By MAREN WRIGHT
WASHINGTON (Jan. 23, 2009)—Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., was appointed chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission Friday and plans to continue the commission's work promoting security and cooperation in Europe.
"I am honored to take the reins as chairman at such a critical time in our nation's history," Cardin said in a statement.
Cardin, who will take over for outgoing chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., already has a priority list.
"I would put top on the list our relationship with Russia," said Cardin in an interview.
Cardin is vice-president of the parliamentary assembly for the only organization in Europe with members from Russia and the U.S., the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Cardin said.
Hastings' office said that assessing the role the U.S. can play in the OSCE and working closely with the agency should be a priority for the commission, said spokeswoman Lale Mamaua.
James Dean, the Heritage Foundation deputy director of government relations, said the OSCE is better known in Europe and underappreciated in the United States.
"The OSCE can play a role in how to get the Russians to behave better. It was very effective in the '70s and '80s by highlighting Russian human rights abuses," Dean said.
Cardin has been a member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission since 1993. Cardin was co-chairman before receiving this appointment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. He also serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The commission draws nine members from the Senate, nine from the House, and one member each from the departments of State, Defense and Commerce. The inter-departmental focus is evident in areas such as international energy policy.
"Many countries of Europe have mineral wealth, oil, but the way they have been used has not helped with energy security or lifting their populations out of poverty," Cardin said of another international objective he holds.
Cardin's goals for the commission don't seem overly ambitious to Heritage Foundation analysts.
"One of the things about the Helsinki Commission is that it has traditionally been underappreciated. A lot of its being effective is the member's commitments to making it effective," said Dean.
The Helsinki Commission, formerly known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, is a government agency whose name was formed from the 1975 Helsinki Accords, a series of principles—including civil rights, cooperation and mutual respect—that the signers agreed to uphold.
Both Cardin and Hastings have pledged to realize the potential of the commission. Though stepping down from the chairman's role, Hastings doesn't plan to decrease his efforts.
"I look forward to playing an active role on the commission as co-chairman," Hastings said, "bringing greater attention to the many issues we face."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.