Keep eyes and ears open and treat them well – especially in times of crisis! A look back at the German OSCE Chairmanship in 2016

New Year is close– and 2016, the year in which Germany chaired the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is coming to an end. The OSCE is the world’s largest regional security organisation with 57 participating States from North America, Europe and Asia, and thus covers countries all the way from Vancouver to Vladivostok with a combined population of more than a billion people. The Organization was established in 1995, its origins date back to the early 1970s, to the Helsinki Final Act (1975) and the creation of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), which during the Cold War served as a forum for dialogue and negotiation between East and West. A forum, which in times of ongoing and (partly reheated) protracted conflicts in the OSCE region and along its borders, has become more relevant again, however, not necessarily more effective due to the OSCE principle of consensus and political bargaining, which rather focuses on ‘negative peace’ (i.e. absence of violence) to the detriment of the implementation of the Helsinki principles and the building of durable ‘positive peace’ (i.e. peace with justice for all).

In the following article Caroline Kruckow (FriEnt) and Natasha Cerny Ehtesham (swisspeace) look back into the last year and reflect on developments in the OSCE region as well as on the German Chairmanship from a civil society perspective. They share insights from the OSCE Parallel Civil Society Conference 2016 in Hamburg on 6 and 7 December 2016, which was organised by the OSCE-wide NGO-network ‘Civic Solidarity Platform’ (CSP).

According to OSCE Chairperson-in-Office and Germany’s Federal Foreign Minister, Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, civil society actors are the eyes and ears for what is happening in the day-to-day reality and for concerns from the grassroots level. When he received the Outcome Document, including the “Hamburg Declaration on Protecting and Expanding Civil Society Space” at the closing session of the two-day (annual) OSCE Parallel Civil Society Conference held in Hamburg on 6 and 7 December 2016, he underlined the that civil society has a critical role in fighting for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in our countries, often under difficult conditions.

Under the current circumstances of suppression, violence, increasing extremism and radicalisation of large parts of the population, this is more important than ever. A vibrant civil society is relevant and needed to constructively deal with the conflicts and to overcome crisis. Yet the actual reality in many of the OSCE participating States does not comply with these insights: The space for civil society is systematically shrinking. In some countries like for instance Turkmenistan, we observe a complete crack-down of civil society. And the trend of strict control and regulation of civil society, restriction of freedoms of assembly and association, suppression and extinction of critical and independent media as well as public opinion is not only growing in the EU neighborhood, but also in some of the Eastern EU member states like Poland and Hungary – and massively so in the EU partner country Turkey. Counter insurgency and counter terrorism needs are used as arguments for misuse of state of emergency declarations, draconic laws and measures as well as anti-democratic constitutional changes. Political hate speech and stigmatisation of opponents are poisoning the situation on the ground and so new divides inside societies are growing. Peaceful coexistence, durable solutions and sustainable and just development seem to be shifted more and more into a far future if nothing can stop the trends outlined above and create inclusive and real win-win opportunities for all sides. 

The rights of freedom of speech, of peaceful assembly, of association and free media are systematically violated. In many states the rule of law is turned to rule by law. Restrictive NGO-regulations and new laws are elaborated and set in place undermining independent and critical thinking not in line with the political leadership and governance. Peacebuilding activities that require inclusiveness and dialogue between counterparts pose high risks for activists. Peacebuilders and human rights defenders calling for justice are criminalised, threatened and stigmatised as national traitors. In many countries like for instance Russia, critical human rights NGOs are falling under a ‘foreign agent law’ and are accused of undermining national identity and values as well as of destabilising the government. Political statements of high-ranking politicians and elites as well as public hate speech against critical civil society organisations and activists lead to harassment and violence on a broad level and to mass mobilisation inside the population against specific parts of civil society. Those especially under threat are all vulnerable groups like minorities and LGBTI, but also human rights activists in general, advocates for vulnerable groups, peacebuilders, gender specialists and women groups with a feminist background. Instead of securing and enhancing the peaceful co-existence and cooperation within and among the different societies in the OSCE region, the conflicts are heated up at various levels Human security and peaceful coexistence are deteriorating. It seems that not only through the crisis in Eastern Ukraine, almost 70 years of durable peace within Europe are weakened.

At the OSCE Parallel Civil Society Conference 2016, more than 100 participants discussed the major challenges stemming from the current situation, the crises and violent conflicts and the challenging developments within the OSCE region. Conclusions and recommendations were formulated on how to better cope with these challenges in the future. With this article, we want to draw attention to the most relevant aspects:

How can the OSCE do better?

The OSCE’s “comprehensive and co-operative security concept” includes three dimensions – the politico-military (first dimension), the economic and environmental (second dimension) as well as the human (third dimension) – all viewed as being of equal importance to secure sustainable peace. The role of civil society as a valuable partner in this security concept has been recognised by the OSCE, but traditionally this role has been mostly linked to the human dimension. This fact is a big concern to the Civic Solidarity Platform, as its members strongly believe that dealing with and preventing violent conflicts effectively requires a cross-dimensional approach and active engagement with civil society in all three dimensions– not just in theory, but also in practice.

The German OSCE Chairmanship has made a big effort to include civil society during its 2016 tenure following the examples of the previous Chairmanships of Switzerland and Serbia. Among the German Chairmanship’s priorities was the goal to “counteract the risk of further alienation and a lack of communication between societies in Europe” and to thus “strengthen transnational exchange between societies and to actively involve civil society”.

Germany sought to achieve this goal on a national as well as international level: On the national level, the Chairmanship organised several meetings with German civil society organisations, in which current challenges and activities of the Chairmanship were discussed. It was also at these meetings that German civil society representatives were encouraged to contribute to the “Independent Evaluation Report on the occasion of the German OSCE Chairmanship 2016”. On the international level, the Chairmanship supported activities of the Civic Solidarity Platform such as four civil society expert workshops in different OSCE regions on topics like migration/refugees (in Berlin), shrinking civil society space and the protection of human rights defenders (in Tbilisi), freedom of expression (in Almaty) as well as human rights in conflict (in Vienna). Civil society recommendations elaborated in these workshops then fed into the outcome documents of the OSCE Parallel Civil Society Conference 2016 mentioned above.

The German OSCE Chairmanship actively involved experts from civil society in various OSCE activities in all three dimensions by inviting them to participate in OSCE events and to be part of panel discussions. To facilitate all these national and international processes of inclusiveness, Germany even created the position of an “Outreach-Coordinator OSCE Chairmanship 2016”, which was perceived as very helpful, especially to civil society organisations.

The example of Germany shows that active civil society involvement in the work of the OSCE is possible and mainly depends on political will. However, NGOs are very well aware that the Chairmanship of the OSCE rotates on a yearly basis and that therefore it is of utmost importance to anchor civil society engagement within continuous OSCE structures such as the OSCE Secretariat and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and not just within the Chairmanship itself.

Furthermore, the OSCE should enhance the capacities of their Conflict Prevention Centre (CPC) for broader interaction with relevant civil society actors, enhance analytical capacities and actively use the concept of early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management, and post-conflict rehabilitation (“conflict cycle”) to strengthen the link between the human, security and economic/environmental dimension.

The OSCE and its participating states have to bear in mind, that violations of human rights are results of armed conflict but also factor and cause of unrest, upheaval and armed conflict. Therefore human rights violations have to be addressed with a view to conflict prevention, management, transformation and peacebuilding to achieve positive, durable peace.

The OSCE’s work and political interventions should aim at preventing the heating up of “frozen conflicts” as well as new conflicts and promoting the involvement of civil society in high-level peace talks through appropriate mechanisms in addition to track 1-formats. Furthermore, it is important to spend more resources on information sharing, capacity building and networking of/with civil society, especially of women and youth organisations at national, regional and international level. Moreover the OSCE needs to be accessible for all relevant civil society actors in its field offices and other OSCE institutions. The elaboration of mechanisms through which civil society actors from disputed territories/conflict regions can participate in peacebuilding and conflict transformation as well as capacity building and development programs (without the fear of being prosecuted and/or threatened) needs to be high on the agenda.

The export of weapons into conflict areas has to be strictly sanctioned. The OSCE should follow-up on Arms Trade Treaty obligations and push for the prevention of arms trade and weapons export to OSCE participating States in conflict. The focus on de-escalation through further confidence building and trust building measures at the borderlines as well as international monitoring missions should be further promoted.

The rights of freedom of speech, of peaceful assembly, of association and of the media are systematically violated in many of the OSCE participating States and the OSCE with all its institutions and instruments should systematically and continuously call on its participating States to solve this problem with and not against civil society actors and critical voices.

How can the OSCE participating States do better?

Countering extremism and de-radicalisation are urgent needs in all societies, but they must not lead to a drying out of all non-governmental actors. Along with aspects of security and the respective funding of mechanisms to increase security, priority should be given to peacebuilding initiatives and social service needs that fight the root causes that can lead to extremism and radicalisation. Of course, trust and confidence building measures on the level of state-society relations within the OSCE participating States(e.g. inclusive social policies and economic development programs, but also transitional justice measures, especially with regard to victims of violence, compensation measures for losses through violence and displacement, integration measures for internally displaced people and inclusive poverty reduction strategies with a do no harm approach) as well as the respective financial means for this complex work have to be put in place.

How can civil society actors do better?

For constructive conflict transformation and peacebuilding one of the major challenges is to regain trust and to rebuild relationships between and among different actors and conflict parties. Trust building and building up relationships within society, but also between civil society and state and/or towards international institutions and vice-versa are very relevant. Civil society actors should strategically work on that, promote good governance within their area of work, network with strategic allies in order to contradict the growing division within and between society and legitimate institutions wherever possible.

More interaction between human rights activists and peacebuilders is an asset, especially when it comes to sequencing lobby and advocacy work, but also for solidarity and mutual protection in times of shrinking space and threats to critical minds. Furthermore, intensified interaction and increased co-operation between researchers and NGOs (e.g. the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, the New-Med Track II Network and the Civic Solidarity Platform) could be of benefit when it comes to analysing situations on the ground and to translating them into improved policy debates.

What’s to be taken up in 2017 by the incoming Austrian OSCE Chairmanship?

The incoming OSCE Chairmanship should continue what was started by the former OSCE Chairmanships of Switzerland (2014), Serbia (2015) and Germany (2016) and focus on strengthening, protecting and supporting free, independent and vivid civil societies. The incoming Chairmanship should not hesitate to remind OSCE participating States of their human rights obligations and existing OSCE commitments, especially when they are violated. This will be easier to do when Austria leads by example and continues the tradition of carrying out an independent “self-evaluation of the implementation of OSCE commitments” in Austria. Furthermore, it is important to increase the peacebuilding component on the basis and in the spirit of the mutual and comprehensive security concept, overcome root causes of conflict and further enhance interaction with the civil society actors in the OSCE regions as well as providing support for transnational civil society activities and regional networking.

The Women, Peace and Security-Agenda should be taken up by the incoming Chairmanship prominently. The implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and all related resolutions should become one of the focus areas, as there is still a long way to go until equal participation of women and men in peace talks, peace processes and rehabilitation and reconstruction is reached. 

Further areas of concern that will have to be taken care of during the coming year(s) are very challenging and consist of big themes like “impunity”, ”dealing with the past” and ”transitional justice”. In addition, the potential of instability and possible outbreak of conflicts related to elections (e.g. in the upcoming elections in Kirgizstan, France and other OSCE participating States), the loss of independent and fact-based information sources as well as data protection and privacy should be of concern.

Further information:

Caroline Kruckow, FriEnt

Natasha Cerny Ehtesham, swisspeace

Links and literature:

The Civic Solidarity Plattform currently consist of 85 member organisations from 30 countries. For more information, please visit CSP’s website.

Outcome documents of the OSCE Parallel Civil Society Conference in Hamburg on 6 and 7 December 2016. The Hamburg Declaration on Protecting and Expanding Civil Society Space can be found on page 3-7.

Renewing dialogue, rebuilding trust, restoring security. The priorities of the German OSCE Chairmanship in 2016
German Federal Government | 2016

Here you can find more information on the Independent Evaluation Report on the occasion of the German OSCE Chairmanship 2016.

Factsheet: What is the OSCE?

The OSCE Concept of Comprehensive and Co-operative Security. An Overview of Major Milestones
OSCE | June 2009

The Helsinki Act of 1975