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The OSCE’s Enduring Relevance

By Daniel Rosas, Transatlantic Community Analyst


As the Ukraine crisis continues, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is becoming a central actor in the monitoring and mediation of hostilities even as some continue to question its role in Euro-Atlantic security. Originally established during the Cold War as a multilateral forum known as the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), today the OSCE is a full-fledged institution that seeks to address a wide range of security issues – from arms control to human rights – and its membership spans North America, Europe, Russia and Central Asia. Last month, Michael Link, director for the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institution and Human Rights (ODIHR), elaborated on the OSCE’s current activities and potential future at a conference hosted by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Washington, D.C. Stating that he had not been to the U.S. capital since 1992, in large part because there has been no urgent need until now, Link predicted that the Ukraine crisis would again bring him back to Washington “within six months’ time.”

After outlining the OSCE mission in Ukraine, which is currently increasing its number of observers in the eastern part of the country from 250 to 500, Link stressed three major pillars for improving the OSCE.  First, he said, the OSCE must continue to analyze its members’ commitments and speak-out when members do not comply. Second, it must maintain and increase border monitoring. Third, it must improve legislative as well as local roundtable consultations regarding facts on the ground and policy. The OSCE, he further argued, “must receive a constant flow of monetary contribution from its members or the promise in its mission is in vain.” Questions from U.S. State Department officials, German think-tankers and others highlighted common criticisms of the organization: How is the OSCE relevant if it only reaches decisions by consensus and has no enforcement mechanism to address non-compliance by member states? Link retorted: “The mission of the OSCE is to work with all of its members and to implement suggestions based on the cooperation and consensus of all members.”

This may seem like diplo-speak, and it is, but this discussion points to at least two reasons why the OSCE is still relevant – reasons supported by the OSCE’s history. The OSCE’s role in Euro-Atlantic security is rooted in the Helsinki Final Act, signed in 1975 through the CSCE. This non-binding agreement, signed by most Western states and the Soviet Union,  recognized post-war European borders and called on signatories to respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and self-determination. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev initially hailed the Moscow Helsinki Group – a non-governmental organization founded to monitor the implementation of the human rights aspect of the Helsinki Final Act – as win for the Soviet Union’s image. However, the group’s work led to a liberal movement across the Soviet Union, paving the way for Eastern Europeans and Russians to publically voice their discontent with Soviet rule. Thus, the Helsinki Final Act thawed Cold War relations, and, eventually, Soviet identity.

Since its founding as an institution in 1994, the OSCE has continued to address European security challenges with a decidedly open formula for promoting dialogue among OSCE members and non-members on the premise of promoting peace above all else. This history sheds light on the concerns mentioned above – that the OSCE may not be relevant as most member states find themselves aligned against one member: Russia. As an organization that operates through consensus and non-binding decisions, can the OSCE still useful in this situation? For at least two reasons, the answer is yes. First, the OSCE is performing an important conflict monitoring function in Ukraine, as it has done elsewhere, that is made possible by its inclusive membership and diplomatic stance. Second, and relatedly, Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated a greater willingness to engage the Ukrainian government through the OSCE rather than the West. In addition to performing a valuable conflict monitoring function, the OSCE offers Putin a more politically viable alternative to direct negotiations with the West, opening opportunities to move toward a de-escalation and resolution of the crisis.

This combination of qualities makes the OSCE is uniquely suited to function as a bridge between East and West, just as the CSCE did during the Cold War. This is not to say that the OSCE does not have shortcomings – its work overlaps with NATO, the EU, the Council of Europe and other organizations to some extent; and its decisions are reached by consensus and are non-binding – but it still adds significant value to the Euro-Atlantic security architecture.


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