About the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is a multilateral institution. It works for “stability, peace and democracy”. While its work is focused on Europe, its members include countries from North America and Asia as well as Europe. There are 57 member countries. Heads of state participate in summits and set the organisation’s priorities, and member states have delegations to the organisation’s secretariat in Vienna. There is also a parliamentary assembly made up of parliamentarians from the member states.

The OSCE aims to be a forum for political dialogue and a platform for joint action on security issues. The organisation divides its work into four areas or “dimensions”:

  • Politico-military dimension: including arms control, border management and countering terrorism.
  • Economic and environmental dimension: including economic growth, good governance and cooperation on environmental issues to avoid conflict.
  • Human dimension: including observing elections, and support for democratisation and human rights.
  • Cross-dimensional: including cyber security, education and combatting human trafficking.

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

The UK and the OSCE

The UK participates in and supports the work of the OSCE. In its March 2021 integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, the Government said that it is committed to providing diplomatic and expert support to multilateral organisations that uphold international norms on security, including the OSCE.

The UK is one of the largest financial contributors to the OSCE’s special monitoring mission in Ukraine. This mission was established following the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine in the region of Crimea in 2014. Its main tasks are to observe and report in an impartial and objective way on the situation in Ukraine and to facilitate dialogue among all parties to the crisis.

House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Recommendations

Russia and China

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

Russia, and those in its sphere of influence, are both passively and actively undermining the structures of the organisation which promote democracy and open societies by vetoing key leadership positions in the secretariat and delaying budgets. Russia is also applying tactical influence, in terms of mobilising states within its sphere of influence to consolidate support for its positions. This influence would exploit any lack of engagement by liberal democracies, in order to undermine democracy in certain states as well as other founding principles of the organisation.

The committee 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”.

The committee also highlighted the need for the UK to respond to China. It said that China is having a “deleterious impact” on OSCE countries that are part of China’s ‘belt and road initiative’, particularly in Central Asia. It said this influence and its consequential impact on UK interests should not be underestimated.

The committee argued that the UK should ensure the OSCE is adequately funded “to enable it to function effectively whilst retaining independence from malign agendas”.

In its response, the Government gave examples of how it is already executing the committee’s recommendations. The Government said that it works through the OSCE to deter Russia from undermining the international rules-based system and that it “regularly intervenes […] to hold Russia to account for its actions and challenge its false narratives, particularly regarding its ongoing aggression against Ukraine”. It said that it seeks to provide an alternative to the growing influence of China, for example by supporting OSCE field missions in Central Asia that encourage democracy and respect for human rights.

The Government said it works to ensure the OSCE has adequate funding and that agendas which might be harmful to the OSCE’s work are not included in budgets.

Election monitoring

The committee also made recommendations concerning the UK’s support for OSCE election monitoring missions, executed by its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). It said that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) approach to supporting the missions appears “fragmented and inconsistent”. The committee recommended the FCDO put forward a strategy for election monitoring that includes:

  • publishing an annual list of which ODIHR election monitoring missions it will support, with strategic considerations of which countries are chosen based on wider foreign policy objectives and streamlining the appointment of long-term observers;
  • working with ODIHR to introduce a methodology for observation of online and media aspects of elections, and to support the resilience of democratic institutions against cyber-attacks; and
  • strategic support to allies in Europe [to] play their own role in the OSCE by lending expertise or capability to another country’s lead envoy.

The Government said it supports the OSCE’s election monitoring work and will continue to do so. It said that the creation of the FCDO has provided an opportunity to increase coherence between election observation and longer-term development support to the inclusive electoral processes. It said it was “in the early stages of exploring options for how the UK can bolster support for [election observation missions] and strengthen existing multilateral efforts”.

Read more

Cover image by OSCE/Piotr Markowski. The image shows Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science, where ODIHR’s 30th anniversary conference took place on 14 and 15 October 2021.