Madam Chairman, I am pleased that Title XV of the State Department authorization bill incorporates key provisions of the Belarus Democracy Act of 2003, which I sponsored earlier this year. The State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices report on Belarus states that the Belarusian regime’s “human rights record remained very poor and worsened in several areas.” Thanks to Alexander Lukashenka–aptly cited by The Washington Post as “Europe’s last dictator”–Belarus has the worst human rights record in Europe today. The Helskinki Commission, which I Chair, as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe including its Parliamentary Assembly, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Union and other international entities have all chronicled the appalling state of human rights and democracy in a country located in the heart of Europe. Belarus already borders NATO. In just a few years, Belarus will border the European Union.
The Lukashenka regime has blatantly and repeatedly violated basic freedoms of speech, expression, assembly, association and religion. The independent media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and democratic opposition have all faced harassment. Indeed, in the last few months, his war against civil society has intensified–resulting in the closure of non-governmental organizations, independent media outlets and Western-funded media support groups, such as Internews Network group, an international organization that helps develop independent media in countries in transition.
Just last week, the Lukashenka regime denied continuation of the accreditation of the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), an American organization that has implemented a variety of assistance programs in Belarus for years, including programs that helped the struggling independent media. Last week, they ordered the closure of the Minsk bureau of Russian NTV television. Just a few weeks ago, Lukashenka closed down the National Humanities Lyceum, a highly respected school promoting the study of the Belarusian language and culture. There are growing, legitimate fears that Lukashenka is aiming to remove Belarus from its vestiges of democracy dissent.
In October, Lukashenka signed into law the most restrictive religion law in Europe. Independent journalists have been sentenced to “corrective labor” for their writings. There are credible allegations of the Lukashenka regime’s involvement in the disappearances of leading opposition figures and a journalist. Here in Washington and at various OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meetings, I’ve had occasion to meet with the wives of the disappeared, Victor Gonchar, Anatoly Krasovsky, Yuri Zakharenka, and Dmitry Zavadsky. These meetings have been heart-wrenching. The cases of their husbands–who disappeared in 1999 and 2000 and are presumed to have been murdered–are a stark illustration of the climate of fear that pervades in Belarus.
On the security front, reports of arms deals between the Belarusian regime and rogue states, including Iraq and North Korea, continue to circulate. Lukashenka and his regime were open in their support of Saddam Hussein.
One of the primary purposes of this initiative is to demonstrate U.S. support for those persevering to promote democracy and respect for human rights in Belarus despite the onerous pressures they face from the anti-democratic regime. Necessary assistance is authorized for democracy-building activities such as support for non-governmental organizations, independent media–including radio and television broadcasting to Belarus–and international exchanges.
The bill also encourages free and fair parliamentary elections, conducted in a manner consistent with international standards–in sharp contrast to the 2000 parliamentary and 2001 presidential elections in Belarus which flagrantly flaunted democratic standards. As a result of these elections, Belarus has the distinction of lacking legitimate presidential and parliamentary leadership, which contributes to that country’s self-imposed isolation. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in 2004, and we should encourage those who seek to create the laws and environment conducive to a free and fair election.
In addition, the Executive Branch is encouraged to impose sanctions against the Lukashenka regime and deny high-ranking officials of the regime entry into the United States. U.S. Government financing would be prohibited, except for humanitarian goods and agricultural or medical products. The U.S. Executive Directors of the international financial institutions would be encouraged to vote against financial assistance to the Government of Belarus except for loans and assistance that serve humanitarian needs.
Madam Chairman, we are seeking to help put an end to the pattern of clear and uncorrected human rights violations by the Lukashenka regime and are hoping this will serve as a catalyst to facilitate Belarus’ integration into democratic Europe. The Belarusian people deserve to live in a society where democratic principles and human rights are respected and the rule of law is preeminent. The Belarusian people–who have endured so much both under past and current dictatorships–deserve our support as they work to overcome the legacy of the past and develop a genuinely independent, democratic country.
In addition, Madam Chairman, in keeping with this authorization for the Department of State, I want to express my appreciation for the work of the Department in bringing needed attention to the concerns about ongoing anti-Semitism, an age-old plague that still haunts many countries in the OSCE, including our own. I have sought to identify effective responses to this troubling phenomenon, including the introduction of the resolution, H. Con. Res. 49 which passed last month.
Last month, I joined Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Congressman HASTINGS in Vienna for an OSCE conference specifically focused on anti-Semitism. Having the OSCE itself take up this important cause is significant. In fact, the idea was first raised in the May 2002 hearing of the Helsinki Commission and also suggested in the resolution condemning anti-Semitism I presented at the Berlin Parliamentary Assembly meeting last summer. I offered a similar resolution week before last at the Rotterdam OSCE PA meeting. Both resolutions passed the Assembly unanimously. While the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has actively denounced anti-Semitic acts, I give great credit to the State Department for making the Vienna Conference a reality. Notably, one initiative emerging from the Vienna Conference was a pledge by our German friends to hold a follow-up meeting in Berlin next year to focus on anti-Semitism. I hope this meeting will rally the troops from Europe, the U.S., and Canada to say in one voice “never again.”
Finally, Madam Chairman, I was pleased to learn of Senator Voinovich’s amendment to the Senate’s State Department reauthorization bill requiring the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom to include specific coverage of anti-Semitism. The amendment calls for the report to cover “acts of anti-Semitic violence that occurred in that country” and “the response of the government of that country to such acts of violence.” Importantly, the amendment would mandate the report to chronicle “actions by the government of that country to enact and enforce laws relating to the protection of the right to religious freedom with respect to people of the Jewish faith.” I think this is a worthwhile idea and hope it will be enacted into law.