By Erika Schlager,
Counsel for International Law
“The work of the OSCE human dimension has also been impacted, no doubt by this unprecedented pandemic. As you know, the OSCE annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting – Europe’s largest annual human rights and democracy conference – will not take place this year. This is a huge loss for our organization. Together with Permanent Council, Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is a constituent part of the OSCE’s mechanism for the review and assessment of the implementation of our commitments. With around 2,000 participants from across the whole OSCE region, it is also the primary forum for our citizens to take a direct part in the life of our organization.”
– Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama, 2020 OSCE Chair-in-Office, at a September 17, 2020, hearing before the Helsinki Commission
On September 11, 2020, the OSCE Permanent Council decided, as an exceptional measure without precedent for the future, to cancel the 2020 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) planned for September 21 – October 2. The decision reflects the singular and unpredictable circumstances of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
OSCE rules mandate that HDIMs, a comprehensive review of the participating States’ implementation of their human dimension commitments, are held every year in which there is not a summit. (In the event that a summit is convened, the summit is preceded by a review conference that evaluates implementation in all three OSCE dimensions, including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension.)
HDIMs are unique among OSCE meetings because of the combination of their large size (typically drawing a thousand participants), duration (two full consecutive weeks), press access, and ability of non-governmental organizations both to participate in and speak at the meetings on an equal footing with governments and to organize side events. Governments regularly conduct bilateral meetings on human dimension issues on the margins. Additionally, the United States holds daily open-door meetings with civil society representatives.
When announcing the HDIM decision, the Albanian OSCE Chair-in-Office confirmed that it instead would convene a series of online events throughout the remainder of the year, with the support of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), to maintain focus on topical issues related to human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
In a statement following the announcement, the United States supported “creating and/or seizing other opportunities within the OSCE to spotlight human dimension issues, including by holding other meetings, to the maximum extent possible with provision for virtual civil society participation. However, we underscore that any such activities, with or without NGO participation, are not substitutes for the HDIM.”
Alluding to shortcomings in human rights compliance, democratic weaknesses, racial inequities, and social vulnerabilities that the pandemic has revealed and, in some cases, amplified, the United States further stated that “vigilance will be especially important given the challenging pandemic conditions.”
Following the decision, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) said, “OSCE participating States should continue to engage in a robust implementation review of their human dimension commitments through the OSCE Permanent Council, December’s Ministerial Council, and other scheduled events and meetings facilitated by the Chair-in-Office and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Implementation of shared commitments remains the ultimate purpose of this 57-nation organization.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the work of the OSCE mid-March. Meetings of the Permanent Council, the OSCE’s main decision-making body, initially were canceled in line with Austrian Government requirements and later shifted to an online platform, before settling into its current, hybrid format combining online and limited in-person participation. Other OSCE meetings and events also have been scaled back, postponed, canceled, or shifted to online platforms in response to host-government mandates related to public meetings, quarantines, and broader issues of border closings and travel restrictions.
The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) also has had to alter its planned activities. The April Bureau Meeting was held using an online platform. The Annual Session, scheduled for Vancouver in July, and the Autumn Meeting, scheduled for October in San Marino, were canceled. In lieu of these events, 40 parliamentarians participated in a virtual Standing Committee meeting in early July, followed by nine online, inter-parliamentary dialogues to consider the impact of COVID-19 on human rights; economic security; conflicts in the region; the environment; and other issues and yielded a publicly available report of recommendations on strengthening compliance on shared commitments.