Human Rights and Democracy in Eastern Europe

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Thomas O. Melia is US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. He provided this overview of US government policy before the House Foreign Affairs Europe and Eurasia Subcommittee on July 26, 2011.

President Obama has said that, "Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement with the world and a catalyst for global cooperation." Certainly, we are all sadly aware that during the last century, Europe was the venue for two World Wars and a Cold War. Twenty years after the fall of communism in Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union, it is appropriate to look at how the region has developed and to note where there has been progress and where there has been disappointment. The Committee is wise to distill lessons learned and to look closely at the challenges that remain. This is a timely moment to discuss democracy in the region given recent events as well. Lithuania has just concluded a very successful term as chair of the Community of Democracies, and it continues until December as Chairman-in- Office of the OSCE. Moldova has this year seen an orderly change of government and improvements in democratic performance. Turkey and Hungary -- both NATO allies and countries in the midst of consolidating democratic transitions are in the midst of major constitutional reforms. And in recent weeks the people of Belarus have found creative ways to protest against harsh repression. Of course, we hope that we one day achieve a Europe "whole, free, and at peace," but for now our job is to lay the groundwork for that future. We believe that the consolidation of genuine democracy in Central and Eastern Europe is in fact a pre- requisite for our other goals in the region. Strong European democracies with respect for minorities, tolerance of dissent, freedom of assembly and expression, regular and democratic elections, and credible and accessible justice systems that recognize all individuals are equal before the law are the strongest allies of the United States and bring the best prospects for peace, stability, security, and prosperity in the broader world. The focus of today's hearing is "democracy in Eastern Europe" which I have interpreted to mean central and eastern Europe and the European portions of the former Soviet Union, but before I turn to that area, I want to take a moment to make clear that we have an important common agenda even with the most advanced democracies in Europe. Just as the United States strives to build a "more perfect union," we collaborate with our good friends in Europe to discuss and address continuing concerns in our own countries, like the fair treatment of minorities. As the Secretary has noted, "[f]ar too often and in too many places, Roma continue to experience racial profiling, violence, segregation, and other forms of discrimination. " Anti- Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents are too common. Individuals with disabilities struggle to participate fully in governance due to limited accessibility for voting and other aspects of civic life. Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community face discrimination and violence in many parts of Europe although we were pleased to see the Government of Serbia successfully protect participants in a Belgrade pride parade last year, and I spoke in mid-June at a Baltic Pride symposium in Tallinn. I begin with the issue of minorities not to find fault with any particular country but to emphasize that we should approach the promotion of human rights with some humility. By talking about our own shortcomings as strong as our democracy is, and it is very strong the United States is not perfect -- we disarm those who claim that promoting human rights and democracy is meddling in others' internal affairs. In addition to the matter of how we treat our minorities, I want to add a caveat about our common project of transatlantic integration. The promise of EU and NATO membership has been highly effective in promoting reform and democracy- strengthening on the continent. …