The OSCE was designed to ensure peace in Europe. Now the conflict in Ukraine is confronting it with perhaps the greatest crisis in its history.
- By Spencer OliverSpencer Oliver is the Secretary General of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
Until a few months ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was an obscurity to most Westerners in the post-Cold-War world. Now it’s the stuff of headlines and is at the center of high-stakes political deal-making. The reason is Ukraine, where our organization is mustering all of its reserves to help monitor and defuse the situation. In general, I think our efforts have been admirable. We’ve dispatched a Special Monitoring Mission to the country to establish the facts on the ground and track security developments. We’ve launched a National Dialogue Project aimed at building confidence among different segments of society, and facilitated a rare meeting of Russian and Ukrainian members of parliament. We’re also preparing for a massive monitoring effort during the upcoming Ukrainian election on May 25. (In the photo above, two OSCE officers observe a pro-Ukrainian rally in Lugansk on April 19.)
It certainly sounds good — good enough for some of my colleagues within the OSCE to argue that we’ve proven the health of our organization. But there’s one problem: If the OSCE were working the way it’s supposed to, the Ukraine crisis should never have happened in the first place. The OSCE has now reached a moment of truth: embrace real structural and political reform or be left to pick up the pieces after its failures.
In the first days of March, with Kiev quickly losing control of Crimea, Ukraine invoked a provision of the OSCE’s 2011 Vienna Document that allowed for member states to call military observers onto its soil. Simply put, a team of international military personnel was to head into Crimea to cut through the chaos and evaluate the security situation on the ground. Some of these same observers would later find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, held hostage in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slovyansk before they were released amid an international outcry.
In Crimea, however, getting in, not out, was the problem. Several times the monitors attempted to enter the peninsula and each time they were barred by pro-Russian "militia." In the meantime, Moscow continued to "protect its own kind" inside Crimea while outside military observers were kept away. Russia, like all of its fellow OSCE states, had committed itself to upholding the provisions of the Vienna Document, including the provision for military observers to have access to the disputed area. Except for brief, restricted visits by a representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office and the OSCE High Representative on Minorities, we were shut out of the crisis area.
On March 21, after tense negotiations in which Moscow stood in the way, the Organization’s 57 participating states belatedly agreed to deploy a Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. The mission would be tasked with gathering information, particularly on the security situation, as well as "reporting facts regarding incidents, including those concerning alleged violations of fundamental OSCE principles and commitments." Those principles are contained in the Organization’s founding document, the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, and recognize, inter alia, the inviolability of frontiers; the territorial integrity of states; non-intervention in internal affairs; and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Kiev had officially requested the creation and deployment of the Mission weeks before, but had run into a problem that has long burdened our organization: the consensus rule.
Of course, something else of note also occurred on March 21: That was the day Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the annexation of Crimea into law. The national weather forecast on the evening news in Russia gave highs and lows for Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok — and Sevastopol. Essentially, Russia had allowed the OSCE to assemble a monitoring mission to Ukraine only after it ripped a chunk of the country away. To be sure, the mission has done excellent and valuable work across non-Crimean Ukraine in the weeks since. Its creation was perhaps only possible due to concerted international pressure on Moscow to give in, which it did, only after a farcical "referendum" supposedly asked for Russian annexation.
So what is to be done? To mark the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act next year, the Parliamentary Assembly is organizing a series of events with prestigious international think tanks in Moscow, Washington, Stockholm, and Helsinki to consider the future of the OSCE. The policy experts and academics will have their say, but when I consider that question, I again think back to March. Addressing the governmental side of the OSCE, the Parliamentary Assembly’s human rights chair, Portuguese member of parliament Isabel Santos, asked officials to consider the implications of Russia’s behavior for the OSCE itself: "I wonder if Russia’s de facto invasion of Ukraine means its de facto withdrawal from our organization," she said. To be sure, many parliamentarians in our Assembly argue that keeping Russia — and other violators of OSCE commitments — in the dialogue is the only way we can aspire to be the East-West bridge we were meant to be. Nevertheless, Santos’s question poses an existential challenge for the OSCE that cannot be avoided.
First, there simply must be consequences for the kind of thrashing of OSCE commitments that we’ve seen during the Ukraine crisis. The Helsinki Final Act is not an international treaty backed by law and efforts to turn it into one have gone nowhere. But what we can at least do is not pull any punches, publicly denouncing at the highest levels the unacceptable actions in Ukraine and insisting that the provisions that all participating States agreed to be observed. When the smoke clears in Ukraine, the OSCE chairman-in-office could call an organization-wide summit on the existential gravity of this moment. The result could be a mechanism, or at least the initiation of a process, that the organization could invoke to consider egregious violations of its tenets — a mechanism for holding member states publicly accountable for their transgressions. Such a mechanism could help us make soft power a little bit harder.
More than ever before, the situation in Ukraine — and within the OSCE during this crisis — prove that we must finally adjust the consensus-based decision-making which prevents collective action against blatant violations of OSCE commitments. The OSCE as an organization must resolve that it will not be taken hostage by any one state to remain silent and helpless while human suffering and brutal aggression continue. OSCE parliamentarians have long called on the governmental side to consider new rules — perhaps consensus minus one or two, or two-thirds-majority or some procedure that prevents a single country veto by a transgressor. Achieving this change will no doubt be a diplomatic battle royale, but this current episode has demonstrated just how much we need to take it on. What if Russia had not held up the formation and deployment of a monitoring mission to Ukraine? Official reporting from Crimea during the early stages of the unrest there could have made a real impact on Russia’s calculations, not to mention those of Ukraine, its neighbors, and the international communi
ty. If the monitoring mission was created to investigate alleged violations of OSCE principles, how, indeed, can the OSCE rationalize its inability to act?
Will our organization, even with clearly needed reforms, be able to head off all conflicts between member states? Of course not. Will it have a better chance of doing so? I don’t doubt it. Will the OSCE be truer to its ideals? Certainly. Make no mistake — on the ground in Ukraine, the OSCE has given its all in trying to respond to the crisis. But if this is not to be the final act for the Helsinki Final Act, it will have to be just as vigorous in tackling the tough questions of self-reform.