Mr. Speaker, one year ago, in my capacity as Ranking Member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I traveled to Ukraine with my colleague and Chairman, Congressman Chris Smith.
We made our trip shortly after the historic Orange Revolution, and I was impressed by the commitment of Ukraine’s new leaders to consolidate democracy, promote respect for human rights, and modernize the country’s economy. I also was impressed by the leaders’ commitment to further integrate Ukraine into the European and Euro-Atlantic community.
I am not the only one to have been impressed by Ukraine’s efforts. International organizations, such as Freedom House, have acknowledged Ukraine’s progress in recent years in protecting the political rights and civil liberties of its citizens.
Mr. Speaker, I believe Congress should demonstrate its support for Ukraine’s reforms by approving legislation today that would grant Ukraine Permanent Normal Trade Relations status, and thereby take it one step closer to becoming a member of the WTO.
The passage of PNTR for Ukraine also will show Congress’ support for the efforts of the Yushchenko government to ensure that the upcoming March 26 parliamentary elections will be free and fair. I am pleased that my Helsinki Commission colleague from Florida, Congressman Alcee Hastings, has been appointed as the OSCE PA Special Coordinator for our election observation mission there, and I look forward to reviewing the mission’s findings and report.
So far, the pre-election process, while not completely problem-free, has been dramatically different from the period leading up to the fraudulent elections of November 2004, which ignited the Orange Revolution. In the 2004 election, the Ukrainian government instructed the media about how to cover the elections and systematically abused government resources. In contrast, the upcoming elections are expected to be free and fair.
Mr. Speaker, I also would like to take a few moments to comment on the issue that underlies the legislation we are considering today.
The issue Congress is formally considering today is whether to withdraw the application of the “Jackson-Vanik” amendment to Ukraine and thereby grant Ukraine permanent normal trade relations status.
The Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was adopted in 1975, was intended to provide a way for the United States to deny trade benefits to countries that are denying the rights of its citizens, particularly religious minorities.
Mr. Speaker, in light of the commitment that Ukraine has demonstrated to protecting the rights of religious minorities, I think it is appropriate that we withdraw the application of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to Ukraine today.
Since independence, each successive government of Ukraine has demonstrated a consistent commitment to defending the religious and ethnic rights of all the people of Ukraine. Current President Victor Yushchenko has continued this unambiguous commitment by pledging to bring minority groups together and reconciling historic conflicts.
The International Religious Freedom Report for 2005, published by the U.S. State Department, recognizes that “President Yushchenko has, since taking office, spoken publicly about his vision of a Ukraine in which religious freedom flourishes and people are genuinely free to worship as they please.”
It must be understood, however, that there remain issues of concern – most notably the return of communal, religious property that was confiscated during the Soviet era, and the anti-Semitic activities of Ukraine’s largest private university – the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management (MAUP).
Mr. Speaker, I have raised both these issues in recent days with the Ambassador from Ukraine and other Ukrainian officials, and I have been impressed by their commitment to addressing these issues. Ukrainian officials have assured me that the government is committed to continuing its efforts to return communal property as required under current law, and that the Government of Ukraine will continue to condemn, at the highest levels, the anti-Semitic activities of the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management.
Mr. Speaker, given these concerns, I am pleased that the legislation we are considering today highlights the importance Government of Ukraine’s continuing commitment to ensuring freedom of religion, respect for minorities, and eliminating intolerance.
Mr. Speaker, shortly I will yield time to the gentleman from California, Mr. Lantos, the ranking member of the International Relations Committee, and our leader in Congress on issues of human rights, democracy, and religious freedom. Mr. Lantos is the leader in Congress of our Task Force to Combat Anti-Semitism, and I want to thank him for working with me, the Helsinki Commission, and the OSCE as we have also battled against the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe.
Ukraine has agreed to certain commitments to fight anti-Semitism – as have all 55 Participating States in the OSCE – and let me make it crystal clear today that we intend to hold Ukraine to those commitments, including their responsibility to denounce anti-Semitic statements, vigorously enforce hate crimes laws, and promote diversity and tolerance in school curricula. I am pleased that Section 1, paragraph 4 of the resolution before us today references these OSCE commitments.
Let me make a personal reflection here. During my visit to Ukraine last year, I also visited two monuments – the Ukraine Famine memorial, honoring the millions of victims of Stalin’s genocidal 1932-1933 famine, and Babi Yar, where hundreds of thousands of Jews and others were massacred by the Nazis during World War II.
Mr. Speaker, it was a very moving experience for me to lay wreaths at the sites of these two memorials. These horrific events were a testament to the cruelty and intolerance of dictatorships. I do believe that today’s independent Ukraine now understands that respect for human rights and a commitment to democracy and tolerance are the best inoculation against horrors like the Famine and Babi Yar. The U.S. Government, the Helsinki Commission, and the OSCE look forward to working with a democratic Ukraine as they continue to build their institutions of democracy, establish the rule of law, protect human rights and religious freedom, and combat corruption.
In closing, I commend Ukraine for its progress in promoting political and economic freedom for its citizens, and its integration into the global, rules-based economy. I urge my colleagues to join me in demonstrating support for Ukraine’s efforts by voting today to grant the country permanent normal trade relations status.