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Co-Chairman Hastings Remarks at “Where Walls Still Stand,” 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Thank you, Chairman Cardin. And thank you all for being here.

Standing here today with this concrete icon before us, the images and lessons of history are inescapable. From the guard tower where officers had shoot-to-kill orders for anybody trying to escape the East — to the stark contrast in coloring on either side of this barrier, the fall of the Berlin Wall is truly one of the finest chapters in freedom’s story.

A few inches of concrete formed the line between a world of free expression and one of repression.

And now, 20 years later, it stands as a bold testament to the fact that a people empowered to express themselves cannot be contained, the march of freedom cannot be stopped.

Seeing the liberation that took place in November 1989 resonated with me personally. In my lifetime I’ve faced my share of walls – the walls of a segregated South, the walls of lingering racism and discrimination. But I overcame Jim Crow’s walls to be Florida’s first African-American federal judge and then its first African-American in Congress since the post-Civil War era.

And I stand here today, in this same building amid the ballot box that brought democracy to a land of apartheid; bombed out signs from sniper alley where journalists covered Europe’s worst massacre since World War II; and here by the largest piece of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany – to remind us of how far we have come, and the work that remains to uphold the dignity of all, regardless of their background.

I am happy to see that as of last month we have a new assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in Michael Posner. But I’m disappointed that this position was filled at the slowest pace in 28 years, and this administration has still not yet nominated an ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. For a president who so strongly supports international engagement and reinvigorating multilateral institutions, I expected better. I know it is early and the agenda is long, but I hope we will have an ambassador nominated by year’s end.

The events of 1989 showed the power of civil society to spur change through the exercise of fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, association and movement. And because of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, we now live in a very different and better world.

And while personal and political freedoms have greatly expanded throughout the OSCE region over the last two decades, some countries continue to limit these basic rights.

In particular, I am concerned about backsliding of a free press and places where political and ethnic minorities are blocked from participating in civic life.

Across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, press freedom is too often lacking. Discussing the region recently, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media Miklos Haraszti was direct: “The iron curtain is still there.”

As long as journalists face unjust fines and penalties designed to literally halt the presses, the press is not free. And if journalists continue to see their colleagues kidnapped, beaten, or killed with no sincere pursuit of the criminals – the press is not free.

Our politics can get nasty in this country, but you never see anybody thrown in jail just for running against an incumbent. Today, in too many places, we still see rampant political repression, perversions of the electoral process, and scare tactics used to marginalize those who simply seek to add a new voice to their country’s governing process.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’ve seen new walls erected. Right now, Russia is building a virtual wall in what is internationally recognized as Georgian territory, escalating its effective annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Elsewhere walls are isolating minorities, and — even here –keeping out immigrants. I’ve never been convinced that fences make good neighbors, and for a world endeavoring to lift up its people, walls are hardly a sign of progress.

The success of nationalistic parties, which campaigned on messages of hate in this year’s European Parliamentary elections, concerns me.

The violence and systemic exclusion of Roma is nothing short of scandalous.

Don’t get me wrong – historic progress has been made. But we are not done. And our country has much work to do as well.

For our country to advance freedom around the globe, we know we must advance it here.

This wall did not come down so that we could build new barriers. And those who fought for freedom in the East did not struggle so that their sons and daughters would have to take up their fight anew. We at the Helsinki Commission pride ourselves on giving voice to the voiceless, providing a forum for human rights defenders who often lack even the slightest megaphone for their cause. But like the activists and artists who painted this wall calling for the people to rise up so communism could fall — we too know something about people power. We know a community galvanized for good, fighting for freedom cannot be stopped. And wherever such defenders of liberty rise up, we will stand up to join them. Through your words and through your work, I know you will be with them as well.

Thank you.

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