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The Helsinki Commission: 45 years of promoting human rights, democracy, peace and security

Forty-five years ago on June 3, 1976, over the strong, and thankfully unsuccessful, objection of Henry Kissinger’s State Department, a bill creating the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, commonly known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, was signed into law. For more than 35 of those 45 years, I had the privilege to work for this small U.S. government agency located on Capitol Hill, which promotes peace, security, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The work was meaningful and fulfilling, and reflected many of the values I was raised with, including in my grade-school through grad-school Catholic education.

The Helsinki Commission derives its name from the 1975 Helsinki Final Act (heretofore referred to as the Final Act), when leaders of 35 countries, including the Soviet Union, agreed on a broad range of measures designed to enhance security and cooperation. One of the most consequential agreements of the last half of the 20th century, it included provisions to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and to expand contacts between people.

The Final Act launched what is often called the Helsinki process – initially called the Conference on Security and Coopera­tion in Europe (CSCE). The Helsinki process played a key role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and restoration of the independence of the countries dominated by Moscow. Soon after, CSCE evolved into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has expanded to now include 57 participating states.

How does the Helsinki Commission fit in to this larger Helsinki process? Members of Congress almost immediately saw the opportunity presented by this milestone agreement to press the Soviet and other Communist governments on human rights. A mere month following the Final Act’s signing, Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.) introduced legislation creating a commission to monitor and encourage compliance by all signatory countries with the Final Act, especially its human rights and humanitarian provisions.

The makeup of the Commission was quite unusual for a federal agency, as it had members from both the legislative and executive branches: not only Senators and Representatives from both parties, who constituted the majority of Commissioners, but also representatives from the State, Defense and Commerce Departments. This structure has served the Commission well throughout its history and has made it more impactful than if it had been wholly in one branch of the government.

The Kissinger State Department strongly opposed Rep. Fenwick’s legislation because they saw the conduct of foreign policy within the purview of the Executive Branch, and felt that such a Commission would step on their turf. Moreover, human rights were rather low on the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities at the time. But with strong support from Soviet Jewry, Baltic, Ukrainian and other Central and East European groups, Congress overwhelmingly voted for the Commission’s establishment.

Led during the Cold War by House and Senate chairs and co-chairs of the Commis­sion – Reps. Dante Fascell (D-Fla.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) – it became a leading voice in calling attention to human rights violations in the Soviet bloc. Not surprisingly, the Soviets and their allies were not pleased.

The Commission’s professional, non-partisan staff wrote numerous public reports, speeches and Congressional resolutions, and organized many Congressional hearings and briefings. In addition to raising public awareness, the Commission encouraged our own government to make human rights a centerpiece of foreign policy in general and, more narrowly, in our relations with the Soviet Union and the other communist countries of Eastern Europe. For instance, we pushed the State Department to become more assertive in discussing specific instances of rights violations, including “naming names” of individual cases of political prisoners. After a while, some of our more cautious European allies began to follow suit.

In addition to our work in Washington, Congressional Commissioners and Commission staff, including myself, were integral members of official U.S. delegations to the CSCE/OSCE. We served alongside the State Department and other agencies to multi-year conferences of the then-35 Helsinki signatories in Belgrade (1977-1978), Madrid (1980-1983), and Vienna (1986-1989), as well as to meetings of limited duration in Budapest, Ottawa, Bern, Paris, Copenhagen and Moscow in the 1980s and early 1990s. These conferences were the principal diplomatic forum for calling out the Soviet Union and its allies for their egregious suppression of rights and freedoms. Various communities, including representatives from the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States and Canada – most notably the Human Rights Commission of the World Congress of Free Ukrainians – would travel to these meetings to advocate on behalf of their brethren.

A key focus of Commission activity in its first decade was defending Soviet prisoners of conscience and other dissidents, with special attention to the Helsinki Monitoring Groups that were formed in Moscow, Ukraine, Lithuania, Armenia and Georgia and several affiliated Soviet groups. These courageous citizen groups pressed the Soviet government to live up to the human rights commitments that they had freely undertaken in the Helsinki Final Act. The Ukrainian Helsinki Group was the largest and most repressed of these groups. The Commission, with the active support of the Ukrainian American and Lithuanian American communities, did much to draw attention to the Ukrainian and Lithuanian monitors, because at the time the focus of the U.S. government and the media was directed more on what was happening in the Soviet capital, Moscow, and not on the non-Russian republics.

The Commission also devoted considerable attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry and on religious rights, including those of Pentecostals, who constituted a disproportionate number of Soviet prisoners of conscience. The Commission was very much in the forefront on advocating for the legalization of the then-banned Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Another issue which took up considerable Helsinki Commission effort during the 1970s and much of the 1980s was what was then called human contacts. People living in the Soviet bloc, especially the Soviet Union, were denied the right to reunite with their relatives in the West. Among my first jobs at the Commission was to manage case lists of thousands of individuals denied this fundamental right – mostly Soviet Jews and Romanians. My colleagues and I also worked on cases of Soviet citizens who were not even allowed to reunite with their spouses in the United States – in some instances after multi-decade absences – or to even visit their families.

The Helsinki Commission was a staunch advocate for human rights in Poland, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries, and in particular speaking out in defense of Poland’s Solidarity movement and Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77. We also spoke out on issues that received little international attention at the time, and have been all but forgotten now. One that I worked on was the Bulgarian Communist government’s brutal attempts in the 1980s to forcibly assimilate its Turkish minority. Various Commission delegations, Congres­sio­nal hearings and reports helped shine the light on this egregious violation of the Final Act.

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.

Orest Deychakiwsky for The Ukrainian Weekly