On 17 October 2023, the House of Lords is due to consider a question for short debate tabled by Lord Bowness (non-affiliated) on the assessment of the current state of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and steps being taken to secure its future.

1. What is the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe?

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is a regional intergovernmental security institution. It works for “stability, peace and democracy”. The OSCE describes itself as a forum for political dialogue on a wide range of security issues and a platform for joint action. It has 57 participating countries, including the UK. Whilst its work is focused on Europe, its members also include countries from North America and Asia. The OSCE also has 11 ‘partners for co-operation’. They include countries from the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and Australasia. The partner countries take part in political meetings, cooperate on issues of common concern, such as climate change and sustainable development, and host OSCE projects.

Heads of state participate in summits and set the organisation’s priorities. The heads of state meet only occasionally, and it is the ministerial council, comprising foreign ministers of participating states, which meets annually to set the organisation’s longer-term priorities.

However, the ambassador-level OSCE permanent council is responsible for governing the day-to-day operational work of the OSCE and for regular political consultations between the meetings of the ministerial council. The permanent council is convened by the chairperson-in-office. This is a rotating position, which is held by a different participating state each year with that country’s foreign minister acting as the chairperson-in-office. The chair sets the OSCE’s priorities for that year, convenes discussions and coordinates decision-making. The position is designated by a decision of the ministerial council. The chair is currently held by North Macedonia.

The OSCE parliamentary assembly has 323 members, made up of parliamentarians from participating states. Its purpose is to act as a forum for inter-parliamentary dialogue. It can adopt resolutions and recommendations. However, it has no decision-making power over OSCE executive institutions.

The OSCE is funded by contributions from its 57 participating states. The unified budget is adopted by the OSCE’s permanent council by consensus. The last unified budget to be agreed was for 2021, totalling €138,204,100.

All 57 participating states have equal status and decisions are taken by consensus. However, the OSCE and its bodies have no legal powers. The OSCE founding documents, the Helsinki Final Act 1975 and the Paris Charter 1990, are statements of political intent and do not have the legal status of international treaties. OSCE bodies can issue recommendations to participating states, but those resolutions have no legal force.

2. What is the work of the OSCE?

The OSCE says its approach to security not only focuses on military matters but also encompasses economic and environmental issues and human rights and freedoms. The OSCE divides its work into four areas or ‘dimensions’:

  • politico-military dimension: including arms control, border management, conflict prevention and resolution and counter-terrorism
  • economic and environmental dimension: including economic growth, good governance and cooperation on environmental to issues to avoid conflict
  • human dimension: including observing elections and support for democratisation and human rights
  • cross-dimensional: including cyber security, education and tackling human trafficking

The OSCE has field operations in South-Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Field operations can only be established with the agreement of the host country. The mandates for these operations are agreed by consensus of the participating states. The aim of field operations is to help host countries put their OSCE commitments into practice and improve capacities through projects designed to respond to their needs. These include initiatives to support law enforcement, minority rights, legislative reform, the rule of law and media freedom, and to promote tolerance and non-discrimination.

3. What is the future role of OSCE in international security and cooperation?

The OSCE is seen by many, including the EU and NATO, as still having a role as a political forum for security cooperation. However, commentators have argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has highlighted its weaknesses, such as its lack of international legal powers and its consensus requirement. Both Russia and Ukraine are participating members of the OSCE.

Peter Jones, a former British diplomat and director-general at the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office, argues that the OSCE is the only cooperative security organisation that brings together all NATO allies, Ukraine, Russia, central Asian states and others with a “diverse agenda” from arms control to youth engagement. He says examples of its valuable work include its past field operations in parts of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Peter Jones also points to the 2014–15 Minsk agreements which he says were negotiated in an OSCE context. The agreements were negotiated following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The agreements envisaged an OSCE role in future monitoring and implementation of a peace deal. Following a request from the Ukraine government, and consensus from all 57 participating states, the OSCE deployed a special monitoring mission to Ukraine in 2014.

However, Martin Russell, a policy analyst at the European Parliamentary Research Service, has argued that Russia’s annexation of Crimea highlights problems arising from OSCE’s absence of an international legal personality. Mr Russell states that the annexation violated the Helsinki Final Act’s principle of inviolable borders. However, there were no consequences for Russia at OSCE level other than a parliamentary assembly resolution supporting Ukrainian territorial integrity. In addition, the OSCE’s special monitoring mission in Ukraine was closed in March 2022, after Russia blocked an extension to its mandate, which had expired.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has further raised questions about the future role of the OSCE and, for some experts, has exposed weaknesses in its mechanisms. Commentators, analysts and diplomats have argued that Russia has exploited the need for all decisions to be made by consensus. For example, such commentators highlight the following:

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto has said that Russia and Belarus’ decision to block Estonia’s bid could lead to the collapse of the organisation. He told Finnish broadcaster Yle that 2024 would be the “year of the destruction of the OSCE as an organisation” if there was no chairperson and no consensus on the issue. Marko Mihkelson, chair of the foreign affairs committee in the Estonian parliament, told ‘Deutsche Welle’, the German international broadcaster, that Estonia would not accept a substitution for its 2024 bid. However, Kazakhstan and Austria have said they would be willing to chair for 2024 if no consensus was reached, according to reports in the journal ‘Security and Human Rights Monitor’.

OSCE bodies have condemned Russia’s recent actions, with members of the parliamentary assembly staging a walkout from its session in February 2023 during a speech given by the Russian delegation. However, OSCE Secretary General Helga Maria Schmid has emphasised that the organisation offers a platform for dialogue and is not a defence alliance. Ms Schmid argues that it is “not the fault of the organisation” if a participating state, “in this case—Russia, chooses force and violence over dialogue”. Meanwhile, the EU, which has also criticised the conduct of Russia and Belarus, said the role of the OSCE was “more critical than ever”.

There have been calls from participating members, notably Ukraine, for the OSCE to suspend Russia from the organisation. Whilst there is a mechanism to suspend a member’s participation, any such proposal would be unlikely to succeed. The so-called ‘consensus-minus-one’ rule stipulates that in cases of massive and gross human rights violations, the OSCE is entitled to adopt political measures against the state which caused the violations. This mechanism has only been used once, when Serbia and Montenegro were suspended between 1992 and 2000, because of violations in the aftermath of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. However, commentators and experts have said that Russia is unlikely to be suspended because at least one country, such as Russia’s ally Belarus, could refuse to join the consensus, which would block the process.

4. What is the UK government’s attitude towards the OSCE?

The UK is a participating member and supports the work of the OSCE. In its March 2021 integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, the UK government said that it was committed to providing diplomatic and expert support to multilateral organisations that uphold international norms on security, including the OSCE. This commitment was reaffirmed in the integrated review refresh 2023.

The government has said that through the UK’s contribution to the OSCE’s budget and its regular diplomatic engagement, it provides support towards the full range of OSCE work, including its human rights institutions and network of field missions. The UK was one of the largest financial contributors to the OSCE’s special monitoring mission in Ukraine.

In 2021, James Cleverly, then minister of state at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and now the foreign secretary, told the House of Commons that as chair of the OSCE Security Committee in 2020 and 2021, the UK government’s aim was:

[…] to set a wide-ranging agenda for discussion and embed lasting reforms on a range of security priorities, including serious organised crime and cyber security.

In a June 2021 report, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee argued that Russia was actively undermining the OSCE. It recommended that:

[…] the UK’s approaches to strengthening the OSCE be fully integrated into a wider strategy of moderating Russia’s damaging influence on the modern international system and on the democratic mandate of governments of OSCE member states.

It also highlighted the need for the UK to respond to China. It said that China was having a “deleterious impact” on OSCE countries that were part of China’s ‘belt and road initiative’, particularly in Central Asia.

The committee called for the UK to ensure the OSCE was adequately funded “to enable it to function effectively whilst retaining independence from malign agendas”.

In response to the report, the government said that it worked through the OSCE to deter Russia from undermining the international rules-based system and that it “regularly intervene[d]” to hold Russia to account. It said that it sought to provide an alternative to the growing influence of China, for example by supporting OSCE field missions in Central Asia that encouraged democracy and respect for human rights. The government emphasised that agendas potentially harmful to the OSCE’s work were not included in budgets.

On recent issues confronting the OSCE, the UK government has said it recognised the challenges the OSCE faced as a result of Russia’s “weaponisation of the consensus principle, including delaying critical decisions on the budget and 2024 chair”. The government said it supported the current chair and the OSCE’s work to reach an agreement on the budget and to ease immediate financial pressures. The UK government said that it was working closely with “like-minded countries” on options for reaching consensus on next year’s chair.

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Cover image on Wikimedia Commons.