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OSCE Seminar on Judicial Systems and Human Rights

Volume 35 Number 10

By Erika Schlager
CSCE Counsel for International Law

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held its annual human dimension seminar from April 23 – 25, 2002. The subject chosen by the 55 participating States for this year’s meeting was “Judicial Systems and Human Rights.” The annual seminars are organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in Warsaw.

Representatives from approximately 41 OSCE participating States and 49 non-governmental organizations, as well as participants from OSCE institutions and other international organizations, attended the meeting which was also open to the public.

The aim of the meeting was “to review challenges for the judiciary in established and developing democracies in its protection of human rights.” It was organized into opening and closing plenary sessions, each lasting one-half day, with six half-day working group sessions. One of the more provocative themes that emerged was the failure of the international community, when acting in a conflict setting, to establish effective mechanisms to resolve allegations that its agents (e.g. peacekeepers) have themselves violated the law.

Illustrating the breadth of issues the ODIHR hoped the meeting would address, the working group subjects were:

  • the role of the judiciary in the administration of justice;
  • safeguarding the independence of the judiciary;
  • access to justice;
  • the role of the judiciary in pre- and post-conflict situations;
  • the judicial system and the economic dimension; and
  • improving the enforcement of human rights by the judiciary.

Each of these subjects was allotted only three hours. Four of the working group sessions met simultaneously with one other working group session, making it impossible for any one participant or national delegations to follow the full scope of discussions.

An “introducer” – an expert invited to make opening remarks intended to shape the subsequent discussion – opened each working group session. The practice of using “introducers” at human dimension implementation meetings has largely been a disaster, in that they absorb scarce time while generally failing to engage in any specific review of human rights compliance, though in this particular setting, the introducers were helpful in jump-starting discussions. Efforts to make the working groups more informal and dynamic by doing away with speakers lists backfired in those sessions with serious competition for the floor. The goal of achieving a “free-flowing” discussion in six official languages among the 80 or 90 people sitting around the table at any given point in time also proved illusive.

One hour prior to the close of each working group, the moderator admonished the participants in each working group to remember to make recommendations, so that they might be reflected in the final reports of the rapporteurs. (The ODIHR often relies on rapporteurs’ summaries of recommendations to justify its budget requests and activities. Those summaries, however, exclude country-specific recommendations.)

On the margins of the meeting, four side events were also held. The first, organized by the non-governmental organization International League for Human Rights, focused on the lack of justice in Azerbaijan and Belarus. The second, organized by the ODIHR Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues, examined access to justice for Roma and Sinti. The third, organized by the ODIHR Rule of Law Unit, profiled judicial reform projects implemented by the ODIHR. The last side event, organized by the American Bar Association Central and East European Law Initiative, reviewed progress in judicial reform in the OSCE region.

Annual human dimension seminars in Warsaw have been held since 1992. In the early 1990s, two or three such seminars were held each year. But as the OSCE community experienced a degree of “meeting fatigue,” combined with a growing preoccupation with mission and other field activities, the number was reduced to one a year and the duration of each meeting has, in most recent years, been limited to only three days.

The seminar on judicial systems and human rights, like many of the Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings held in Vienna since 1999, experienced a number of problems. First, the agenda was overly ambitious, seeking to cover an extremely broad range of issues relating to judicial systems in a mere three days. Second, it had an identity complex. On the one hand, it was not really an implementation meeting, i.e., a forum designed to foster an exchange of views among participants, including non-governmental organizations, on compliance with agreed norms. Non-governmental representatives who would inconveniently deviate from the strict topic of any given working group – by pointing out, for example, that you can’t “safeguard” the “independence” of the judiciary in a country where the theft of presidential and parliamentary elections have deprived the country of the basic trappings of democracy – were perceived by some expert and diplomatic participants as a bit of a nuisance. On the other hand, it didn’t quite succeed as a real “experts” meeting, a forum designed to bring together a critical mass of people able to exchange insiders’ perspective on the topic-du-jour (notwithstanding the fact that ODIHR did draw a number of highly qualified jurists and other legal professionals to participate).

As the OSCE participating States continue in Vienna with what is now a decade-long process of tinkering with the structure of human dimension meetings, perhaps it is time to revisit the annual seminars as well. Significantly, ad hoc OSCE human dimension meetings held last year – one on religion, hosted by the Netherlands, and one on Roma issues, convened by Romania as Chair-in-Office – were more successful in crafting focused agendas and fostering productive discussions.

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

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