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OSCE: Analysis From Washington -- Countries Supervised And Not

Washington, 20 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- George Orwell's famous observation in his totalitarian fantasy "Animal Farm" that "all animals are equal but that some are more equal than others" appears to have come true in yet another area: international monitoring of human rights.

In the post-Cold War environment, smaller and weaker countries have been the subject of intense and continuing scrutiny and criticism by various international organizations in order to improve the status of ethnic and other minorities there.

Larger and more powerful countries, in contrast, generally have been able to escape this kind of examination regardless of their human rights records. Even more, at least some of them have concluded that they can use a human rights cover to promote their own political goals.

Long the source of complaints by various private human rights organizations, this pattern was reflected in remarks earlier this month by Max van der Stoel, the High Commissioner on National Minorities for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Speaking to the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London on July 9, van der Stoel outlined his efforts since 1992 to prevent interethnic conflict in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet states. There he described what he and his office have done to prevent or ameliorate ethnic conflict in a wide variety of countries from the Baltic states to Ukraine, from Central Asia to the Caucasus, and across southeastern Europe.

But in his wide-ranging speech, the high commissioner said nothing about preventing or ameliorating ethnic conflicts in large states and great powers such as the Russian Federation and the major countries of Europe and North America, all of whom are members of the OSCE as well.

On the one hand, this focus on smaller and weaker states is hardly surprising. Powerful countries typically have been able to deflect efforts by international organizations to hold them to account, and many of the smaller countries have clearly benefited from OSCE attention.

But on the other, such an approach has three major drawbacks in the supervised countries, each of which appears likely to become more significant and potentially explosive in the future. First, many in the countries now under OSCE supervision increasingly resent the obvious double standard that it represents. As they complain, the OSCE is telling them to meet human rights standards that it is not requiring of other, more powerful countries.

For example, van der Stoel has told Kyiv that it should maintain Russian-language schools for Russian speakers in Ukraine, but he has avoided suggesting to Moscow that it should open Ukrainian-language schools for Ukrainian speakers in the Russian Federation. Second, many in the supervised countries are becoming even more angry at what they see as a kind of interference that is making it more difficult rather than less for them to treat minorities on their territories fairly.

From the point of view of many in the Baltic countries, for instance, the existing OSCE system encourages some minority members to make ever greater demands on the political system rather than to work together to improve the situation.

In some cases, most observers acknowledge, minorities need such OSCE support in order to defend their human rights. But in others, some minority members appear -- at least to the majority group -- to be exploiting the OSCE to pursue broader political goals as well. And third, many in those supervised countries which have complied with OSCE requirements are increasingly upset that the international organization does not appear willing to end its tutelage of their activities.

Estonia, for example, made all 29 of the legal changes that van der Stoel had said were necessary to bring that country into conformity with OSCE standards -- only to discover that the high commissioner was asking for more and was unprepared to end his mission there.

All three of these factors in the OSCE's approach are unintentionally generating a backlash among some in the supervised countries against such monitoring by the international community, a backlash some populist politicians have been quick to exploit -- as the ongoing debates in Latvia over language legislation show.

And that in turn could set the stage for an outcome no one is likely to want, one in which an office of an organization created to promote human rights for all and security across Europe might in fact contribute to a process that could undermine both.