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Cities Conference

OSCE Convenes Regional Mayors on Local Approaches to Global Challenges

By Ambassador David Killion, chief of staff
Paul Massaro, policy advisor
Janice Helwig, representative of the Helsinki Commission to the USOSCE
Jordan Warlick, staff associate​
and Jackson Lines, intern

From March 30-31, 2017, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) hosted the conference “Creating inclusive, safe and sustainable cities: Local approaches to global challenges” in Vienna, Austria. This unique conference brought together a diverse group of mayors and other senior officials from cities across the OSCE region to discuss their achievements and challenges in building integrated societies, countering violent extremism, creating sustainability, and constructing coalitions for change.

The “Cities” conference was one of several “Security Days” conferences held by the OSCE each year. The OSCE launched these conferences in 2012 to provide a platform for prominent experts from government, think tanks, and academic institutions, civil society, youth, and media to engage with one another and official representatives from OSCE participating States.

Community Engagement

From battling violent extremism to building green energy capacity and resettling refugees, individuals, familial groups, and community units were put forward as the most effective change agents. Ahmed Aboutaleb, the mayor of Rotterdam in the Netherlands opened the conference by observing, “It is not the police or the army that brings peace. It is the citizens.”

The idea that citizens are the driving force behind community transformation was underscored by Park Won-Soon, the Mayor of Seoul, Korea (an OSCE Asian partner) who elaborated upon his pride in the people of Seoul who stood up for core values when protesting President Park Geun-hye.

Many of the participating mayors believed that promoting citizen participation must begin with engagement at the individual level, and offered recommendations to engage different stakeholders in the community. Suggested programs ranged from efforts in Poznan, Poland to retain youth in the community, to having women-only days within municipal departments, where women are given the opportunity to address issues or play sports in an exclusively female environment.

Local policies must have the support of the community to be successful. For example, on the subject of sustainable development through green policies, Erion Veliaj, Mayor of Tirana, Albania, discussed his town’s “car-free days” initiative. He observed that success in Albania means owning a car, making it quite difficult to “green” the city. However, after car-free days were promoted as opportunities for children to play without fear of vehicular accidents, participation increased substantially.

Building coalitions through engagement on good policies on an international level is an important next step. In the final session of the conference, Vice Mayor of Helsinki, Finland, Pekka Sauri, called for creative solutions to engage youth, suggesting, among other ideas, the OSCE version of the EU’s Erasmus student-exchange program to familiarize young people with the OSCE and the diverse cultures of its participating States.

Countering Radicalism

Due to Europe’s recent experiences with terrorism, participating mayors also were deeply interested in addressing the issue of radicalism in their cities. Many mayors felt that, although  radicalism has quickly become a fact of life, it is not necessarily a negative development. For example, Mayor Aboutaleb suggested that not all radicalism must be destructive, because it is possible for “radicals” develop new ideas and think in a different way. 

Integration was of particular interest when dealing with radicalization. Jørgen Kristiansen, Vice Mayor of Kristiansand in Norway, promoted the idea that treating radicalization as “regular crime” helps promote integration.

Other mayors, including Tanja Wehsely, Chair of the Vienna City Council Committee on Finance, Economy, and International Affairs, discussed building a dialogue through extracurricular activities and organizations such a sports clubs. Wehsely perhaps captured the founding idea behind these programs best when she stated, “You must give trust to gain trust”.

Other solutions put forth focused on youth engagement to prevent radicalism from taking hold of the most vulnerable population. Participants also shared their ideas for implementing programs specifically designed to target the radicalization of criminals and prisoners.

Rather than focusing on a single subset of their cities’ populations, a number of mayors advocated community-wide approaches. One of the most popular ideas was a Norwegian “buddy system,” where citizens “host” refugee families in their homes to build trust and help integrate refugees into the community. With each city acting as a testing ground for different approaches to solving Europe’s radicalism problems, idea-sharing events such as this conference are of great importance to promote a peaceful and safe Europe. 

It is important to frame both community engagement and radicalism solutions in the current political climate by acknowledging the wave of populism sweeping across OSCE nations.

Conclusion

Many issues discussed at the OSCE – including fostering inclusive, safe, and sustainable societies – require innovation and cooperation at the local level, with the active input and interest of municipal governments. By sharing best practices, mayors and other city officials are better equipped to understand and deal with persistent problems, such as countering violent extremism, in the OSCE region and partner countries.

Because mayors, diplomats, and parliamentarians have a variety of perspectives to offer on the challenges that face the OSCE region, an eventual inter-branch “Security Days” that brings them all together could offer additional insights, ideas, and best practices.

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