Today, I am pleased to welcome Foreign Minister Ažubalis to share his views with us as Lithuania’s OSCE chairmanship gets underway.
We meet as Lithuanians at home and abroad celebrate Lithuanian Independence Day – the restoration of their national independence after decades of brutal Soviet domination. We join them in this celebration, and in doing so honor the many Lithuanians made great sacrifices to rid their country of communist repression – many paid the ultimate price – and of course we honor also those killed in the January Events of 1991.
I will never forget my visit to Vilnius exactly two decades ago, just weeks after the January events. I was a member of a Helsinki Commission delegation, the largest such delegation to travel to Lithuania in over fifty years. The tension was palpable as we entered the capital, and met President Landsbergis at the heavily fortified parliament – while Soviet troops occupied nearby buildings.
Lithuania has come a long way since that time, and, now, as a solidly democratic country, a respected member of the EU and NATO, it is the OSCE chair-in-office for 2011: an honor it received the old-fashioned way. It earned it.
Lithuania is one of the great success stories of post-Soviet states – democratic, free, prosperous, with an impressive record of accomplishments within the Europe and Eurasia. And so we welcome your testimony today on Lithuania’s leadership of the OSCE, an organization founded to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Mr. Foreign Minister, I do want to emphasize my concern about Lithuania’s neighbor, Belarus. One of the greatest challenges the OSCE faces is the increasing repression in Europe’s last dictatorship, Belarus.
As author of the Belarus Democracy Acts of 2004 and 2006, and sponsor of the newly introduced Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2011, I am deeply concerned over the crackdown against dissent in that country. I call for the immediate release all of those jailed because of their opposition to the regime and advocacy of human rights and democracy. The full range of fundamental freedoms – the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of religion, the right to freedom of assembly and others are under assault in a troubling number of OSCE countries today, with leaders in several bent on maintaining the offices through blatant manipulation, intimidation and worse.
We look forward to hearing what Lithuania is doing, within the OSCE but also otherwise, to defend human rights in Belarus.
I welcome the OSCE’s continuing attention to this issue, including the work undertaken by Rabbi Andy Baker as a personal representative of the OSCE chair-in-office.
I am confident that, against the backdrop of your own country’s national experience, you will use your leadership position to speak out on behalf of those others would repress or silence. In the end, Lithuania’s chairmanship will not be judged by the number of diplomatic decisions taken at year’s end, but by your fidelity throughout the year to the core principles for which the OSCE stands, principles which inspired your countrymen to strive for the freedom we celebrate today.