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OSCE Summit Was Less Than The Sum Of Its Parts

  • Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

OSCE summit session in Astana on December 2

OSCE summit session in Astana on December 2

The road to the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was a torturous one, and many have wondered whether it was worth the effort.

For human rights activists, it meant struggling to keep up with the logistical and thematic challenge of three review conferences sprawled across three cities and two months in Warsaw, Vienna, and Astana. For Turkmen exiles, it meant the sudden blocking of their admission to a review meeting they had attended for years, and a threat that if they tried to get visas for Astana, their security could not be guaranteed.

For governments, it meant too little time for preparation -- the same deep-seated differences that made the summit less than a success made it hard to agree to convene in the first place, and the decision wasn't taken by ministers until July. Many felt that Kazakhstan did not deserve the "gift" of the OSCE chairmanship -- its own record was so flawed. The one man whose idea it was to have human rights groups embrace the idea of the Kazakh chairmanship for the sake of reform -- Yevgeny Zhovtis, a human rights leader in Almaty -- remained jailed throughout the year on charges of vehicular manslaughter that should not have led to imprisonment.

U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin, co-chair of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and a major critic of Kazakhstan's human rights record, nevertheless credited the Kazakh government with serving as "credible steward" of the OSCE. Yet the very objective of the West in conceding the Kazakh chairmanship -- that it would improve human rights in Kazakhstan -- was never achieved. Indeed, all those activists who spoke out at OSCE review meetings and were outrageously admonished by Kazakh ambassadors for "slandering the state" are now in danger of prosecution.

There was very little scope in Astana this week for NGOs to organize alternative meetings. One coalition that finally gained permission for a parallel conference was forced to limit its numbers to 150, had to remove the word "summit" from its own proposed event title because it competed with the Kazakh government branding, and opted to accept a Kazakh ambassador and pro-government groups as speakers, which diluted its message.

Words And 'Action Plans'

In the end, even with their cooperative approach, the parallel-meeting organizers said the OSCE summit was a wasted opportunity because the states failed to pass an action plan.

Those who have spent too long in the virtual world of international meetings may come to believe that "frameworks" and "actions plans" define success. But what's more important is that actual political action be taken anyway -- and that doesn't require another document.

Another coalition of Central Asian groups had a much simpler message, although one drowned out in Astana: free all the political prisoners.

There is already the existing "Moscow mechanism" to bring fact finders to emergencies.

There are already ongoing negotiations for bringing police to Kyrgyzstan or observers to Georgia.

The sources of the obstruction are clear, and don't lie in the failure to pass a resolution at a meeting.

OSCE Secretary-General Marc De Brichambaut said he found the summit a "troubling" mirror, showing up conflicts like those in Transdniester and Nagorno-Karabkh that should have ended long ago and new conflicts such as between Georgia and Russia and in southern Kyrgyzstan that should have been prevented if OSCE functioned.

All states commit human rights violations, and the U.S. reputation has been considerably tarnished in recent years by its condoning of torture in the "war on terror" and its inevitable killing of civilians in protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet in analyzing the failures of OSCE, there is an elephant in the room that few want to confront head on without debilitating moral equivalence: the Kremlin's imperial overreach and meddling, and the Central Asian dictatorships' cruelty.

The frozen conflicts and the fresh outbreaks of violence all ensue from what Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwartzenberg once called "the lingering smoke of Josef Stalin's pipe" -- the arbitrary divisions on the map of Eurasia splitting up peoples and nations and the routinization of mass killing as a solution to political differences, crimes against humanity that were never prosecuted as were the crimes of the Nazis at Nuremberg.

Misplaced Priorities?

At the core of the Helsinki understanding was that human rights and security are indissolubly linked. To be sure, the echoes of the Helsinki principle are still in the outcome document today: "The OSCE’s comprehensive and co-operative approach to security, which addresses the human, economic and environmental, political and military dimensions of security as an integral whole, remains indispensable."

Yet they are weakened when the secretary-general himself places "sustainable development" before human rights.

Key to human rights are the good will and good faith of governments. Years ago, if Moscow had heeded the OSCE high commissioner for nationalities, who repeatedly protested the issuing of Russian passports to people in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and had not forced OSCE observers in Georgia to leave, it might have lessened the conflict.

Weeks before the crisis in southern Kyrgyzstan, the OSCE was convening roundtables on tolerance or media-training seminars that did nothing to prevent 400 people from losing their lives shortly thereafter. While Kazakhstan certainly infused its chairmanship with a great deal of energy and initiative, it was silent and ineffective in preventing, much less stopping, the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan -- which began in April with the ousting of then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev by rioting mobs after Russia's sudden demand for higher fuel prices.

Kazakhstan was unable to take a forceful and public role in getting the OSCE Police Advisory Group deployed as monitors over the objections of southern Kyrgz leaders -- and as a result the initiative disintegrated into a delayed training exercise.

More proposals for various new OSCE bodies cannot paper over the essential truth about security: Western governments mistrust leaders in the East and doubt the sincerity of their intentions when they jail dissidents or stand by while journalists have their arms broken or human rights monitors are assassinated. In the Soviet era, it took the appearance of Poland’s Solidarity, as much as the West European peace movements, to put an end to the opposing military blocs and their missiles.

So today, until Tashkent credibly ends torture and the imprisonment of peaceful religious believers or Moscow ends the impunity for the murder of lawyers and journalists or Ashgabat and Astana cease blocking civil society and the Internet, we will not see security progress.

The Eurasian leaders see precisely the freedoms of association and media as a source of instability and threat to security -- mainly their own power. The challenge of the next chairmanships of the OSCE will be in having the wisdom to know the difference between genuine threats to security in Central Asia and the threats to Soviet-style figures still clinging to power -- whose tenacity is itself a threat to all human security in the region.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer based in New York who writes on human rights issues in Eurasia. Her blog on OSCE can be found here. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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