OSCE gathering needs to redefine its approach to human rights


The OSCE needs to overhaul the focus of its annual meeting on human rights. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on emerging powers and human rightsРу́сский

Alexander Sergunin
16 January 2015

As a recent gathering made clear, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) needs to overhaul the mandate and format of its annual meeting on human rights issues, the largest such meeting on human rights in Europe.

The so-called Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), held annually in Warsaw, focuses on issues of human rights, the rule of law and democracy. The event attracts hundreds of government representatives, non-governmental organizations, human-rights activists and experts.

Unfortunately, the HDIM has evolved into a talk-shop and platform to attack particular states, in some instances naming and shaming those for human rights violations, without making effective recommendations for improvement. Its value in promoting democracy in the region is in question.


OSCE (Some rights reserved)

Speakers at opening session of Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, in Warsaw, Poland, 22 September 2014

This critique should not obscure the fact that the HDIM has the potential to be an effective venue for advancing the protection and promotion of democratic values and institutions in the OSCE area, as others have noted. The HDIM was established in 1992, shortly after the OSCE created the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The notion of a “human dimension” is integral to the OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security, which is based on three themes: politico-military, economic and environmental.

The HDIM has evolved into a talk-shop and platform to attack particular states without making effective recommen-dations for improvement. The OSCE Permanent Council, which sets the agenda for the HDIM, chooses three issues to be treated in depth during the annual conference. For the 2014 meeting, the Permanent Council identified the following themes for focused discussion: violence against women and children, rights of national minorities, and rights of migrants.

Discussions at the HDIM were not limited to these designated topics, however. The 2014 HDIM had a rather broad agenda, including issues such as fundamental freedoms, rule of law, and tolerance and non-discrimination.

The HDIM is part of a multi-step OSCE process that aims to move participating states toward higher standards of freedom and democracy. At the conclusion of the HDIM, hundreds of recommendations – made during the meeting by non-governmental organizations and participating states – are included in a report that is presented to the OSCE and member states. The report is considered at the OSCE’s Ministerial Council Meeting, held each December, which sets OSCE policy for the following year. The HDIM discussions may also be followed up with additional “human dimension” meetings in Vienna or Warsaw.

Given this extensive process, it is worth asking whether the HDIM is actually an effective venue for promoting democracy.

A review of the HDIM’s consolidated summary report reveals few concrete results. Most of the recommendations are abstract and not particularly feasible. There is little cohesion between the participants’ recommendations. Some recommendations reflect the interests of single-issue groups and do not address the general HDIM agenda. The wording used in other “recommendations” sounds more like “hate-speech” than diplomatic language. Quite often recommendations from NGOS are even not translated into English, the operating language of the OSCE.

Some discussions during the HDIM look like a ‘dialogue’ between the deaf and the blind, with neither side connecting to the other. On one side, the delegations from Ukraine and some Western countries blamed Russia for violating international law by annexing Crimea and supporting ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s south-east regions. They only criticized other countries in passing for their human rights violations.

On the other side, the Russian delegates raised issues that I considered both legitimate and timely. They focused on the humanitarian crisis in south-east Ukraine, which they blamed on the so-called “counter-terrorist operation” led by the government in Kiev; the rise of neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism in Ukraine; the U.S. failure to close the detention facility in Guantanamo, where it is holding prisoners without trial; the police killing of an unarmed African-American teenager in Missouri; and the death penalty in America, among other issues.

I do not mean to suggest that Russia itself should be immune to criticism over human rights. We still have a lot of problems. These include interpretation of Russian legislation on the registration of some NGOs as “foreign agents”, prohibition by some law enforcement agencies of websites that contain LGBT material; restrictions on independent mass media and opponents who reject dialogue with the regime; and the practice of bullying freshmen in some army units. Participants in the HDIM had a legitimate right to raise and discuss these issues at length.

I object, however, to the focus of some Western and Ukrainian participants at the meeting – including those from Canada and the US, the United Nations, Poland, as well as NGO leaders and human rights advocates -- on issues that are not within the HDIM’s area of expertise. In pursuing discussion of an alleged “Russian violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” for instance, meeting participants derailed the discussion in some of the plenary and working sessions.

The OSCE has other, more relevant, institutions and platforms to discuss issues related to interstate conflicts. These include the Ministerial Council, Parliamentary Assembly, Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, Conflict Prevention Centre, and Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, among others.

I believe that some participants in the 2014 HDIM misinterpreted the mandate and format of the meeting. Rather than being merely a talk-shop or platform to attack member states for shortcomings, I would argue that the HDIM should review the human rights implementation records of all participating states, identify problem areas, and develop recommendations for constructive ways forward.

It is high time for the OSCE to revise the HDIM’s mandate and format to make it less anarchical and futile, and instead transform it into a goal-oriented and efficient gathering.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData