Sen. Brownback is likely to head commission

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) has emerged as the next likely chairman of the U.S. commission that monitors human rights in Ukraine, which has been engulfed in a democratic uprising for weeks, and other countries from North America to central Asia.

The outgoing chairman, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), confirmed yesterday that Brownback was almost certain to succeed him at the Helsinki Commission, created in 1976 and named for the pro-human-rights Helsinki Accords of 1975. “I know he wants to do this,” Smith said of Brownback.

The commission, formally the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), monitors violations of individual liberties in the 55 states belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, encompassing the United States, Canada, Europe and the 15 former Soviet republics. Commissioners include members of Congress and representatives from the executive branch.

The new chairman will help shape U.S. policy toward Ukraine and neighboring
Russia and, by extension, take part in efforts to curb nuclear-weapons proliferation, global terrorism and arms and drug trafficking, sources close to the commission said.

In the coming years, the Helsinki Commission — with the White House, the State Department and other foreign-policymakers on Capitol Hill — also will be involved in discussions surrounding Ukraine’s possible entry into NATO and the European Union.

Adrian Karatnycky, a senior scholar at Freedom House, a global pro-democracy watchdog group, called Brownback a “very serious and substantial guy” who had worked to combat trafficking of women and persecution of religious minorities in China, among other issues. “He’s incredibly energetic,” Karatnycky said.

Smith also said that Brownback is sure to continue the senator’s work battling anti-Semitism.

Aaron Groote, a spokesman for Brownback, declined to comment on the senator’s plans. Some Republicans said they were waiting for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) officially to pick a new chairman; these Republicans expect that to happen in January. A spokeswoman for Frist did not return a call seeking comment.

Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), a member of the Helsinki Commission, voiced confidence that the group would continue working on a bipartisan basis with the White House and State Department to further democratic ends. Cardin praised the “excellent reputation” of Brownback, who also sits on the Foreign Relations Committee.

The new chairman will help frame a clear and consistent U.S. position regarding Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, a Republican aide said, adding that the administration had sent mixed signals after Ukraine’s runoff election last month.

While Secretary of State Colin Powell took a hard line against election fraud, President Bush sought to downplay tensions.

Leadership of the commission rotates every two years between its nine House and nine Senate members. Smith is scheduled to step down as chairman now that the 108th Congress is over. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), who most recently served as co-chairman, would be Smith’s obvious successor, but the senator is retiring after two terms.

That leaves Brownback and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) the most likely successors to Smith. Yesterday, Kevin Schweers, a spokesman for Hutchison, ruled out the possibility of his boss’s seeking the chairmanship. Hutchison, in her third term, is expected to run for governor of Texas in 2006.

One Republican said the chairmanship could go to someone besides Brownback; the only other possibilities are Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Gordon Smith of Oregon.

Karatnycky, the Freedom House scholar, and other democracy activists said the commission — while limited to nonbinding resolutions — plays a critical role in emerging democracies such as Ukraine and Russia.

“In an environment where there is a dearth of commentary and attention to these severe rights violations, the comments of CSCE commissioners have a big impact on the country,” Karatnycky said.

In addition to Campbell, at least one other member of the commission is departing — retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.). It is unclear who will fill these seats.

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