In the past 15 years, Mr. Chairman, by my count the Helsinki Commission has held more than three dozen hearings on one of the several countries in South-Central Europe. Some of the witnesses on today’s second panel have participated in various initiatives – including the hearings – the Commission has undertaken in the region. The Helsinki Commission can be proud of its record of standing for principle and for humanity in the face of extreme nationalism, violence against civilians and genocide.
At this stage, it is appropriate that, for once, we look at Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia together. With few exceptions, there has been progress throughout the region, and many of the outstanding problems are common problems. For me, the best example of this is trafficking in persons. All countries under consideration today are Tier 2, according to the latest State Department report, which means they have not met minimum standards despite taking some steps. I hope this hearing can focus attention on what more can be done in the region to help the victims of trafficking, to punish those responsible for this modern form of slavery and, ultimately, to prevent the crime from occurring in the first place.
I also want to express concern about laws and draft laws under consideration today in many of the countries, which are supposed to protect religious freedom but actually do more to restrict this fundamental right. Arbitrary thresholds are placed on what can be legally recognized as a religious group. Not meeting those arbitrary thresholds often has very real consequences for believers: not being able to obtain appropriate worship facilities, or limiting the practice of one’s faith. Ultimately, such legal impediments send the signal that it is okay to discriminate against individuals who are not “traditional,” especially those belonging to new or minority faith communities.
Discrimination and violence are also felt by Roma, who are often purposefully stereotyped as society’s outcasts. In practice, in the Balkans there may actually be more tolerance of Roma than exists in several of the so-called “western” countries of Europe, but the sad fact remains that they still face very significant problems.
Kosovo remains, in many ways, worthy of more intense Commission focus. The international community should not be proud of what has been achieved after seven years there. In particular, the fact that hundreds of displaced Roma remained for so long in unhealthy lead-contaminated camps in northern Mitrovica – run by UN agencies – is shameful, and the international community and local Kosovar Albanian authorities must follow through on their commitment to rebuild the original Romani neighborhood there. I welcome the recent, positive gestures of the new Kosovar leadership which indicate a willingness and desire to accommodate Kosovo’s Serb, Roma and other minority communities. Now is the time to go beyond gestures to more meaningful concrete steps. Meanwhile, I encourage the Serb minority in Kosovo to remain engaged, and to seek the best possible outcome for their families. Mr. Chairman, I call on Belgrade to be constructive in supporting this community.
It certainly is counterproductive to fan the flames of hatred, as a recent ad in Roll Call did by equating an independent Kosovo with Afghanistan under the Taliban. As someone who has many times criticized the Kosovar Albanians for their attacks on Serbian Orthodox Churches and minority enclaves, especially in March 2004, I think it is abhorrent to label the Albanians as anti-western extremists simply because of their faith as Muslims.
I also want to express my support for the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. No people in the region suffered more than they did in the 1990s, as noted in the resolutions passed by both chambers of Congress marking the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre last year. No country, in my view, deserves European integration more. I am heartened to see that Bosnia is now looking to move beyond the Dayton Agreement, which helped restore peace in 1995 but now limits the country’s democratic development. The defeat of a recently proposed constitutional reform package is a disappointment, but I hope it will not be a long-term setback. At least opposition was based on the package not going far enough in its reforms. I hope to hear how the United States and the international community can engage the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina in order to make their government more effective and, ultimately, to make their democracy reflect the will of the citizenry rather than simply a balance of ethnicities.
I also maintain an interest on developments in the other countries of concern today. Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Croatia have strong records of friendship with the United States. They deserve our support for their efforts to establish solid democratic institutions and respect for the rule of law. And while the legacy of Milosevic still haunts Serbia, I remain confident in the ability of the courageous and democratic forces there to restore their country to its rightful place in Europe. Mr. Chairman, I believe we should remain firm in our commitment to help the people of Serbia as they seek to build a brighter future.