What Is The OSCE?


Talking with students about my professional work, I realized that many people don’t know what the OSCE is, or what it does. So I thought I might post a short “educational” blog to help people learn a little bit about this pretty important organization.

The OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to promoting peace and security. Most member countries in the OSCE are from Europe, but the Untied States and Canada are also members, as are some countries from North Asia.  Really, the OSCE is a security organization for the Northern Hemisphere.

The OSCE has its origins in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, an important international treaty. The Helsinki Final Act was agreed to by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.  The members of the Conference were the Soviet Union, the countries of Eastern and Western Europe, as well as the US and Canada. The Helsinki Final Act recognized, on the one hand, the division of Europe into blocs of East and West; but, on the other hand, contained numerous human rights provisions (remember, 1975 was in the middle of the Cold War). The Soviet objective in signing the Helsinki Final Act was to gain international recognition for the territorial and ideological division of Europe. The Western objective was to gain Soviet recognition of human rights. At the time it was signed, the Helsinki Act was strongly criticized by Cold War hawks, because it appeared to them as if the West was acquiescing to, and appeasing, Soviet Russia. In hindsight, however, the Helsinki Act played an important role in bringing about the demise of communism. Here’s how one writer sums it up:

As things turned out, August 1, 1975, was the beginning of the terminal phase of the Yalta imperial system. Leonid Brezhnev had signed, not the guarantee, but the death warrant of Stalin’s empire. For the Helsinki Final Act contained a set of human rights provisions and compliance review procedures that gave a new, and ultimately irresistible, impetus to the political dynamics that eventually created the Revolution of 1989 in central and eastern Europe. (George Weigel, The Final Revolution, 1992; page 27)

Certainly, the Helsinki Final Act was an important tool for protecting political dissidents behind the Iron Curtain in the later period of the Cold War.

The Helsinki Act set up the Helsinki process, which consisted of three different “baskets;” the first dealing with political and military issues, the second dealing with economic issues, the third dealing with humanitarian issues, including things like human rights. After the Cold War ended, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe took on a new name, namely, the OSCE. The OSCE works on issues of cooperation and security in three dimensions, the politico-military dimensions, the economic and environmental dimension, and the human dimension (these are the old “baskets”).  The work I do on religious freedom is related to the “human dimension.” The OSCE holds meetings many times a year concerned with the human dimension, but the largest is held every year at the end of September in Warsaw, Poland.

So what happens at these meetings?  Well, there are different sessions focused on different topics (e.g., the situation in Ukraine, the latest developments in Azerbaijan, religious freedom in Turkey, etc.).  At each of these sessions, diplomats from the countries concerned will present their viewpoint on the question. Other diplomats, maybe from the United States or elsewhere, will express their country’s opinion. Representatives from NGO’s and human rights organizations have a brief opportunity to raise concerns. The meetings are good way to learn about human rights issues through the northern Hemisphere. It’s also a good opportunity to meet with other human rights activists as well as diplomats to discuss human rights concerns. It’s also quite educational to witness how effective some countries, for instance, Russia, are at presenting their propaganda. Plenary sessions are attended by representatives of all member countries. Representatives of NGO’s are also permitted to raise specific concerns at plenaries about issues in particular member countries. In addition to attending plenary sessions, NGO’s can also also organize “side sessions” on issues they consider important.  An NGO I’m affiliated with, FOREF (Forum for Religious Freedom Europe), has done this a number of times as a way to raise awareness of religious freedom issues.

Here are a couple of photos. One is of a plenary session, and the other is a photo of me addressing the plenary.

Plenary session at OSCE HDIM 2015

Plenary session at OSCE HDIM 2015

“I’m not happy about violations of religious freedom in your country!”

Categories: Educational


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