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September 17, 2016

Russia and the OSCE: Anatomy of a takedown

Next week on September 19 the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will open. One of the largest human rights conferences in Europe, it is produced by a multilateral organization of states in Europe, Central Asia, and North America (the United States and Canada) in order to evaluate the implementation of human rights standards throughout the region. The meeting brings together government representatives from 57 participating nations as well as civil society representatives and experts for two weeks of discussions culminating in recommendations for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

But this year the meeting almost didn’t happen. The OSCE is a consensus-based organization, meaning that all 57 states must agree before a decision can be made or action can be taken. Generally, the topics for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the date, and the location are agreed upon by all states well in advance so the human rights arm of the OSCE can organize events.

However, these important details were not agreed upon until July 28–just seven weeks before the event itself, giving the organizers scant time to set the agenda and plan events that incorporate participants from across the globe.

So, why the delay? In large part it was due to the 800-pound bear in the room. Russia. This year its representatives withheld approval and threatened to essentially jettison the event by refusing to agree to the topics and even the location of the event, which is held annually in Warsaw. They objected to the location because last year Poland denied entry to Crimea’s Deputy Prime Minister Georgy Muradov because he was on the E.U. sanctions list.

The Russian Federation is increasingly using the consensus requirement of the OSCE to puff up its own importance by withholding approval of decisions that relate to human rights issues. These days, Russian obstructionism happens nearly every time the Permanent Council comes together. In May a smaller human dimension meeting focusing on women and Roma issues was cancelled because the Russian Federation did not agree to it.

Russia’s power-play at the OSCE is not confined to blocking meeting topics. Just a few weeks ago the High Commissioner for National Minorities, Astrid Thors, left her post somewhat unexpectedly because the Russian delegation indicated it would block her reappointment. Its opposition was based on a 2014 report she wrote after a visit to Crimea, the region of Ukraine that Russia illegally annexed in 2014.

In her report, written shortly after the annexation, Thors noted no apparent violations of the rights of Russian-speakers in the region—which was the ostensible justification for Russia’s invasion in the first place. Instead, Thors reported that the rights of local Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars seemed to be at risk.

Russia responded by citing her “political engagement,…biased approach, and double standards,” noting that the report would be taken into account when she came up for reelection. Essentially, Russia punished Thors for doing her job by highlighting issues of minority protection in a way that conflicted with Russia’s ideology and worldview. 

Worse yet, Thors is not alone. In March the second three-year term of the OSCE Special Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, came to a close. While she was willing to serve a third term, the Parliamentary Assembly could not agree to reappoint her. Factions split, with Russia and some of its allies opposing Mijatovic on the basis of “double standards” in assessing freedom of speech in different countries and in reaction to the “restrictive measures of some OSCE countries against Russian resources.” Russia seemed to be upset that Mijatovic did not react  with sufficient condemnation when its state media announced the detention of three journalists in Ukraine in February 2015.

Russia’s ire toward the OSCE has grown since it annexed Crimea, leading to greater conflicts with many of the member states. In July 2015 the Parliamentary Assembly adopted by a wide margin (96 to 7) a resolution condemning Russia’s “unilateral and unjustified assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and  territorial integrity.” Russia did not participate in the vote, opting not to attend the meeting.

Since then Russia seems to have decided that it would be better to coopt the institution than boycott it. It is seeking to redefine human rights standards to better fit its ideology through the use of laws against foreign funding that prohibit human rights NGOs from functioning, the export of morality-based laws that make the LGBT community a target of violence, “anti-terror” policies that target simple expressions of dissent online, support for journalistic activity that whips up hate against Muslims and migrants, and application content restrictions on speech that value certain minority groups—such as Orthodox Christians—over others.

Russia has also cleverly included a number of government-organized NGOs, known as GONGOs, in the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting mix, ensuring that at least some of its civil society will support its alternative and more restrictive definitions of human rights. 

Unfortunately, the weakness of the institution’s structure, which requires consensus for many major decisions, has made it an easy target.

As part of its campaign to undermine the OSCE, Russia has also argued to close OSCE field offices that it says are no longer necessary. These field offices are set up to monitor and promote compliance with OSCE standards, including basic standards of human rights protection. One of the most active missions at present is the Special Monitoring Mission to the occupied territory of Ukraine, Donbas. It reports on ongoing violations by Russia—as well as by Ukraine—that include violations of ceasefire agreements, threats to civilians, weapons use, and casualties.  Monitors are not popular in the Donbas region—their cars have been torched, their offices protested, and their lives threatened. 

Which leads to Russia’s motivation: what does Russia hope to gain by manipulating the OSCE? The answer, ironically, is legitimacy. Since the OSCE is a weak institution that already has the buy-in of the European Union and the United States, Russia believes that if it can bend the organization’s mandate, rules, and conclusions to its will, its fellow members will have to follow suit and acknowledge not only Russia’s greatness, but its alternative and very-un-universal definitions of human rights. This is bad news.

Next week we hope that participating states will put in the effort to strengthen the OSCE’s human rights focus and prevent Russia from neutralizing the organization’s very purpose.