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Europe: How The OSCE Fosters Human Rights, Security And Civil Society

  • Roland Eggleston

Munich, 11 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the successor to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), also known as the Helsinki process. In the 1970s and 1980s, the standing conference brought the West and the Soviet Union and its allies together in a series of meetings to discuss human-rights abuses and military tensions in Europe.

CSCE meetings were generally hostile and marked by bitter accusations. It consisted of 33 states in Europe plus the United States and Canada.

After the fall of communism, CSCE was replaced by the OSCE. Based in Vienna, it now has 54 members, including all the states of Europe and some in Central Asia plus the U.S. and Canada. The focus at its meetings is cooperation, even if arguments continue to erupt on certain issues.

Speaking broadly, OSCE has three main areas of operation: Developing a new military security structure for Europe embracing all its members. Developing economic cooperation to promote the free movement of goods, services and capital. Developing what is called the human dimension -- a broad area covering human and minority rights, free and fair elections, freedom of the press, an honest judicial system and an honest police force. In the second area, it tends to overlap with the European Union. In the third, it often vies for territorial sovereignty with the 40-member Council of Europe, which promotes democracy and human rights on the continent.

Building a better life for ordinary citizens

The ordinary citizen's contact with the OSCE comes mostly through its department dealing with the human dimension -- the Organization for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, based in Warsaw. ODIHR's director, the Swiss diplomat Gerard Stoudmann, says its goal is to build a better life for the ordinary man and woman in Central and Eastern Europe.

"Our aim is to build democratic institutions and a civil society," Stoudmann says. "That means giving the ordinary citizen the feeling that he lives in a society he can trust and where he feels secure."

Part of this involves creating institutions. Another, major part consists of creating the foundations for free and fair elections that allow ordinary people to express their preferences. That is what ODIHR has been doing for the past three years in Bosnia and this year in Albania, with only moderate success. It is now trying to establish a mission in Belarus to pursue the same goals.

Stoudmann says an agreement reached with Uzbekistan last month exemplifies the work the ODIHR is trying to do on behalf of ordinary citizens. The Uzbek program includes improving the work of the Constitutional Court so that it earns more respect and its authority is accepted. Another project is election assistance in advance of parliamentary and presidential elections expected in the year 2000.

ODIHR also wants to develop an ombudsman system in Uzbekistan to advise and help citizens who have problems with the authorities. It is planning an extensive human-rights education program as well, including human-rights training for the Uzbek police. There is another human-rights training project for border officials, with special regard for the treatment of migrants.

To promote free and fair elections, ODIHR sends hundreds of observers and monitors to elections in Central and Eastern Europe, including those in Bosnia. Its reports are widely -- but not always -- accepted as independent analyses of the honesty of the elections and the conditions in which they took place.

The OSCE organizes elections and resolves conflicts

The Dayton accords that last year ended the war in the former Yugoslavia gave OSCE the daunting assignment of drawing up voters lists in Bosnia and then organizing fair elections. It was also given the task of disarming various Bosnia militias and drawing up confidence-building measures to limit the opportunities for new hostilities.

The director of OSCE's election operations in Bosnia, the veteran U.S. diplomat Robert Frowick, has earned both praise and brickbats for his efforts. The recent elections there were far from being fully free and fair, but most critics agreed they were adequate and acceptable.

At times OSCE is expected to become more directly involved in conflicts. Its negotiators played a useful -- and sometimes dangerous -- role in helping to end the war in Chechnya. It also helped initiate a cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and is still trying to negotiate a permanent settlement and the return of refugees. Failure so far in that difficult task has left it open to criticism that a 54-state organization which makes decisions by consensus may not be the best organ for resolving deeply rooted disputes directly affecting several of its members.

OSCE is heavily involved in international efforts to create a new security structure for Europe that will reduce tensions and reduce the risk of future wars. Ongoing negotiations involving the U.S., Russia and all other OSCE members are trying to create a system providing detailed information about the movement of troops and other military operations as well as a ban on the build-up of forces in sensitive areas and limitations on the deployment of troops in other countries.

Of course, OSCE is not alone in working on these issues. Its negotiations are part of a broader scheme of talks involving the U.S. and Russia, NATO, the CIS and other organizations. The OSCE negotiations are also linked to the separate talks in Vienna on reducing the number of conventional weapons in Europe.

Some analysts see a growing role for the OSCE if it can continue to find skilled and neutral managers and negotiators. Disputes and mistreatment of minorities and other groups are sure to continue in Europe. An OSCE respected for its independence and fair-dealing could play an important part in keeping the peace.

This is part four in a five-part series on the role of Europe's multilateral organizations in integrating Central and Eastern Europe with the West. See Europe:Has The West Embraced The East?