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OSCE 'Making Progress' In Promoting Democracy

Ambassador W. Robert Pearson

Ambassador W. Robert Pearson

Hundreds of government officials, members of civil society groups, and other experts from the member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Europe are meeting in Warsaw for two weeks starting on September 29. The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) offers an extended opportunity to work together for democracy and human rights. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with the head of the U.S. delegation to the summit, Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, about his expectations for the meeting.

RFE/RL: The Warsaw meeting comes on the heels of a major test for the OSCE -- the Russian invasion of Georgia. One might expect the tensions between many members of the 56-state grouping to be quite high as a result. Is this likely to be a difficult two weeks ahead, as representatives discuss issues like building civil society and how well governments meet their commitments to democracy and human rights?

W. Robert Pearson: I have no doubt that Georgia will be a major issue, and there will be opportunities to address it, and it is a matter of concern to all the OSCE states. At the same time, the agenda for the meeting is extremely important and the purpose of the meeting is to foster civil society elements and give a number of groups and governments the chance to have in-depth conversations about these critical issues. So the U.S. approach will be to focus as much as we possibly can on the agenda we have before us.

RFE/RL: Thinking a bit more about the long shadow cast by the recent Russia-Georgia war, some observers have been very harsh in judging the OSCE in light of this crisis, saying it shows the grouping has outlived its usefulness, at least in the military-political and security sphere. That is because the OSCE is consensus-based and Russia can veto any measures it opposes. To what extent is such criticism fair or unfair?

Pearson: Well, I think that is an unfair characterization of the OSCE process and the process that will be followed at this meeting. The original purpose for the OSCE was to create a forum that would focus on all of these human rights issues, election issues, civil society development issues, and all of the OSCE states are committed to those principles. There is no doubt that these kinds of problems are going to come along from time to time, but it is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater to say that the OSCE does not have a proper role to play and, in fact, I am hoping that this kind of dialogue will help us get back on a better track.

RFE/RL: Security concerns, of course, are just one aspect of the OSCE and are not, in fact, what the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw is all about. It is about the importance of the OSCE as a democracy-promoting organization. Is this an area in which progress is being made and, if so, to what extent does that progress meet Washington's expectations?

Pearson: Progress is being made, and when you look back at 1992, the place where we started with the Helsinki Accords, I think we have made enormous progress. One of the most beneficial aspects of the work of the OSCE in this dimension really is the "sunlight" issue, throwing a light on practices and on standards that people are committed to and that we expect to see implemented. The elections standards, for example, are a kind of gold standard for election participation and observation and I think we have made good progress there. And when people don't meet those standards, by calling attention to them and by discussing them we continue to encourage greater adherence to these principles.

RFE/RL: On September 28, the day before the Warsaw meeting begins, Belarus held parliamentary elections. The polls were notable because President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is widely considered to be Europe's last dictator, but this year he is trying to change that image at least to the extent of letting some opposition parties participate in the race. Does this change of position represent a success for the international community, which has long pushed Lukashenka to open up the political arena?

Pearson: The commitment he has made so far is certainly a step forward, and we are all, not just the United States but especially the Europeans, looking at this election very closely. ODIHR -- the OSCE's human rights arm -- will be there and will be observing the election, so we will be very interested in the results of the election, how they were conducted and the look-back from [September 29] to see exactly how the process went. So there is a great deal of interest and it is very timely and very important that the HDIM conference will be able to have this item for discussion as well.

RFE/RL: As you say, OSCE election monitors will be on hand for the Belarusian election. And we can probably expect their report on the elections -- how free and fair they are -- to set off some sparring in the OSCE between Moscow and Western governments. If so, that would underline again a recurring problem in the OSCE with Moscow trying to define how election observers monitor polls in which Russia has an interest. How do you see this problem, and how much does it affect the OSCE's ability to deliver an impartial assessment?

Pearson: We think that the OSCE has to be absolutely free and without any constraints in being able to observe elections. Otherwise, the term doesn't have any real meaning, and to manage the observation of elections is essentially to undermine the principle of full-and-open monitoring. It is not just for the organization, of course; the purpose of the monitoring is to assure the very people who vote that the process they are engaged in is legitimate. That is the real purpose, and when you can show people that the process is legitimate they have more faith in their choices and they have a greater commitment to building a better society. So in this sense the OSCE is acting as a friend of court for the people who are actually casting their votes.

RFE/RL: Changing the subject a bit, Kazakhstan is due to become the OSCE's chairman in office in 2010. There has been a lot of debate over whether the country has made, or will make, enough human rights progress to lead an organization that is very much about promoting human rights and democracy. What is Washington's view on this -- is it still a sensitive subject or are the concerns about Kazakhstan now a closed chapter?

Pearson: It is not a closed chapter. The government in Kazakhstan has made some encouraging statements and taken some encouraging actions recently and for our part we are looking forward very much to having a further conversation with them in Warsaw. They certainly know our concerns, they appear to have been looking at some of those concerns seriously, and we want to continue that process. So this is a picture that is not quite painted yet and our next conversations will be very important in that regard.

RFE/RL: Are there any final points you would like to make about the upcoming HDIM conference and its importance?

Pearson: Just a general point and that is that HDIM, as it is called, is a really unique forum where government representatives and representatives of civil society meet each other in an informal way, in many cases, to debate and to talk, and in a formal way, in some cases, to debate and to talk. I am told that there will be more than a thousand NGO representatives, experts, and government officials, so we think that is a wonderful opportunity. And, we strongly support the role of ODIHR within OSCE, we believe that without its active participation the organization would not be as strong and the hopes of many, many people for the development of civil societies in their home countries would be discouraged.