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Watch List: April 29, 1999

29 April 1999, Volume 1, Number 16

UN HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP CONDEMNS SERBIA, NOT CHINA. By a vote of 46 to 1, the UN Human Rights Commission adopted a U.S.-sponsored resolution on April 23 condemning "the grave, horrendous, and ongoing war crimes and abuse of human rights in Kosovo" and "the systematic targeting of the civilian population." Russia cast the only nay vote, while six countries, including China, abstained. However, for the ninth time in as many years, the commission voted 22 to 17, with 14 abstentions, against condemning China for human rights violations. The State Department expressed "deep disappointment." A measure censuring Cuba for "continued oppression" passed by only one vote, which prompted Cuban officials to declare "a moral victory."

HELSINKI FEDERATION CONDEMNS ABUSE OF ACTIVISTS. In most of Central and Eastern Europe as well as Central Asia, individuals working on behalf of human rights are routinely accused of "damaging the image of the state" when reporting violations, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights told the UN Human Rights Commission's 55th session in Geneva. The federation charged that in most countries of the former Soviet Union human rights activists commonly face prosecution on fabricated charges and are subject to physical assaults by persons who remain unidentified by the police. The statement also singled out Serbia and Croatia for their harassment of human rights defenders under the cloak of national security.

NATO HITS BELGRADE TV, JOURNALISTS DENOUNCE STRIKE. On April 23, NATO missiles slammed into Serbia's state TV center, but a few hours later the programs resumed at another location. The strike left more than 10 civilians dead in the rubble and caused an uproar even among journalists and human rights activists who condemn Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's brutal suppression of independent news media. The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, for example, expressed "profound dismay" and urged NATO to reconsider its such targets and to reaffirm its commitment to press freedom. Speaking for the British government, Clare Short responded: Belgrade's "propaganda machine is prolonging the war, and it's a legitimate target."

BELARUS CONSTITUTIONAL BATTLE HEATING UP. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is determined to use "all means at his disposal" to block the elections that the democratic opposition scheduled for May 16, opposition leader Andrey Sannikau told RFE/RL on April 26. A former Belarusian deputy foreign minister, Sannikau added that the next critical date is July 20, the end of Lukashenka's presidential term under the 1994 constitution that the opposition remains loyal to. Sannikau expressed the hope that after that date the West will no longer consider him a legitimate head of state. He also voiced concern with the mysterious disappearance on April 8 of Tamara Vinikova, former head of the National Bank and now an accused embezzler, whom the government first detained in January 1997 and then held under house arrest in her Minsk apartment. "Vinikova's disappearance must not become a pattern," Sannikau said. On April 12 in Geneva, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Frank Loy told the UN Human Rights Commission that Lukashenka's 1996 cancellation of the constitution was "arbitrary" and the recent local elections "made a mockery of democracy and were based on a new law that flouts the OSCE standards."

BELARUS RESTRICTS FOREIGN CLERGY AND POLISH MINORITY. Targeting the Polish Catholic minority and Protestant missionaries, Lukashenka's government is making it extremely difficult for foreigners to engage in religious or charitable activity in Belarus, according to Keston News Service. Extensive new regulations require that a Belarusian religious organization apply with the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs for permission before foreign clergy or a church worker may enter the country. The same committee is also in the process of banning the Union of Poles in Belarus for allegedly engaging in political activities. Officials in the Union of Poles counter that they operate in accordance with the law.

TURKMEN BAPTIST JAILED ON SWINDLING CHARGES. A Turkmen member of a Baptist congregation in the port of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) was arrested and accused of being a swindler after he ignored warnings not to attend church, according to a report by Keston News Service. Shagildy Atakov was given two years in a labor camp and fined $12,000. The criminal case against Shagildy Atakov is based on his religious faith and not the facts, local Baptists told the U.S.-based Russian Evangelistic Ministries. Pastor V.V. Chernov told Keston that Shagildy's imprisonment is not "an accidental arrest" but part of a crackdown on Baptist believers in Turkmenistan.

KAZHEGELDIN CALLS FOR NEW ELECTION LAW. Unless Kazakhstan adopts a new law on elections, there will be no free elections and hence little chance for that country to move toward democracy, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, chairman of the National Republican Party of Kazakhstan, told RFE/RL in Washington. Prime minister from 1994-1997, Kazhegeldin was President Nursultan Nazarbaev's main challenger in last year's presidential elections before his name was removed on the basis of a technicality. Kazhegeldin expressed the hope that a new law will be adopted prior to the parliamentary elections scheduled for this fall. He suggested that the lack of democracy contributes to the decline of the economy and limits his people's ability to define their national identity.

**UPDATE** Three Japanese journalists summoned by a naval court martial in Vladivostok have failed to appear, causing a three-day suspension of the in-camera treason trial of journalist Grigorii Pasko (see "RFE/RL Watchlist," April 15 1999). A former naval captain, Pasko is accused of revealing illegal dumping of toxic waste by Russia's Pacific Fleet on Japanese TV . Arrested in 1997, Pasko faces a possible 20 years in prison if convicted. Both the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, and Amnesty International regard the Pasko trial as a test case.


By Catherine Cosman

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) grew out of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which helped the West to call communist governments to account for their human rights records. But now, the OSCE has taken on new tasks and generated much hope that it can serve to make Europe a better place. Given these hopes and 20 long-term, on-the-ground presences, the OSCE needs to devote attention to what its specific missions actually do and to consider whether the current OSCE process needs to be reformed.

That is especially appropriate because the public has always played a key role in the OSCE process of promoting a broad definition of regional security. From 1975 to 1990, when the OSCE was dominated by the war of words between East and West -- the public, or at least Western NGOs and scattered Soviet and East European dissidents -- helped to improve Western understanding of a broad range of issues in the East.

Since that time, however, this public role has been diluted, confused, and -- in some cases -- even lost. Instead, more narrow, on-the-ground considerations have dominated discussions about what the OSCE should do. In Belarus, for example, the current debate inside the OSCE is not about how to promote democracy, as such, but between those who demand a more muscular -- and public -- support for the opposition's right to take part in the elections and others who stress the importance of working with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Missions have to find ways to work with and around authoritarian host governments. That is because their mandates reflect lengthy negotiations between the host country's Foreign Ministry, which decides whether a mission can come in or not, and the OSCE Permanent Council. So far, no government has expelled an OSCE mission. But that attests more to the flexibility of OSCE staff than to the level of democracy in these countries.

Such flexibility may be useful, as it is often better to have observers present to document abuses rather than to leave in protest of them. But the OSCE process should involve NGOs and other expert parties. They could play a part in reviewing how well particular missions are fulfilling their mandates. And they could blow the whistle when the relationship gets too cozy between missions and host governments.

Another issue concerns the declining attention many OSCE missions give to the original purposes of the organization. All mission members clearly need to be better acquainted with the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which put human rights on an equal footing with more standard security concerns. That principle has sometimes been neglected, particularly when mission members are trained only according to the narrow mandates that the OSCE and host governments have agreed to. To return the public to the process, regular mission implementation reports could be made public after headquarters had an opportunity to respond.

A third issue involves the mandate review process. At present, the heads of mission and the OSCE review the record every six months, but most of these reviews focus more on specific unresolved problems than overarching concerns. For example, Estonia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs induced OSCE headquarters to delay for one year the publication of a comprehensive mission report -- which relied almost entirely on Estonian sources -- on the integration of the Russian-speaking population in Estonia.

That delay only compounded several other problems with the OSCE mission. Although the mandate of OSCE's Estonian mission does not call for this, the mission there focused almost exclusively on Estonian policies toward local ethnic Russians in the northeastern region of that country and devoted relatively little attention to other ethnic Russians or other issues such as trade union development, NGOs, or media contacts. That approach offended many Estonians, some Russians, and it perhaps delayed resolution of their problems.

Despite all these flaws, the OSCE does have the potential to bring new perspectives and players into a diplomatic process which is often more concerned about itself than about broader issues. But as the OSCE takes on an expanded role, the organization should work to improve its performance by increasing public involvement in and transparency of its actions.

Catherine Cosman, senior adviser to the OSCE mission in Estonia in the late 1990s, is now a program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy for the Caucasus and Central Asia. The views expressed are her own.