OSCE: a unique forum for dialogue and joint action

From September to December 2022, Belgium will chair the Forum for Security Co-operation, a key body of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In this factsheet you will discover what the OSCE does and the ways it contributes to peace.

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The OSCE building in Vienna with the flags of the participating states

Het gebouw van de OVSE in Wenen met de vlaggen van de deelnemende staten (© Shutterstock).

From September to December 2022, Belgium will chair the Forum for Security Co-operation, a key body of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In this factsheet you will discover what the OSCE does and the ways it contributes to peace.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is dedicated to maintaining peace and stability in its 57 member states. In addition to all European countries, both member states and non-member states of the EU, the US, Canada, Russia, all Balkan and Central Asian countries are also members. With more than 1 billion people within its ambit, it is the world's largest regional security organisation.

The OSCE aims to bridge differences, build trust and promote cooperation between countries. To this end, it takes a comprehensive approach: from conflict prevention, democratisation and transparent elections, to the fight against corruption and raising environmental awareness, to the promotion of tolerance, non-discrimination and media freedom.

In a world in constant change - with growing divisions, a war in Europe and complex global threats - the mission of the OSCE is more vital than ever for Europe. Indeed, it offers a unique forum for dialogue and joint action. Belgium is also actively involved in the OSCE.

Yet the OSCE remains relatively unknown among the general public. Discover below exactly what the OSCE does to bring about peace.

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Map showing the OSCE member states

The OSCE covers a large part of the northern hemisphere. With over 1 billion people, it is the world's largest regional security organization (© Shutterstock).

In the beginning: the Helsinki Final Act

The origins of the OSCE go back to the early 1970s, in the midst of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was looking for a non-military way to ensure security and stability. Ultimately, neutral Finland proposed a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the forerunner of the OSCE.

The CSCE reached an agreement on the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. This act includes 10 fundamental principles (see box) that remain in force today. Until the late 1980s, the CSCE remained one of the few platforms for dialogue between the Eastern Bloc, the West and neutral countries.

The 10 principles of the Helsinki Final Act

  1. Sovereign equality, respect for the rights inherent in sovereignty
  2. Refraining from the threat or use of force
  3. Inviolability of frontiers
  4. Territorial integrity of states
  5. Peaceful settlement of disputes
  6. Non-intervention in internal affairs
  7. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief
  8. Equal rights and self-determination of peoples
  9. Co-operation among states
  10. Fulfilment in good faith of obligations under international law

The fall of the Wall: Charter of Paris for a New Europe

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, a completely new situation emerged in Europe. The Charter of Paris for a New Europe (1990) set the stage for a reinvigorated CSCE: an organisation with headquarters in Vienna, its own staff and the authority to act in the 57 member states. One of its first actions was crisis management in the disintegrating Yugoslavia. In 1994, the CSCE was renamed the OSCE.

Decision-making bodies

The Permanent Representatives of the states meet weekly in the Permanent Council. A Ministerial Council is held annually. If necessary, a summit at the Heads of State level can also be organised.

The Forum for Security Co-operation (FSC) is an autonomous decision-making body where representatives of participating states meet weekly to consult on military stability and security.

One essential aspect is that all participating states have equal status and make decisions by consensus.

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Photo of a woman putting her ballot in the urn at a polling station

One of the OSCE's core tasks is the organization of election observations, in particular through the ODIHR. Photo: Elections in Hungary, April 2022 (© OSCE).

Institutions

In addition to the Secretariat (based in Vienna), the OSCE incorporates 3 institutions with specific tasks.

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR, Warsaw) promotes human rights and democracy. To this end, it observes elections, upholds the rule of law, and promotes tolerance and non-discrimination.

The Representative on Freedom of the Media (based in Vienna) closely observes developments in the media and provides early warning on violations of freedom of expression and media freedom.

The High Commissioner on National Minorities (based in The Hague) uses quiet diplomacy and early warning to prevent ethnic tensions developing into conflict.

Multi-faceted approach: comprehensive security

To build peace and security, the OSCE takes a highly comprehensive approach with 3 dimensions. Transnational challenges are also taken into account.

For politico-military affairs, it nurtures greater openness, transparency and cooperation. It also strives to build trust and avoid conflict. In addition, it works towards the safe storage and destruction of small arms and light weapons and conventional ammunition.

The economic and environmental dimension is also crucial to security. The OSCE promotes good governance, fights corruption and encourages environmental awareness. Natural resources must be distributed equitably and environmental waste managed effectively.

Human rights and fundamental freedoms are the foundation of stable societies. The OSCE therefore supports its participating states in building democratic institutions and conducting fair and transparent elections. This dimension also includes respect for the rule of law and human rights, including those of national minorities.

The OSCE also focuses on challenges in the area of transnational security. Examples include violent extremism and radicalisation that can lead to terrorism, cyber-attacks, trafficking in drugs, weapons and people, the human and environmental impact of climate disruption, and migration.

In all its activities, it is committed to gender equality and supporting young people. For example, schools are the subject of additional focus as they are ideal places to nurture mutual trust, break down stereotypes, and encourage understanding of universal human rights.

Comprehensive security is also reflected in the fact that the OSCE takes action in all phases of a conflict: beforehand (prevention), during (mediation) and afterwards (reconciliation and reconstruction).

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Picture of a tree representing the highly comprehensive approach of the OSCE

This OSCE tree represents the highly comprehensive approach (© OSCE).

Field operations

The lion's share of the OSCE's work is done on the ground, in its field operations. Indeed, it is in the countries themselves that peace and trust must be built. The field operations take place in 4 regions: Southeast Europe (Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, etc.), Eastern Europe (Moldova, Ukraine), Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc.) and the South Caucasus (Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia).

Field operations are implemented at the request of host countries that need assistance to fulfil their OSCE commitments. Some operations are intended to ease tensions. This was the case in Ukraine, among other places. Unfortunately, the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) had to be suspended following Russia's invasion.

Field operations often play a crucial role in post-conflict situations by helping to rebuild trust between the affected communities. For example, an OSCE operation plays an important role as a go-between for Transnistria and Moldova.

Examples of activities

  • In the Central Asian republics (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan), the OSCE is heavily involved in conflict prevention through 'capacity building'. Among other things, this is realised through the OSCE Academy (Kyrgyzstan), which organises training courses on politics & security, and economic governance & development. There is also a strong focus on border security via the OSCE Border Management Staff College, among other things to reinforce Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan.
     
  • Through the ODIHR, the OSCE has developed a gold standard for observing elections. Every participating state must inform ODIHR of planned elections. Following in-depth analysis, ODIHR sets up an election observation mission that can range from straightforward technical support to a full-fledged observation mission that spans the entire country. In recent years, Belgium has sent election observers to Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Serbia. Election observations conducted by the EU are also based on the ODIHR methodology.
     
  • The (post-conflict) field operation in Kosovo is the largest in the OSCE and spans the whole country. It applies the characteristic comprehensive approach: protecting cultural and religious heritage, promoting media freedom and anti-discrimination, promoting the participation of young people in political and public life, countering terrorism and cyber threats and so on.
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Photo of the awarding of diplomas to border guards in Tajikistan

In the Central Asian republics, the OSCE is working on conflict prevention through capacity building. Photo: Awarding diplomas to border guards in Tajikistan (© OSCE).

Belgium's contribution

Belgium was among the first signatories of the Helsinki Final Act. Our country therefore has a Permanent Representation to the OSCE in Vienna.

From September to December 2022, Belgium will chair the Forum for Security Co-operation. All OSCE countries fulfil this role in alternation, in alphabetical order.

In the past, Belgium has been the chair of the OSCE itself. A country needs to apply and be accepted unanimously in order to take on this function. Belgium has also chaired other OSCE structures, including the Open Skies Consultative Commission in 2020. In addition, Belgium actively participates in field operations with various experts.

Relations with other intergovernmental organisations

The European Union works closely with the OSCE, including on the ground. The Lisbon Treaty explicitly refers to the Helsinki Final Act as a guideline. And the recently adopted Strategic Compass for Security and Defence states that the EU intends to strengthen cooperation with the OSCE.

The OSCE considers the United Nations to be its primary partner. Indeed, the UN Security Council bears primary responsibility for maintaining peace and security in the world. For its part, the UN charter officially recognises the OSCE as a regional security organisation.

NATO is an advocate of the comprehensive approach taken by the OSCE. Consequently, it sees in the OSCE a leading and complementary partner.

The Council of Europe also sees the OSCE as an important partner with a common goal. The Council is an organisation with 47 European countries as members, with 6 non-European countries as observers. It mainly focuses on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Strengths and weaknesses

The OSCE offers undeniable added value. Indeed, a large proportion of the countries of the northern hemisphere sit together around the table to discuss peace in the region, and do so on a completely equal footing: each country has exactly equal power. It provides a unique forum in which all countries can consult and negotiate with each other as equals.

Moreover, all decisions are made by consensus. This means that any decision made by the OSCE is very broadly supported.

This strength is also immediately a weakness. As soon as one country does not agree with a given course of action, it can block further progress. Nevertheless, consensus and equal status remain essential to the OSCE.

The field operations are the organisation's major strength because it is here that the OSCE gives substance to the comprehensive approach to security. Having a presence on the ground, close to the people involved, is a strong asset.

Thanks to its simple structure, and as long as there is consensus, the OSCE can act relatively quickly. But the growing polarisation regarding active and protracted conflicts in the OSCE region makes it increasingly difficult for the organisation to make meaningful decisions. This undeniably has a significant impact on its internal operations.

Potential role in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine

Both Russia and Ukraine have a right of veto within the OSCE. As long as an active conflict rages, there is little that the OSCE can do. Indeed, OSCE action hinges on the political will and readiness to consult and take action. But as soon as there is a truce in one way or another, the organisation can play a leading role and roll out activities quickly.

What will the future bring?

The OSCE remains a unique forum where all transatlantic, European and Central Asian countries continue to meet, and on a completely equal footing. This distinguishes the OSCE from other organisations. For example, Russia doesn’t have a seat at the table when it comes to NATO or the EU. And in the UN Security Council, permanent members have more power than non-permanent members.

Moreover, if the political will is there, the OSCE can play an important role. And even if there is little or no progress on the difficult dossiers at formal meetings, contacts are made and messages are relayed in the corridors. That in itself is positive.