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OSCE: Warsaw Conference Focuses On 'Human Dimension' In Central Asia, Balkans, Chechnya

International experts meeting in Warsaw are reviewing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in the 55 states which are members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The two-week meeting (6-17 October), which began today, will discuss what are called "human dimension" problems in Central Asia, the Balkans, and many other parts of Europe.

Munich, 6 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The agenda for the Warsaw conference reads like a menu of the human rights problems that exist in many parts of Europe.

Trafficking in women and children is among the most important issues for Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman in Office Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who is also the Dutch foreign minister and who next year will become the new secretary-general of NATO. He told today's opening session that trafficking is among the most evil aspects of today's world.

The United States estimates that between 700,000 and 4 million women are victims of human trafficking every year --- many of them from Central Asia, Moldova, Albania, Romania, and Bulgaria. Each of these countries is a member of the OSCE.

It's not just a European problem. Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department estimated that about 50,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. every year.

Other issues for the Warsaw conference include political problems in Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and other parts of Central Asia; the human tragedies resulting from the civil war in Chechnya; and the political situations in Belarus and Moldova. The failure to ensure free and fair elections in some countries will also be debated.

Restrictions on the media and religious groups, as well as the treatment of Roma and other minorities, are also expected to be major issues.

The importance of protecting the human rights of the individual while continuing the war against terrorism is expected to be stressed by many delegates. Conference officials say the United States may come under fire for some of the antiterrorism measures it has introduced since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001.

Close to 700 human rights campaigners and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will be in Warsaw over the next two weeks to urge the OSCE and its member governments to take action against those violating their human rights commitments.

The Warsaw meeting was organized by the human rights division of the OSCE -- the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Its spokeswoman, Urdur Gunnarsdottir, told RFE/RL that the presence of the NGOs will ensure that no topic is avoided.

She said contentious issues will be raised not only in the general debates conducted by diplomats and government officials but also in the special sessions conducted by NGOs every morning and afternoon --- the so-called "side events."

"This will come up in the general discussions, all of these issues -- Central Asia, Belarus, and Chechnya for sure. And in addition, there will be side events on Chechnya and on Belarus. There is also a side event on Central Asia," Gunnarsdottir said.

The United States is represented by a strong delegation led by Pamela Hyde Smith, who until recently was U.S. ambassador to Moldova, where she was active on many human rights issues, particularly human trafficking. The U.S. delegation also includes five congressmen and Lorne Cramer, who is the assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights.

Conference spokeswoman Gunnarsdottir said the conflict in Chechnya will be considered only in the context of the human rights problems caused by the war. "This is not a meeting on military matters, so the war itself is not an issue," she said. "However, the human tragedies which are a consequence of the conflict are a legitimate issue for this conference."

Conference officials say the war in Iraq is unlikely to be raised at the meeting, although the U.S. is a member of the OSCE. Iraq is not a member, and the conflict is considered outside the scope of the OSCE. It is possible that Afghanistan may be discussed as a human rights issue because it is associated with the OSCE as a so-called Partner for Cooperation.

Most of the 55 official delegations in Warsaw will discuss specific problems in individual OSCE countries. But more details of alleged human rights violations are expected to come in reports from nongovernmental organizations. Prominent among them is an 84-page document produced in Vienna by the International Helsinki Federation (IHF), which details human rights violations in all 55 member states, including those in the West.

The IHF report is sharply critical of Belarus for what it calls an "orchestrated campaign against the civil society." It charges that in recent years, "the Belarus authorities have expanded their arsenal of regulations and decrees pertaining to civil society." The IHF also criticizes the Belarusian authorities for closing a number of nongovernmental organizations.

The OSCE itself has often been critical of the situation in Belarus. Last year, it was forced to close its mission in Minsk for a few months. It has since reopened.

Conference officials expect about 12 persons from Belarus to be present in Warsaw, including four government officials, but early today they were still unsure who they would be.

Some of the toughest criticism in the report by the International Helsinki Federation is directed at Central Asia. Turkmenistan is criticized for hindering the development of an independent civil society and its treatment of critics of President Saparmurat Niyazov. Uzbekistan is cited for the alleged widespread use of torture in prisons to extract confessions.

The IHF notes reports that the independence of the media in Kyrgyzstan is threatened by the authorities. The continued imprisonment of Kyrgyz opposition leader Feliks Kulov on charges of abuse of office is also noted.

Spokeswoman for the Warsaw conference Gunnarsdottir said it appears that Central Asia will be a major issue at the conference. She said this is reflected in the registration of 35 NGOs from Central Asia. "The largest [number] of NGOs will be coming from Central Asia. So we expect that human rights issues regarding Central Asia will be high on the agenda," she said.

The Warsaw conference will conclude with a set of recommendations on how the present situation can be improved. A conference spokesman noted that the recommendations will not be binding on any government but said they should be seen as guidelines for maintaining OSCE standards of democracy.