentary Election and Constitutional Referendum

    This report is based on a Helsinki Commission staff delegation trip to Armenia from June 29 to July 6, 1995. Commission staff spoke with Armenian government officials--including President Levon Ter-Petrossyan, Speaker of Parliament Babgen Araktsyan, Foreign Minister Vahan Papazyan, and Senior Advisor to the President, Jirair Libaridian--and interviewed representatives of Armenian political parties, journalists, and candidates, as well as spokespersons of American non-governmental organizations in Yerevan. The Helsinki Commission would like to thank Ambassador Harry Gilmore and the staff of U.S. Embassy Yerevan, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly observer delegation, led by Danish Parliamentarian Annette Just. Armenia had, in the most difficult economic circumtances, impressively managed to combine stability, political pluralism and economic reform. But apprehensions grew about realizing the high hopes this success had engendered. Apart from providing humanitarian and technical assistance, the United States was in a good position, through continued close interest, involvement and suasion, to help consolidate the development of democracy in Armenia.

  • Prosecuting War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia: an Update

    This memorandum is part of a continuing series of reports prepared by the staff of the Helsinki Commission on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. In the summer of 1991, Members of Congress and representatives of non-governmental organizations began to call for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal that would hold those responsible for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia personally and individually accountable for their actions. As atrocities mounted over that summer and information about concentration camps became public, these calls began to reverberate at on-going meetings of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) then being held in Prague, Vienna and Helsinki.

  • 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.

  • Russia's Parliamentary Election and Constitutional Referendum

    This report is based on a Helsinki Commission staff delegation to Russia to observe the December 12, 1993 parliamentary election and constitutional referendum. Because of the importance of the event, and because charges had been leveled of improprieties and unfair access to the media, the Commission sent five staff members to Russia to observe the process for a period of more than two weeks. Michael Ochs and Orest Deychak went to Russia two weeks before the voting to monitor the pre-election campaign. The Commission's Senior Advisor, David Evans, and staff members John Finerty and Heather Hurlburt, arrived subsequently and remained through December 12, when they monitored balloting in various cities and regions.  Despite a number of problems and irregularities, both during the campaign and the voting, the Helsinki Commission believes that the Russian voters were able to express their political will freely and fairly. The Russians have made genuine progress in bringing their electoral procedures into conformity with international standards, and the election itself represents a significant step in the ongoing process of democratization in Russia.

  • The Current State and Future Prospects of Democracy in Russia

    As its name suggests, this hearing, which Steny H. Hoyer presided over, dealt with the prospect for the implementation of democratic institutions in the former Soviet Union. In addition, though, part of the hearing focused on the Russian legislature’s dissolution after the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev (i.e. post-Communism), as well as, of course, Russia and its formerly incorporated countries’ courses for the future. Witnesses who attended this hearing were: Michael Dobbs, Resident Scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute; Dr. Leon Aron, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and Dr. Robert Krieble, Chairman of the Krieble Institute of the Free Congress Foundation.

  • The Yugoslavia Conflict: Potential for Spillover in the Balkans

    This hearing reviewed the potential for spillover in the Yugoslav conflict. In particular, the hearing examined the aggression in Bosnia- Herzegovina and the possible effects of this on its own ethnic communities and on those of neighboring countries. The economic decline that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia provided additional hardships for the large refugee population in the region. The Commissioners examined how the U.S. should respond, and whether current policies, such as sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro, are effective.

  • Human Rights Policy Under the New Administration

    The purpose of this hearing was to examine the euphoria of the post-Cold War age in regards to the lack of confidence and political drive on how to promote commitments made in the Charter of Paris agreement. The hearing reviewed the actions made in the Balkans and Serbia’s continual territorial aggression and also developed democratic countries selectively applying human right policies. The Commissioners stressed the need for continual assistance to democratically developing countries, but to those countries that disrespect universal human rights should have additional pressures applied to change this behavior. The distinguished witnesses and Commissioners discussed ways in which the U.S. can help play a role in strengthening the United Nation’s ability to promote and protect human rights, as well as how the U.S. could use greater use of regional bodies similar the CSCE in conflict resolution.

  • U.S. Human Rights Policy: Joint Hearing with House Foreign Affairs Subcommitee on International Security, international Organizations and Human Rights

    This hearing examined the best ways to promote commitments made in the Charter of Paris agreement. The Commissioners and witnesses reviewed developments in the Balkans and Serbia’s continued territorial aggression.  They also discussed the practice of developed democratic countries selectively applying human right policies. The Commissioners stressed the need for continual assistance to democratically developing countries.  They also highlighted the need for additional pressures on  those countries that disrespect universal human rights to encourage them to change their behaviors.   The distinguished witnesses and Commissioners discussed ways in which the U.S. can strength the United Nation’s ability to promote and protect human rights, as well as how the U.S. can make greater use of regional bodies, like the CSCE, in conflict resolution.

  • Situations of Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey

    This briefing focused on the Kurdish minority, the fourth largest nationality in the Middle East primarily concentrated in the States of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, a CSCE signatory state. The lack of institutional protection of human rights and individual freedoms that the Kurdish minority suffers from in each of these states was addressed. Additionally, the principles of territorial integrity, self-determination, and respect of human rights were explored in the context of the Middle East. Witnesses at the briefing – including Ahmet Turk, Chairman of the People’s Labor Party and Barham Salih, a Representative of the Iraqi Kurds – offered descriptions of the historical context and the political framework in which the issue of violations of the human rights of the Kurdish minority has arisen. Mr. Salih presented his personal experience as the evidence of the process of forced assimilation that Kurds were enduring in Turkey at the time.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Delegation to Romania, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Vienna

    The Commissions Delegation's visit to Romania, the first since April 1990, had two main objectives. The first was to assess, though meetings with a broad spectrum of non-governmental and official actors, Romania's current level of democratic and market reform. The second was in recognition of Romania's critical role in the effort to enforce U.N. sanctions against Serbia and Macedonia, and the broader political strategic role of Romania in the Balkans. The delegation also traveled to Macedonia to complete the itinerary of a visit to the area in November 1992, which had to be cut short because of inclement weather conditions. Indeed, the signs of the oncoming winter which the Commission saw at that time led it to raise concern over the deteriorating condition which Macedonia and the tens of thousands of Bosnian refugees residing there faced. The April 1993 visit afforded a useful opportunity to see firsthand the extent to which the country had satisfactorily coped with these deteriorating conditions and the prospects generally for the stability and democratization of an independent Macedonia. The delegation then visited Kosovo to observe firsthand the volatile situation there. The situation is a matter of considerable international concern given the chances for the war in nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina to have a spillover effect in which the tension exist between the Serbian authorities and th majority Albanian population could erupt into violence, either by intent or by spontaneous incident. The delegation wanted to hear the views of the authorities as well as of the leaders of the Albanian community, and to raise its concerns, particularly to the authorities regarding human rights. Finally, the delegation wanted to learn about the activities of the CSCE mission of Long-Duration based in Kosovo to monitor developments in the area and to ease tension in society. The delegation finished its trip in Vienna, Austria to meet with the U.S. delegation to the CSCE. Vienna is becoming the CSCE's operational center, with the Conflict Prevention Center, which provided logistical support to the missions as well as the ongoing arms control and security forum, the Forum on Security Cooperation (FSC), and regular meeting of the participating States.  

  • The Countries of Central Asia: Problems in the Transition to Independence and the Implications

    This was the first Helsinki Commission hearing held on the Central Asian republics. The Commissioners and witnesses discussed five countries' transitions to independence, which were  complicated by the presence of repressive regimes that maintained the old Soviet-style order and economic turmoil. Chairman DeConcini opened the hearing by noting that the presidents of four out of the five new Central Asian countries were former first secretaries of the Communist Party. Dr. Martha Olcott, professor of political science at Colgate University, expressed concern over the rise of extremist ideologies of nationalism and Islam in the region, which were fuelled by economic stagnation. Firuz Kazemzadeh, professor emeritus as Yale University, argued instead that the dominant threat in the region came from the projection of Russian influence. This was corroborated by Micah Naftalin, director of the Union Council for Soviet Jews, who detailed the KGB's role in silencing the press and repressing opposition in Turkmenistan, and the growth and diffusion of anti-semitism from Russia into Central Asia. A final testimony was offered by Adbumannob Pulatov, chairman of the Uzbekistan Society for Human Rights. Pulatov decried the lack of press freedom in Uzbekistan and urged Congress to continue its monetary support of Radio Liberty. In the end, all four witnesses cautioned that human rights concerns often take a back seat to other issues, and that doing so could jeopardize progress in the field.

  • War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia

    This hearing focused on the ongoing conflict in the former Yugoslavia and the international community’s commitment to prosecuting those guilty of war crimes and providing humanitarian relief. In particular, the hearing looked into systemic rape and forced impregnation in the former Yugoslavia. The hearing also largely focused on what measures the U.S. should adopt to assist communities and women affected by gender violence from the conflict. In addition, the Commissioners and witnesses discussed measures to prosecute individuals guilty of war crimes and how to address the refugee crisis.

  • War Crimes and the Humanitarian Crisis in the Former Yugoslavia

    This hearing focused on the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and the international community’s commitment to prosecuting those guilty of war crimes. Confidence and security building measures, in relation to the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina were discussed, as well as the stability of the multi-ethnic layering of the newly formed countries. The hearing also focused on possible U.S. measures to improve regional stability and to relocate displaced persons. Such measures included disbanding the arms embargo on Bosnia and improving economic conditions for the millions affected by the conflict.

  • Parliamentary and Presidential Elections in an Independent Croatia

    On August 2, 1992, Croatia held elections for the position of President of the Republic as well as for seats in the House of Representatives, one of two chambers in Croatia's "Sabor," or Assembly. These were the second multi-party elections in Croatia since 1990, when alternative political parties first competed for power. They were, however, the first since Croatia proclaimed itself an independent state in 1991, and achieved international recognition as such in 1992, following the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. Incumbent Franjo Tudjman easily won a first-round victory among a field of eight presidential candidates. His party, the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), also won just over half of the parliamentary seats allocated in proportion to votes for the lists of 17 parties, and a very large number of the seats designated for particular electoral districts. This result allows the HDZ to form a new government alone rather than in coalition with other parties. A shift to the far right, which many feared, did not materialize. Despite a number of open questions, the election results likely reflect the legitimate choice of Croatia's voting population. At the same time, the elections demonstrated disappointingly little democratic progress in Croatia since 1990. Detracting most from the elections was the lack of serious effort by the authorities to instill confidence in the electoral system, followed by the perceived political motivation in scheduling them in August. The elections also revealed some shortcomings on the part of the opposition, including a lack of coordinated effort to ensure that they were conducted freely and fairly. Croatia has a western-oriented, well educated and sophisticated society which provide a basis for democratic government. Decades of communist rule and a fierce nationalism linked to Croatia's search for independence have, at the same time, unleashed societal trends contrary to democratic development. The context in which these elections took place was also complicated by the conflict in Croatia that began in earnest in July 1991 as militants among the alienated ethnic-Serb population of Croatia, with the encouragement of the Serbian leadership in Belgrade and the help of the Yugoslav military, demonstrated violently their opposition to the republic's independence. After severe human casualties, population displacement and destruction, the conflict generally ended in January 1992 with a U.N. negotiated ceasefire that included the deployment of U.N. protection forces on much of Croatia's territory A new constitution and growing stability argued for holding new elections. Despite opposition complaints that August was not an appropriate time for elections, President Tudjman scheduled them with the likely calculation that his party stood its best chances in a quick election before growing economic hardship and pressure for genuine democratization replaced the joys of independence and renewed peace. During the campaign period, 29 political parties fielded candidates. They faced no major difficulties in organizing rallies and distributing their literature to the public. At the same time, the Croatian media was only moderately free, with television and radio broadcasts much less so than newspapers and journals. Only toward the end of the campaign did the media seem to open up fully The stated objective in organizing the elections was to be fair and impartial to all contending parties. At the same time, the electoral procedures were not as fully satisfactory as they easily could have been, raising suspicions of an intent to manipulate the results. However, opposition political parties considered the process sufficiently fair for them to compete. They also had the opportunity to have observers present at polling stations and election commissions on election day. According to a constitutional law on the matter, Croatia's national minorities enjoy certain rights regarding their representation in governmental bodies. Ethnic Serbs, the only large minority with some 12 percent of the population, were guaranteed a greater number of seats in the new Sabor than all other minorities combined, but, unlike the smaller minorities, no elections were held in which ethnic Serbs alone could chose their representatives. This was viewed as discriminatory treatment of the Serbian minority, despite apparently small Serbian participation in the elections. Balloting on election day was orderly, despite the enormous complications caused by the conflict and questions of citizenship and voter eligibility in a newly independent country. There were few complaints in regard to the way in which the voting and counting were carried out, although several isolated problems were reported and the security of ballots cast by voters abroad was a constant concern. Despite these faults, holding elections might well have been a watershed for Croatia. Problems in that country's democratic development were given closer scrutiny, and public concerns can now shift from the recent past to future prospects. The winners could view their easy win as a mandate for continuing current policies, largely viewed as nationalistic and insufficiently democratic. However, the far right's poor performance could lessen pressure on the HDZ to show its nationalist colors and permit greater democratic development. The behavior of HDZ leaders to date favors the status quo in the short run, but domestic and international pressure could both encourage more significant democratic reform than has been seen thus far.

  • The Yugoslav Republics: Prospects for Peace and Human Rights

    This hearing reviewed the political crisis and the civil conflict in Yugoslavia. The purpose was to examine the different aspects in which is fueling the crisis. The hearing looked at the role of the OSCE process in its efforts to shape the international strength in resolving the Yugoslav conflict. Representatives from the European community gave testimony on the proposals and plan implementation carried out by the European Council and of the member states. The issue of military hardware and tensions related to large mobilized forces were mentioned, along with the peace settlement dimension for the succeeding states of Yugoslavia.

  • Report: the Oslo Seminar of Experts on Democratic Institutions

    From November 4-15, the CSCE Seminar of Experts on Democratic Institutions met in Oslo, Norway, pursuant to a mandate contained in the 1991 Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Accordingly, experts discussed means and ways for "consolidating and strengthening viable democratic institutions." During the course of the Seminar, participants met in three closed study groups in which they considered constitutional and electoral frameworks, as well as comparative human rights legislation. In this context, numerous experts participated in the Oslo Seminar, contributing expositions on the differences among their various democratic traditions and often describing their national experiences in these areas. In addition, contacts among experts, non*governmental organizations, and government representatives in the margins of the meeting contributed to the overall work of the Seminar.

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