With Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity as a backdrop, a recent plenary meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was not only surreal but, at times, extremely disturbing.
Russia’s breach of a vitally important border security provision colored the OSCE’s annual gathering on human rights – the so-called Human Dimension Implementation Meeting – from beginning to end. The tension over Russia was evident as 57 member nations, the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and NGOs wrestled with issues of tolerance, non-discrimination, democratic institutions and fundamental freedoms of speech, press, religion and movement.
These topics often create tension, but as the head of the US delegation, I had incorrectly assumed diplomacy would soften the rhetoric. The OSCE meeting in Warsaw, however, did not lend itself to healing wounds or building bridges. Instead, I found myself defending my country and attacking others for gross violations of commitments they had previously made.
Flickr/Maina Kiai (All rights reserved)
Delegates take their seats during a session of the Human Dimension Implementation meeting in Warsaw.
The Russian line on Ukraine was familiar. They charged that the Americans and western Europeans had encouraged a coup in Ukraine that put Russian-speakers in danger after a new government took office. According to the Russian description of the humanitarian crisis in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the victims of Russian aggression were in fact the perpetrators. It seemed clear to me that the Russian propaganda machine had overwhelmed the capacity of representatives of the Russian Federation to be objective. The US came under attack from the Russians and their former Soviet satellites, accused of abusing children, experimenting with prisoners on death row, and police brutality. The European Union joined in to criticize the use of the death penalty and our failure to close the Guantanamo facility where prisoners have been held for years without trial. The police killing of an unarmed African-American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri was mentioned repeatedly. Though OSCE has no rule against the death penalty, only two of the 57 member states – the US and Belarus – continue to execute criminals.
These were legitimate issues for discussion, though some of the allegations made by Russia were wildly exaggerated, particularly the charge that children are routinely abused and that prisons experiment on inmates. The US delegation agreed to provide more information on the legitimate issues raised, including the Guantanamo prison, the death penalty and the Ferguson police action. These issues are the subject of debate and inquiry within our own society and government. This approach contrasted greatly with that of the Russians who showed no inclination to address criticisms of their internal or external actions.
Perhaps even more disturbing was the reaction of many nations in the Russian “orbit” (formerly part of the Soviet bloc), who seem to perceive a shift in the balance of power. In many of the former Soviet republics democratic institutions were weak but slowly developing. More recently, though, in places like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, governments have turned their backs on democracy, severely limiting space for opposition parties and civil society.
I was most disturbed to hear the extent to which this has happened in Hungary, a member of the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, where Victor Orban’s government has moved to close off space for any and all dissenting voices. Corruption has become so bad that the US recently denied visas to Orban’s high-level allies. The Hungarian prime minister touted his creation of an “Illiberal Democracy” in a speech he delivered in Romania this past summer. Provocatively echoing Putin, Orban warned neighboring countries not to mistreat the Hungarian diaspora just as Russia was moving into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Two days after I described this disturbing situation in an OSCE plenary session, I received a threatening email message from an anonymous Hungarian. Leaving aside the expletives, the most revealing part of the message read: “Transcarpathia has always been Hungarian territory, and will [be again], when the bear Putin divide[s] the region.” It is uncertain how widely this view is held, but for this person, at least, Putin is greater Hungary’s presumptive savior.
There were other disturbing examples from the former Soviet bloc. OSCE members heard many tragic stories of political prisoners being tortured, minorities being abused, and blatant discrimination due to ethnic identity or religion. Most reports came from poor and institutionally weak former Soviet republics in Central Asia, but oil-rich Azerbaijan is also becoming increasingly autocratic, jailing democracy advocates and critics of the government. Moreover, European Union nations continue to struggle with anti-Roma, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiment.
There are no “perfect” democracies. But a growing number of nations have become a threat to their own people and to their neighbors by systematically violating human rights. Of course there are no “perfect” democracies. But a growing number of nations have become a threat to their own people and to their neighbors by systematically violating human rights. There should be repercussions. The OSCE’s human rights meeting is broadcast live on the web, and is intended to be the place where naming and shaming happens. Public reports written by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and testimony by NGOs and governments provide disturbing facts about violations of OSCE standards. Thanks in part to this dialogue, past meetings have caused governments to release prisoners and improve conditions for downtrodden minorities.
The OSCE’s most compelling reason for being is its comprehensive concept of security, which blends secure borders with economic progress and respect for democratic institutions and human rights. This concept has served OSCE members well for 40 years. Today, Russia’s policies are placing the future viability of this concept, and of peace itself, at serious risk.