OSCE today

The OSCE today occupies a unique place in international organizations in general and transatlantic security institutions in particular. It has also been experiencing a “mid life crisis” in recent years that has raised some fundamental questions about itself, requiring a new set of adaptations if the organization is to continue to play a leading role in regional security and cooperation.

This crisis reflects a declining consensus about the normative foundations of the OSCE, especially of the human dimension documents adopted in the years immediately following the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe; several renewed crises in the realm of security, especially between Russia and NATO countries; and the stalemate in the arms control regime and other political foundations of cooperation that had created a favorable context for the OSCE to develop in the 1990s.

Basic priorities

The basic priorities of the OSCE at present are:

  • Democracy : to consolidate the participating states’ common values and help in building fully democratic civil societies based on the rule of law and principles of “good governance”
  • Peace : to prevent local conflicts, restore stability, seek to resolve “frozen conflicts,” and bring peace to war-torn areas
  • Security : to overcome real and perceived security deficits and to avoid the creation of new political, economic, or social divisions by promoting a cooperative system of security
New activities

Despite stalemate on some of the larger political issues, the OSCE continues with “business as usual” on a large number of activities that seldom grab headlines, but which make a significant cumulative contribution to improved security throughout the region. These new activities help in the following ways:

  • Nineteen field missions that continue to monitor ongoing events and to assist in a wide range of conflict management tasks on the ground.
  • The Action Against Terrorism Unit, which continues to assist participating states to improve their capacity to respond to the threat of terrorism.
  • The Strategic Special Police Matters Units engages in training of police forces in improved police work within a democratic context that respects human rights.
  • The Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings assists states in preventing trafficking in human beings, especially women and children, across state borders to serve as sex slaves, forced labor, or other servile roles.
  • The Forum for Security Cooperation is expanding assistance to states in monitoring and reducing the flow of small arms and light weapons across state borders and in decommissioning arms within their own territories.
OSCE institutional challenges

In recent years, the OSCE has lost momentum built up after the end of the cold war, causing it to reassess its role in regional security. There are several major causes of this crisis:

  • Increased polarization between eastern and western countries has led to claims that the OSCE focuses too much on intervention in states “east of Vienna” while ignoring problems in states “west of Vienna;” and further claims that the focus has become “unbalanced” in favor of human dimension and democratization activities to the neglect of security, economic, and environmental functions contained in the first two baskets of the Helsinki Final Act.
  • The United States has shifted much of its foreign policy attention to Southwest Asia and the Middle East and has reduced its presence in the Balkans and other areas of concern to the OSCE, leading to a lowering of U.S. foreign policy attention in this region.
  • The European Union has enlarged and now includes over half the OSCE participating states, and has developed independent security institutions that potentially compete with those of the OSCE.

The crisis that has affected the OSCE has had several significant consequences for the operation of the OSCE:

  • Consensus has been increasingly difficult to achieve, and every Ministerial Meeting from 2002 to 2009 failed to adopt a consensus communiqué.
  • There has been conflict over the budget, and it is now common for budgets to be adopted well into the fiscal year.
  • Several key OSCE missions have been closed in locations such as Estonia, Latvia, Chechnya, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia; and the mandates for other missions have been reduced from monitoring and reporting on the host governments' compliance with its OSCE political commitments to managing projects.
  • ODIHR (Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) has been placed under great pressure to make its election monitoring more “objective,” to expand its activities “West of Vienna,” and to avoid issuing reports that are likely to influence the outcome of domestic electoral processes in countries where it monitors, largely as a reaction to its perceived central role in the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia and the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine that created substantial concern in Russia, Belarus, and several other former Soviet states.
  • ODIHR opted to cancel its observation of the 2007 Duma and 2008 presidential elections in Russia rather than accept what it termed unprecedented restrictions on its mission, including limits on the number of observers it could deploy and the duration of their stay in Russia.
OSCE responses

In 2005, the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel, commissioned a report by “eminent persons” to evaluate the structure and function of the OSCE. This report was presented at the Ljubljana (Slovenia) Ministerial meeting in 2005. See http://www.osce.org/documents/cio/2005/06/15432_en.pdf .

There was also an unofficial report of a group of “experts” that was created in parallel and which reported to the 30th anniversary conference in Helsinki in 2005, which was more concrete in its recommendations than the eminent persons report. See http://www.core-hamburg.de/documents/CORE_Working_Paper_13.pdf . Although some of its recommendations were adopted at the Brussels Ministerial in 2006, little has been done to carry out any of them. However, modest progress has been made in several specific areas:

  • A new scale of contributions was adopted that slightly reduced Russian contributions, while slightly increasing those of the U.S., thereby resolving the budgetary crisis for the short term.
  • The OSCE Chair-in-Office has adopted the practice of presenting documents representing the consensus of “most delegations” at annual ministerial meetings, thereby avoiding objections from Russia and a few other participating states.
  • ODIHR has increased its election-monitoring activities in Western Europe and North America, while resisting efforts to place political restrictions on its freedom of action in carrying out its mandate wherever it observes or assists in the elections process. This included ODIHR’s monitoring of the 2008 presidential election in the United States, a process that overall was found to meet high standards for democratic elections.