WASHINGTON – More work still remains to be done among the participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the area of religious freedom. That is the conclusion of U.S. Helsinki Commissioners in response to the State Department’s 2005 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.
“I am pleased that the State Department continues to maintain intense scrutiny of the problematic OSCE participating States,” said Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS). “The report makes clear that freedom of religion remains at the top of the list of endangered human rights, and I congratulate the State Department and Ambassador John Hanford for their work in bringing this to the public’s attention.”
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, is a U.S. Government agency that monitors progress in the implementation of the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The Commission consists of nine members from the United States Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.
“The State Department report goes to the heart of the problem, and I congratulate Ambassador Hanford for his work. Belarus continues to violate religious liberties, and I am especially troubled that Turkmenistan was listed as having made ‘significant improvements’ in the promotion of religious freedom,” said Commission Co-Chairman, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). “The reforms that were instituted by the Niyazov regime over the past year did not go far enough, and even the report itself states that serious violations of religious freedom continue.”
The Annual Report on International Religious Freedom was mandated by Congress under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Under the Act, the President can designate certain states to be “Countries of Particular Concern” if he finds there are “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” occurring. “Particularly severe violations” means there are “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom” State Department and the Office of International Religious Freedom taking place.
“The State Department report is a useful tool for shining a spotlight on a grim picture. In fact, I think it even somewhat understates the problem,” said Commission Ranking Member Rep. Ben Cardin (D-MD). “The fact that Uzbekistan was not listed as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ is surprising. Uzbekistan has one of the worst records on religious freedom in the entire 55-nation OSCE area. It needs continued close scrutiny.”
Among the OSCE participating States noted in the Annual report were Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia and Turkey. In Western Europe, Belgium, France and Germany were also highlighted.
“Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have clearly received more credit than the facts would warrant,” added Brownback. “The Congress will not make excuses for states that are not living up to their most basic human rights commitments. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan should not conclude from this report that they are out of the woods.”