The OSCE: An Essential Component of European Security

Miriam Sapiro
March 24, 1997
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe ("OSCE") is one of the most important -- but sometimes least understood -- components of European security today. As the only pan-European security organization, the OSCE has a crucial role to play in conquering past hostilities and building genuine cooperative security. To some, however, the OSCE is known only for its human rights advocacy as the product of the Helsinki Process launched in 1975. Indeed, the relationship between the full observance of human rights and security remains fundamental to the OSCE. Others think of the OSCE still in terms of its former identity as the rotating Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). But gradually the OSCE is gaining prominence in its own right because of the visible and effective role it is playing in enhancing overall security within and among States. Most notably at present, the OSCE is working to consolidate peace in Bosnia and foster democratization in Serbia. 
The OSCE Summit held in Lisbon on December 2-3, 1996, made clear the centrality of the organization to efforts underway to build a more secure, democratic and peaceful Europe. The OSCE, along with NATO, the EU and other transatlantic and European institutions, is committed to realizing the vision of a New Atlantic Community, without artificial and hostile dividing lines, where all members feel secure. As the leaders of the participating States who gathered at Lisbon unambiguously declared: "The OSCE plays a central role in achieving our goal of a common security space. Its fundamental elements -- the comprehensiveness and indivisibility of security and allegiance to shared values, commitments and norms of behavior -- inspire our vision of empowering governments and individuals to build a better and more secure future." 
The OSCE supplements the work of traditional security structures in Europe, such as NATO and the United Nations. As Vice-President Gore said at the Lisbon Summit, "the OSCE continues to be a place where the issues that affect the destiny of Europe can be debated on equal footing by all governments. The OSCE is unique in this regard. But the OSCE has become much more than a great forum of nations. It has become a way for nations to join together both in word and deed to address practical problems and challenges to those principles which form the core of this body." 
The OSCE has unique attributes that make it the forum of choice in many situations. Of first and foremost importance, the OSCE is the most inclusive Euro-Atlantic forum for consultation and joint action. Its geographical diversity stretches from Vancouver to Vladivostok, and it includes all of the Central Asian republics that were once part of the Soviet Union. Second, as noted by Vice-President Gore, all OSCE States have equal participatory rights; each voice is as important as the next. Third, the absence of a rigid legal structure allows the OSCE to respond quickly and flexibly to breaking political events. 
A perceived weakness of the OSCE is its requirement for consensus for most actions. While this requirement can result in less sweeping kinds of decisions, it can also be considered a strength. The search for a common denominator can reinforce the sense of an OSCE community and improve prospects for implementation. 
The problems and challenges facing the OSCE community today come from different sources. They include not only potential challenges to sovereignty, but threats to peace from ethnic tensions and violent separatism within States. The OSCE also addresses some of the tough transnational threats states face, such as destabilizing migration and environmental damage. Other transnational threats, such as weapons proliferation, terrorism and drug trafficking are becoming the subject of increasing OSCE attention. 
The OSCE has broken new ground in developing effective tools for conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation to address these various risks and threats to security. Some tools address the root causes of tension; others focus on the symptoms of trouble. One tool is the opportunity for a group of thirteen concerned States to call for an Emergency Meeting to address a threat to a principle of the Helsinki Final Act or a major threat to peace. Another tool is OSCE Missions, which have made major contributions to forging peace in Bosnia and in Chechnya, as well as stability in other areas. A third instrument is the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities, who has perceptively used early warning signals and preventive diplomacy to defuse minority tensions in the Baltics and other States. 
The OSCE also has at its disposal several novel methods for the peaceful settlement of disputes. One of several methods is the "directed conciliation" procedure. This mechanism enables the OSCE to direct disputing States to conciliate their differences, based on previously agreed rules. As such, it combines the OSCE's strength of being able to exert political pressure on recalcitrant States with the theory that a consensual solution may be the more likely to succeed. Directed conciliation, like other OSCE mechanisms designed specifically for disputes, has yet to be used. To some extent, the mere availability of these tools provides an incentive to encourage States to resolve serious differences on their own. 
These tools did not exist when the foundations of the OSCE were laid. After the United States, the Soviet Union, other members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and other European States signed the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, the (then) CSCE was seen by the West as primarily a way to press the East on human rights issues. Nonetheless, the Final Act described ten principles encompassing the basic tenets that guide relations between States. These principles continue to form the cornerstone of the OSCE process today. Documents negotiated after the 1975 Helsinki Meeting created additional commitments, although none have had the historic importance of the Final Act. 
The Final Act and subsequent OSCE commitments reflect the fundamental notion that genuine security among nations in the region is comprehensive, inclusive and cooperative. Such security derives from politically binding commitments in all dimensions of security, not just military but civil and political, economic, environmental and scientific. These commitments are equally applicable to all OSCE States. Their full implementation is constantly reviewed at OSCE meetings. Such interaction reinforces the highly interdependent nature of security in the OSCE region, where no nation can feel fully secure if its citizens feel unsafe or its neighbors feel threatened. 
As new states have emerged in Europe, the number of States participating in the OSCE has grown. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all twelve former republics and the three Baltic Republics joined. After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, four of the five successor states joined: Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Croatia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Slovenia. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) (known as the "FRY") tried unsuccessfully to assume Yugoslaviaþs seat. The OSCE suspended Yugoslavia's participation, and political sanctions preclude action upon a request by the FRY to join. The admission of Andorra brings the number of OSCE participating States to 54. 
During the 1970s and 1980s, it was appropriate to call the entity a "Conference" or the "CSCE." The body met for varying periods of time at irregular intervals, as decided by the participants. But with the end of the Cold War, the 1990s opened up opportunities for closer and more frequent consultation. With the historic adoption of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe in 1990 -- which for the first time recognized the need to build and strengthen democracy "as the only system of government" in all participating States, the CSCE decided to have regular meetings at different political levels, and to establish a secretariat in Prague for administrative support. At that time it established a "Conflict Prevention Centre" in Vienna, as well as an "Office of Free Elections" in Warsaw. The Warsaw office has since expanded to become the "Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights," which monitors human rights and electoral practices throughout the region. 
The 1992 Helsinki Summit created the job of Chairman-in-Office ("CIO"), which rotates among OSCE states annually. The CIO functions like a private-sector Chief Executive Officer, and includes responsibility for coordinating the fulfillment of OSCE's day-to-day responsibilities. Later in 1992, Foreign Ministers met in Stockholm and established the post of Secretary General ("SG"). As the OSCE's Chief Administrative Officer, the SG serves a more administrative than political function, acting under the political guidance of the Chairman-in-Office, advising on the financial implications of various proposals, and supervising the support provided by the OSCE secretariat. On occasion the SG represents the OSCE at international meetings; there is currently debate whether the position should assume a more political role. 
The Stockholm Ministerial also established a group of representatives of the participating States to meet in Vienna as needed to implement decisions taken at more senior levels. This group became a permanent fixture in 1993, when Foreign Ministers met in Rome and created a permanent body for political consultation and decision-making. This "Permanent Committee" was established to handle day-to-day operational tasks and to meet on a continuous basis in Vienna. 
The 1994 Budapest Summit clarified and revitalized the roles of the different levels of leadership and management that had evolved since 1990. The Ministerial Council is now the central decision-making and governing body of the OSCE; it meets once a year at the level of either Heads of State (or Government) or Foreign Minister. Between these meetings, the Senior Council is responsible for setting policy and broad budgetary guidelines; it meets in Prague on average twice a year, including before the Ministerial Council Meeting. Most operational decisions are made by the Permanent Council (formerly the Permanent Committee), which remains the regular body for consultation and decision-making. The Chairman-in-Office remains vested with overall responsibility for executive action. There continues to be a secretariat in Vienna with a smaller office in Prague, as well as the institutions of the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw and the Conflict Prevention Centre in Vienna. 
The Budapest Summit also changed the name of the CSCE to the OSCE. The change reflects the determination of the participating States to give the body a new political impetus. While there was little doubt before Budapest that the CSCE's existence was no longer a temporary phenomenon, the change in name to the OSCE reflected both its evolution into a more established political structure, and the expectation that it would play an even greater role in maintaining regional security and enhancing stability in the years to come. 
The OSCE is well poised to meet this challenge and contribute to building a democratic and peaceful Europe, which remains central to America's security and prosperity. Its reorganization since 1990 has transformed the body into an innovative structure for consultation and concerted action. At its disposal today are a myriad of instruments to provide early warning of brewing tensions, prevent tensions from developing into full-blown crises, and defuse conflicts should they arise. 
An important component of building a united Europe is the opening of NATO and the EU to new members. In 1994, as this process was just beginning, the OSCE's Budapest Summit adopted a "Code of Conduct" which reaffirmed the right of each State to be free to choose its own security arrangements, including treaties of alliance. At Budapest, OSCE States reaffirmed that they will not strengthen their security at the expense of others. These kinds of OSCE commitments, negotiated among all the States concerned with and directly affected by European security issues, can support the transformation of other organizations. 
At the December 1996 Lisbon Summit, OSCE leaders focused on preparing the OSCE for the challenges of the new century. They adopted a Declaration on a Common and Comprehensive Security Model for the Twenty-First Century that sets forth enhanced ways to jointly address security issues. Leaders also pledged to realize the OSCE's full potential to work with other organizations in a mutually reinforcing way to consolidate peace throughout the region. Participants at Lisbon also welcomed the decision reached by OSCE States that are signatory to the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe to begin negotiations to adapt the Treaty to the changing security environment in Europe. 
The OSCE's recent work in Bosnia and Serbia provides a good illustration of its potential. Bosnia marks the OSCE's largest operational challenge to date, and it has acquitted itself well. As anticipated in the Dayton Peace Agreement, the OSCE Mission undertook responsibility for the conduct of national and municipal elections, arms control negotiations and human rights monitoring. Against great odds, national elections were held in September 1996 to elect the new leaders of the joint Bosnian institutions. The OSCE is now working to resolve difficult issues related to the municipal elections planned for later this year. 
The OSCE's response to the growing political crisis in Serbia is an example of the importance of flexible instruments that can be deployed quickly. When it became clear that Serbian authorities would not recognize the victories won by the opposition parties in the November 17 municipal elections, the OSCE Chairman-in-Office (then Swiss Foreign Minister Cotti) promptly dispatched former Spanish Prime Minster Felipe Gonzalez as his Personal Representative to Belgrade. Mr. Gonzalez and his OSCE delegation, which included as the U.S. representative former Ambassador Max Kampelman, concluded that the opposition had indeed won in the contested municipalities. The OSCE Delegation called upon Serbian authorities to accept and abide by these results, a position which OSCE States endorsed on January 3, 1997. Sustained pressure towards full implementation of the election results, improved human rights observance and greater democratization continues to be exerted on Serbia by the OSCE. 
Some of the credit for the positive changes that have occurred in Europe since 1975 is due to the CSCE and, now, the OSCE. Confrontation between East and West has given way to cooperation. The debate whether human rights and fundamental freedoms are a legitimate matter of international concern has ended. There is consensus that democracy is the preferred form of government, and that it must be consolidated and strengthened throughout the region. The continuing work of the OSCE can help make the vision of a truly secure and united Europe a reality. 
T. Buergenthal, "The CSCE Rights System," 25 Geo. Wash. Int'l L. & Econ. 333, 375-78. 
M. Lucas, The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Post-Cold War Era (Institut fur Friedensforschung und Sicherheitpolitik, Hamburg 1994). 
J. Maresca, To Helsinki: The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 1973-75 (1985). 
M. Sapiro, "Changing the CSCE into the OSCE: Legal Aspects of a Political Transformation," 89 American Journal of International Law 631 (1995). 
Miriam Sapiro is a Member of the Policy Planning Staff in the Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of State, where she specializes in European security issues. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.