The following column discusses the work of the Helsinki Commission beginning in the late 1980s, as the Soviet empire began to unravel, to the present day. Part 1 of this two-part series, which ran in the May 30 issue of The Ukrainian Weekly, discussed the work of the Helsinki Commission from its founding up to the late 1980s.
With the advent of Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika the direction of the Helsinki Commission’s work began to change. The Soviets began releasing political prisoners and allowing people to reunite with their families in the West. One powerful indication of the changes taking place was a Congressional delegation led by Helsinki Commission chairs Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to Moscow in October 1988. The Commission invited leading Soviet dissidents of all kinds to come to Moscow to meet with our delegation and even facilitated working meetings between them and Soviet officials. Given the level of repression in the early and mid-1980s, this would have been unthinkable just a mere year earlier. For me, it was especially thrilling to meet with leaders of the banned Ukrainian Catholic Church and former Ukrainian political prisoners such as Vyacheslav Chornovil and Mykhaylo and Bohdan Horyn, names that had been familiar to me since childhood and on whose behalf I had advocated.
Subsequently, the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, started a chain reaction that led to the demise of Soviet rule in the Warsaw Pact countries of Central and Eastern Europe. One of the many immediate results was the cessation of the brutal repression of the Bulgarian Turks, which was a big relief as I had been to Bulgaria just a few weeks earlier and had witnessed first-hand their inhumane treatment.
This did not mean that human rights issues altogether disappeared, especially in the U.S.S.R. The Commission continued to advocate for greater freedoms and self-determination of nations. Commission staff began to observe elections in Eastern Europe and then in 1990 and 1991 in the republics of the Soviet Union. We published reports on what we observed. I recall a few years after independence a very high-ranking Ukrainian official, who had also held a prominent position prior to independence, telling me that he had read all of our Helsinki Commission reports on Ukraine at the time. I remember initially thinking that he must not have had much to do then, but then it occurred to me that we were virtually the only U.S. government entity writing public reports on the situation of Ukraine’s movement toward independence, so it made sense that they would have been of interest.
Helsinki Commissioners were also in the forefront in calling for U.S. recognition of the independence of Ukraine and other Soviet republics. The 1991 resolution on Ukrainian independence passed with strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate despite State Department objections.
The disintegration of one-party communist regimes and the end of the division of Europe brought about newfound freedom for millions of people and independence for Captive Nations. As monumental a development as this was, it did not bring about the end of violations of the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) commitments – many of them egregious.
Horrific atrocities as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign, predominantly by Serb forces in Bosnia, but also in Croatia and Kosovo during the 1990s, resulted in violence on a scale not seen since World War II, with well over 100,000 people killed. The Commission – through numerous hearings, congressional visits, legislation and other activities – was in the forefront of defending innocent victims and national underdogs against the aggressors in the western Balkans.
The Commission was also extremely engaged in calling attention to and condemning Russia’s many appalling human rights abuses during its two wars against Chechnya between 1994 and 2009.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and ongoing aggression and human rights abuses, which flagrantly violates all 10 foundational principles of the Helsinki Final Act and numerous other international agreements, also have met with a vigorous Commission response. Helsinki Commissioners have strongly promoted robust political, security, economic and democracy U.S. support for Ukraine to defend itself against Moscow’s assaults on its sovereignty. They continue to encourage internal reforms, recognizing that these, too, are key to enhancing Ukraine’s resiliency against Russia’s relentless malign activity. The Commission has also strongly supported sanctions against Russia.
Commission Chair Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has been a leader in these efforts, including as a lead author of the Russia Ukraine-related sanctions in the consequential Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) of 2017.
Even though the protection of rights and freedoms remains central to the Commission’s mandate, the end of the Cold War expanded the scope of the Commission’s activity in areas such as the rule of law, anti-corruption and anti-kleptocracy, promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, treatment of minorities – especially the Roma – and human trafficking.
Not surprisingly, OSCE countries that routinely and blatantly violate human rights and democratic norms, such as Russia, Belarus, Central Asian countries, as well as Azerbaijan and Turkey, have come under the most scrutiny. Sometimes the Commission has also highlighted problems in allied countries, such as Hungary in recent years, that have seen backsliding in rule of law or media freedoms. And while the Commission has a track record of supporting Ukraine’s aspirations that I believe is second-to-none, it has also not shied away from criticizing Ukrainian authorities when they don’t comply with their OSCE commitments – for instance, during the late Kuchma period and the Yanukovych years. The Commission, when warranted, has also addressed shortcomings in our own country’s compliance with Helsinki commitments.
The Helsinki Commission has utilized various channels consistent with its mandate to monitor and encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE agreements. To this end, it has convened some 500 public hearings and briefings drawing attention to violations of OSCE commitments and issued thousands of reports, press releases, statements and articles.
Commission staff have participated as members of official U.S. delegations to numerous OSCE conferences, especially those addressing human rights and democratic norms. The Commission maintains an ongoing staff presence at the U.S. Mission to the OSCE in Vienna. As part of its work, the Commission has interacted regularly with officials from the OSCE participating states both in Washington and abroad. Commissioners and staff have also participated in more than 120 international OSCE election observation missions in nearly 30 countries – including 18 in Ukraine alone.
Helsinki Commissioners have introduced numerous resolutions and bills over the years, including those focusing on individual countries such as Ukraine. Among the landmark Commission-initiated public laws have been former Chairman Rep. Chris Smith’s (R-N.J.) Trafficking Victims Protection Acts and three Belarus Democracy Acts, and Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin’s ground-breaking Magnitsky and Global Magnitsky Acts.
The Commission’s unique makeup has allowed it to not only work closely with both the Senate and House, but it has also forged a productive and cooperative working relationship with the State Department.
A key platform of engagement has been the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCEPA), which brings together parliamentarians from 56 of the OSCE participating states. Many Commissioners have held leadership roles and used the OSCEPA to promote human rights and democratic development, the rule of law, political-military security and a plethora of other issues. As with the OSCE itself, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has been a central issue at the OSCEPA in recent years.
This two-part article does not begin to do justice to all of the Helsinki Commission’s initiatives and activities over the last 45 years to promote the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE agreements. I hope to return in future columns to various aspects of the Commission’s work.
Throughout my tenure there, I worked with many amazing colleagues on the Commission’s staff who were genuinely committed to what I liked to call the “mission of the Commission.” During the early years, the Commission was led by Spencer Oliver, the “founding father” of the Commission who later became the first, and to date longest serving secretary general of the OSCEPA, and later Ambassador Sam Wise, who led the Commission after a long career at the State Department. Other colleagues are too numerous to mention, but I cannot help but single out those with whom I had the honor of serving for more than a quarter of a century: Bob Hand, Erika Schlager, Ron McNamara and John Finerty. They were instrumental to the Commission’s success, and I was proud to serve alongside them, as well as with others.
In these times of excessive polarization, it was truly gratifying to work for an organization where, despite political and party affiliations, there was a good deal of collegiality. This has helped the Commission in advancing the U.S. goals of promoting comprehensive security in the OSCE region, recognizing that genuine security and stability encompasses respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and democratic norms and values.