By SCOTT SHEWFELT, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - Freshman Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., was named co-chairman of the prestigious Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the American arm of the largest regional security organization in the world.
"I'm extremely excited," Cardin said of the Tuesday announcement. "This is a real opportunity to be as aggressive as possible to fight for human rights."
The CSCE is part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is also known as the Helsinki Commission. The organization was formed in 1975 and now includes 56 nations in North America, Europe, Africa and Central Asia, collectively working to address military security, human rights violations, environmental concerns and economic issues.
Previously a congressman, Cardin has served on the commission since 1993 and is one of only three Americans along with Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, and Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., to have been a vice president of the larger OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
"It's hard to find a senator more fitting for this position," said Fred Turner, soon-to-be staff director of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.
But the commission is not exactly a household name.
"It's been around so long and not many people know about it, so you have to question its effectiveness," said congressional scholar and public policy analyst Ilona Nickels.
"I don't think the Helsinki Commission is well known by my constituents, but there's interest in human rights, both here and abroad," said Cardin adding that economics, security, global warming and the situation in Iraq are also major concerns of the commission.
In two weeks, the 56 states and other participating partners will meet to develop a common policy on global warming, Cardin said.
Hastings was named chairman of the CSCE Tuesday. The assignment may mitigate any damage from his being passed over to head the House Intelligence Committee, after questions arose about the propriety of the appointment of a man who was impeached and driven from a federal judgeship in 1988 on bribery charges.
The position of chairman and co-chairman switch every two years from the House to Senate.
Cardin said the Helsinki Commission has helped fight to give full opportunities to religious minorities and implemented anti-Semitism legislation.
Calling hearings, raising awareness of issues in international forums, and even preventing meetings, are standard tools of the commission as it seeks to avoid armed conflict.
Cardin cites as successes the commission's role in helping Russian minorities get representation in Estonia, and the quashing of identification cards in Greece requiring religion to be listed.
"When you hear Helsinki," Cardin said, "think of human rights."