Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell
Chairman - Helsinki Commission


For more than a decade many countries which suffered through foreign occupations and Communist domination have attempted to solve the difficult problems of returning or compensating the rightful owners of property plundered by the Nazis and the Communists.

Many Americans are affected by this issue, either because they fled the Nazis or the Communists themselves, or because close family members did. In many cases, people were fortunate just to get out with their lives, and had to leave behind all of their possessions. The Helsinki Commission has received messages from hundreds of individuals with unresolved property claims. This issue matters to thousands of people who came to the United States because they faced religious, ethnic or political persecution.

Over the past several decades, the United States has negotiated settlements with many governments covering American citizens’ losses from nationalization of property. Many people from those countries are now American citizens but who could not share in settlements between the United States and their former countries because they were not American citizens at the time when their property was taken. The only option for these claimants is to seek redress in their former countries.

There is no international requirement that countries must make property restitution or provide compensation for confiscated properties. However, if a legal process for property restitution or compensation is established, international law requires that it be nondiscriminatory and be implemented under the rule of law. The processes in many countries do not meet these standards.

The distinguished panels of witnesses before the Commission today will document the situation faced by American claimants seeking return of their homes and land in several Central and East European OSCE participating States and we will also touch on the status of communal property restitution for religious groups.

The Commission last held a hearing on property restitution in Central and Eastern Europe three years ago. Witnesses at that hearing described governments lacking the political will to return property confiscated by previous undemocratic regimes. They also described inefficient or corrupt judicial systems or government administrations for property restitution that rarely returned property to rightful owners. I’m sorry to say that in most of the cases highlighted at the last hearing, no progress has been made—the Czech-Americans still cannot claim restitution or compensation due to their American citizenship. Slovenia continues to make very slow progress in implementing its restitution law despite deadlines for decisions in property cases that passed years ago. The Greek Catholics in Romania still face a blunt refusal for assistance from the government with their efforts to recover
their property from the Orthodox church despite the fact that the Greek Catholic property was given to the Orthodox Church by the government in 1948.

Property restitution and compensation are important steps forward in the economic and political development of post-Communist states. Successfully responding to property claims means establishing the rule of law in these societies. Settlement of these claims will enhance foreign investors’ confidence that property they rehabilitate or build from scratch will be treated fairly and legally. This is a key part of a successful transition to a market economy.