The first heads-of-state Summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in over a decade concluded on December 2 in Astana, Kazakhstan, having failed to deliver an action plan on trans-Atlantic security.
Foregoing a comprehensive action plan, the participants did manage to reaffirm the general founding principles of the OSCE, originally stated back in 1975 in Helsinki.
One could, however, temper criticism of the OSCE participating States for failing to produce a comprehensive security agreement in a background of seemingly irresolvable inter- and inner-state conflicts between Armenia & Azerbaijan, Russia & Georgia, in the Kyrgyz Republic or in Kosovo/Serbia. It’s a lot to ask from a consensus-based organization that still—twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union—largely operates in a bipolar world, dominated by Moscow and Washington.
What was not too much to ask, however, was more attention to progress on human rights commitments that fall under the “human dimension” of the OSCE and that are well documented in numerous agreements. Over the years, the Organization has become recognized as an important institution for adopting standards on and discussing human rights. This has been particularly important for people residing in post-Communist states who have few other venues to raise their concerns. At human dimension meetings organized by the OSCE annually, civil society groups and human rights activists participate in discussions on an equal footing with governments, which is evident from the mark left by civil society recommendations for numerous commitments and decisions the participating States have adopted over the years. At the same time, the Organization has been relatively toothless in ensuring implementations of these important commitments, which may help explain why so many countries are falling short of meeting those obligations.
Apart from charting a way forward, which the States failed to do, the Summit was also an opportunity to reflect upon what happened during the post-9/11 decade since the last gathering of OSCE heads of state, in Istanbul in 1999. (President Clinton attended on behalf of the United States in ’99, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton filled in for President Obama this week.) The ‘self-reflection’ part of the program was done well for the economic and security issues, but not for the “human dimension.” Afghanistan, the war on terror, the global financial crisis, the unresolved interstate conflicts were routinely mentioned by the high-level participants, yet little concrete examples were offered in support of human rights.
As concerns human rights in the OSCE, the past decade was marked by some notable advancements, yet continuing challenges for the rights of LGBT persons, the lack of any real progress in resolving the destitute situation of Europe’s Roma, escalating discrimination and intolerance against Muslims, periodic spikes in antisemitic violence, the abuses of counterterrorism policies, ineffective resettlement practices for refugees, and, of course, the unacceptable vulnerability of human rights activists and independent journalists working in the OSCE. These problems are acute, and must be discussed at highest levels if they are to be resolved.
However, the absence of many of these concerns from many delegates’ statements is of serious concern. Key human rights issues mentioned and overlooked include:
- Not a single reference to gay rights was made by any country.
- Serbia and Finland mentioned the problems of Roma.
- Ireland, Sweden, and the United States proclaimed their support for freedom of the media, and the United Kingdom discussed “the suppression of dissident voices.” Hillary Clinton also spoke about the importance of freedom of the press and journalists’ safety.
- Denmark prioritized the fight against torture and the death penalty.
- Andorra, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Slovak Republic, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, highlighted the need to advance minority rights or fight discrimination, and the Holy See focused on intolerance against Christians. Kazakhstan promoted its own understanding of tolerance.
- The Holy See and Tajikistan discussed the rights of migrants.
In the end, security dilemmas and economic issues were discussed in Astana as problems that required understanding and solutions. Human rights concerns, on the other hand, were mostly mentioned in passing, “reaffirmed,” and “proclaimed”—inevitably in closing paragraphs and in general terms—as something that must be acknowledged but does not require serious attention. That, of course, is where the Astana Summit really came up short.
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