(Washington) – The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) remains a central component in the United States’ efforts to promote democracy and human rights and should not be weakened under the guise of reform. That was the conclusion reached by participants at a hearing held today by the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

“When you look at Ukraine, Georgia and much of Eastern Europe, you cannot dismiss the central role that has been played by the OSCE in sustaining the move toward democracy and protection for human rights,” said U.S. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman, Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ). “Clearly the OSCE remains a key element in America’s efforts to spread freedom in the OSCE region and beyond.”

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, is a U.S. Government agency that monitors progress in the implementation of the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The Commission consists of nine members from the United States Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

“The attempt by Russia and some other countries to water down and weaken the OSCE would merely undermine what has been one of the world’s premier international bodies in supporting human rights and democracy. We cannot let that happen.” said Commission Ranking Member, Rep. Ben Cardin, (D-MD).

Russia and several other former Soviet republics are pushing to make changes to the OSCE, including placing restrictions on the organization’s ability to observe and assess elections in participating States, activity that has proven valuable in ushering democratic change in Georgia, Ukraine, and most recently Kyrgyzstan. The United States has generally resisted such proposals, arguing that to do so would weaken the OSCE’s ability to monitor compliance with the requirements of the Helsinki Final Act.

“Russia has argued that the OSCE is reaching beyond its mandate when it becomes involved with election monitoring and related issues, but there is no historical basis for that claim,” added Smith. “What Russia is really proposing is to hollow out the Helsinki Process and turn back the clock on what has been 30 years of global human rights progress.” Russia, scheduled to hold critically important presidential elections in 2007 recently adopted a restrictive law on elections.

Amb. Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, testified. The hearing, held by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, demonstrated the continuing role of the OSCE as a tool in advancing American foreign policy priorities.

The Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is charged with implementing the Helsinki Final Act, and is made up of 55 participating States, including the United States, Canada, numerous governments in Europe, Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union. The OSCE is active in the fields of military security, economic and environmental cooperation, human rights and humanitarian concerns, and the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts within and between participating States.