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Transparency and Sunshine Week

  • Hon. Benjamin L. Cardin
    US












Senate

111th Congress, Second Session

At the U.S. Helsinki Commission we monitor 56 countries, including the United States, to ensure compliance with human rights and other commitments made under the Helsinki Final Act. 

A major part of that compliance rests on governments being open and acting transparently–the same focus that is at the heart of the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Sunshine Week. 

Practicing open governance is not something countries, States, and cities should do because they have to comply with some international agreement or public records law; rather, being transparent should be an organic part of providing a democratic government and empowering citizens. 

When President Obama began his Presidency he called for unprecedented transparency. In his Open Government Directive, he outlined a clear plan for government to become more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. 

The logic is clear–only through transparency can people gain the knowledge needed to participate and hold their governments accountable. And only if the people participate can government collaborate with them to glean the best ideas. 

This directive was bold and action-oriented, but sadly we have not seen the U.S. bureaucracy react with the same swiftness with which this directive was made. Most agencies, in fact, have not made concrete changes to comply with the directive, according to a government-wide audit released earlier this week by the National Security Archive based at the George Washington University. 

It seems for all the White House is doing disclosing its visitors log, broadcasting policy meetings, increasing interactivity through town hall meetings and YouTube interviews–a lot of work remains at the agencies. 

Most glaring to me are the delays and in some cases outright denials of Freedom of Information Act requests. I was surprised to learn in the National Security Archive audit that some requests have been pending for 18 years when the law very clearly calls for responses within 20 business days when possible. 

Most baffling from the audit may be what files still remain locked in government vaults. For example, today–more than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall–the Pentagon still has not responded to a request for records detailing the military’s reaction in 1961 to the building of the wall. 

When it comes to diplomacy, this President and Secretary of State Clinton deserve great praise for the work they have done around the world to strengthen dialogue and improve U.S. relationships abroad. This successful record, however, is slightly tarnished by the Department of State’s efforts on open governance. The Department more than doubled the number of denials it issued to people filing Freedom of Information Act requests last year–the largest increase of any agency except for the Social Security Administration, which tripled its denials. 

Fourteen months is a short time to change a bureaucracy charged with managing countless records. But a handful of agencies have already shown it is possible and committed to open government changes. On top of other positive reforms, the Departments of Agriculture and Justice, the Small Business Administration, and the Office of Management and Budget all increased how much information they released and decreased how many requests they denied last year. These agencies have embraced the spirit of transparency ushered in by President Obama, and as we mark Sunshine Week, I hope others will follow suit with their own innovative ways to increase transparency and spur citizen involvement. And once agencies adopt these practices, I hope they stick with them–not because they fulfill any Presidential directive but because they give us a better democracy. 

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Articles

United States Demonstrates Global Leadership on Ukra...

Jul 14, 2023

The Helsinki Commission’s four senior leaders helmed the United States’ bicameral, bipartisan delegation to the 30th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly last week in Vancouver, Canada. Co-Chairman Senator Ben Cardin (MD), serving as Head of Delegation, was joined by Chairman Joe Wilson (SC-02) as Deputy Head of Delegation as well as Ranking Members […]

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Press Releases

Helsinki Commission Chair and Co-Chair Lead Delegati...

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WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Senator Ben Cardin (MD) and Helsinki Commission Chair Representative Joe Wilson (SC-02) led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the 30th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) in Vancouver, Canada from June 30-July 4. As Head of Delegation and Deputy Head of Delegation respectively, Senator Cardin and Representative Wilson welcomed the […]

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Hearings

North Macedonia’s Leadership of the OSCE in a ...

Feb 28, 2023

North Macedonia has taken up leadership of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—a year into Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Much of the OSCE’s focus over the past year has revolved around responses to the war, including using the organization to condemn Russian aggression and hold the […]

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Press Releases

HEARING: NORTH MACEDONIA’S LEADERSHIP OF THE OSCE IN...

Feb 24, 2023

Tuesday, February 28, 2023 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Streaming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNgAOyC9f5g North Macedonia has taken up leadership of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—a year into Putin’s brutal, full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Much of the OSCE’s focus over the past year has revolved around responses to the war, […]

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Press Releases

U.S. Delegation to the OSCE PA presents Joint Statem...

Feb 24, 2023

WASHINGTON— Today, the U.S. Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA) endorsed the “Joint Statement of Action on the One-Year Anniversary of Russia’s War Against Ukraine and the International Legal Order,” which was endorsed by the OSCE PA Bureau and published today at the conclusion of the […]

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Press Releases

Steadfast Support for Ukraine: United States Delegat...

Feb 23, 2023

WASHINGTON – Today, the United States Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA), led by Senator Ben Cardin (MD), met with Mykyta Poturaiev, Ukraine’s Head of Delegation and additional representatives of the Ukrainian Rada in Vienna, Austria, along with the Heads of Delegation of Canada, Estonia, […]

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Press Releases

Helsinki Commissioners Urge Austria to Deny Visas to...

Feb 15, 2023

WASHINGTON – Helsinki Commission leadership, Chairman Rep. Joe Wilson, Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, and Rep. Steve Cohen, on February 10, sent a letter to Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Schallenberg to reconsider granting visas to the Russian delegation to the Winter Meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, […]

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Articles

OSCE’s 2022 Ministerial Council in Lodz: Russia Isol...

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By Janice Helwig, Senior Policy Advisor, Demitra Pappas, Senior Advisor Department of State, Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to OSCE Foreign Ministers and senior officials from the 57 participating States and 11 Asian and Mediterranean partners of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) convened the OSCE […]

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Articles

NATO Refocused, Europe Reinforced

Aug 10, 2022

By Jessika Nebrat, Max Kampelman Fellow​ Following the escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is playing a role it has not filled in years. Forced to reconcentrate its attention to Europe’s defense, NATO allies are demonstrating persistent resolve in countering Moscow’s expansionist tendencies. In doing so, NATO returns to a core […]

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Publications

Helsinki Commission Digital Digest July 2022

Jul 29, 2022

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Press Releases

Co-Chairman Cohen Deplores Arrest of Ilya Yashin in ...

Jul 28, 2022

WASHINGTON—In response to the arrest of Ilya Yashin, a Russian politician critical of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Putin’s government has been engaged in a systematic assault on Russian citizens who dare speak the truth about […]

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Press Releases

Co-Chairman Cohen Condemns Execution of Democracy Ac...

Jul 28, 2022

WASHINGTON—Following the execution of four democracy activists by Myanmar’s military junta, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “I strongly condemn the execution of these courageous activists by Myanmar’s unelected and illegitimate regime. These men—Kyaw Min Yu, Phyo Zeya Thaw, Hla Myo […]

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