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The Year in Review: OSCE Human Dimension Activities in 2009

Volume 42 Number 3

Prepared by the Staff of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

During 2009, the OSCE participating States addressed human dimension issues in numerous fora, including the weekly meetings of the Permanent Council in Vienna, regular meetings of the Human Dimension Committee, and various annually scheduled and ad hoc human dimension meetings.

Throughout the year, events sharply illustrated the urgent need for greater respect for human rights and implementation of OSCE commitments. In addition, some changes to the way in which the participating States organize their human dimension meetings might improve the effectiveness of this area of the Organization’s work.

2010 ushers in the historic chairmanship of Kazakhstan – the first Central Asian state to lead the OSCE. Proponents of the Kazakhstan bid to lead the OSCE have suggested that its chairmanship will improve cooperation with other Central Asian participating States as well as Russia, and help reinvigorate the OSCE. Critics have expressed serious concern that the gap between Kazakhstan’s domestic human rights record and OSCE human rights commitments will undermine the credibility and integrity of the Organization it now leads.

I. Human Rights Events in 2009

A pattern of escalating violence against Roma continued into 2009. In February, the home of a Romani family in Hungary was firebombed; the attackers shot and murdered Robert Csorba and his five-year-old son to keep them from escaping the flames. In April, a Romani home in the Czech Republic was also firebombed, leaving two-year-old Natalia Sivkova burned over 80% of her body. In April, another Romani man, Jeno Koka, was killed by sniper fire in Hungary, leaving his father – a Holocaust survivor – to bury him. In August, snipers in Hungary murdered a widow, Maria Balogh, while her 13-year-old daughter, Ketrin, was permanently injured. These events prompted Viktoria Mohacs, one of two Romani Members then serving in the European Parliament, to declare, “We can either set up an army or flee.”

The United States Mission to the OSCE sought, but was unable to gain consensus on, a Permanent Council declaration addressing the spike in violence against Roma. At year’s end, however, the OSCE Ministerial Council in Athens adopted a decision which, among other things, “[u]rges the participating States to step up their efforts in promoting tolerance and combating prejudices against Roma and Sinti people in order to prevent their further marginalization and exclusion and to address the rise of violent manifestations of intolerance against Roma and Sinti as well as to unequivocally and publicly condemn any violence targeting Roma and Sinti . . . .”

On the eve of the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Religion in July, Egyptian-born pharmacist Marwa el-Sherbini was brutally stabbed to death in a Dresden courtroom where she was scheduled to testify against her assailant regarding an altercation they had had a year earlier. In the first incident, the assailant verbally abused el-Sherbini at a neighborhood playground for wearing a hajib, a traditional head covering used by many Muslim women. At the conclusion of her testimony regarding that incident, the defendant lunged at El-Sherbini, who was three months pregnant, repeatedly stabbing her and her husband, who attempted to come to his wife’s aid. (In the confusion, police mistakenly shot el-Sherbini’s husband.) El-Sherbini died of her wounds, joining a growing number of victims of violence directed against minorities and immigrants in the OSCE region. In December, the OSCE Ministerial Council adopted another decision on hate crimes data, with a view to improving national mechanisms to combat them.

Natalya Estemirova, a journalist and human rights defender affiliated with the leading Russian human rights organization, Memorial, was abducted in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on July 15. Her bullet-riddled remains were discovered later that day dumped along the side of a highway in neighboring Ingushetia. As she prepared to receive the first Anna Politkovskaya Award, named in honor of her slain colleague, Estemirova said that her goal was to solve at least one of the many missing persons cases in Chechnya. Estemirova, who devoted herself to documenting abductions and other human rights violations in that region of Russia, ultimately became a victim of the violence she worked hard to prevent. Her case, like those of scores of others murdered journalists and human rights defenders in Russia, remains unsolved.

On the eve of the OSCE’s annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the Russian Federation denied visas to two representatives of Reporters without Borders who were seeking to attend an event in Moscow commemorating the 3rd anniversary of Polikovskaya’s assassination. Subsequently, on the day of that meeting devoted to the subject of freedom of the media and free expression, Oleg Orlov, Director of the Russian human rights group, Memorial, was ordered to pay damages for allegedly defaming Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. (After the murder of Natalya Estemirova, Orlov had suggested Kadyrov was responsible for her death by creating a climate in which such attacks could occur.)

In 2009, a pattern of harassment, intimidation and violence against journalists in Central Asia intensified, and media laws have been stiffened across the region. Many of the journalists who have been attacked had ties to opposition parties in their countries. In December, two journalists were brutally murdered in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Gennady Pavlyuk was thrown out of a sixth-floor apartment window with his hands tied behind his back. Sayat Shulembaev was stabbed to death in an apartment following his reporting on Pavlyuk’s death. Earlier in 2009, a Kyrgyz journalist was reportedly beaten to death by eight policemen in the southern town of Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

A new law in Kazakhstan introduces jail terms for crimes against privacy, which could further limit freedom of speech in the country and curb investigative journalism. Another new law proposes stricter control over the Internet and allows the state to block websites. The Government seized the print run of the newspaper RESPUBLIKA and froze its publisher’s bank accounts after the BTA bank filed charges that the newspaper allegedly had printed false information about the bank’s activities. Ramazan Esergepov, the editor in chief of the weekly newspaper ALMA-ATA INFO, was found guilty in August of allegedly releasing state secrets and sentenced to three years in prison.

In July, leading Kazakhstani human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis was involved in a traffic accident in which a pedestrian was killed. Zhovtis, the director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, is also a member of the ODIHR Expert Panel on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly. Irregularities surrounding the initial investigation, prosecution and trial led Zhovtis and others to suspect that the criminal charges were politically motivated, prompting a series of protests, including at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting.

Following a short trial in early September, the outspoken critic of Kazakhstan’s human rights record was sentenced to four years in jail, just short of the maximum sentence allowed under Kazakhstan law. His appeal was dismissed in late October despite credible allegations of procedural flaws in his trial. Following the court proceeding, Zhovtis was transferred from Almaty to a labor camp in a remote section of northeastern Kazakhstan. On net, the manner in which authorities proceeded against Zhovtis have raised numerous serious questions not only about the rule of law in his case, but also about apparent efforts by the authorities to effectively banish him for the duration of Kazakhstan’s year-long chairmanship of OSCE in 2010. He has reported various forms of pressure by the prison authorities since his transfer.

Throughout 2009, a Moscow-directed campaign of harassment against Jehovah’s Witnesses across the federation continued. This sets them apart from other religious groups in Russia that may face regional difficulties that do not appear to be directed from Moscow.

Banned in Moscow since 2004, a nationwide campaign of official harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses began in early 2009 when local prosecutors were instructed to probe actions of branches in their areas. Some 500 investigations are underway examining, among other things, alleged “extremism,” and both private homes and congregational buildings have been raided.

On October 1, during the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, prosecutors in Gorno-Altaysk declared that 18 publications distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses were “extremist” and therefore banned. In early December, the Russian Supreme Court upheld a ruling from a court in the Rostov region effectively banning 34 publications under Russia’s Federal Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity. Other Jehovah’s Witness publications were banned this year at the Russian-Finnish border by customs officials who said they might incite “religious hatred.” The Russian Supreme Court also let stand the liquidation of the Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Taganrog as “extremist.”

Following the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, two Kyrgyzstani NGO representatives reported that they were threatened for participating in the Warsaw meeting and for reporting on the situation of Kyrgyzstani migrant workers in Russia and Kazakhstan.

On November 29, Switzerland held a referendum in which 57.5% of Swiss voters approved a constitutional amendment banning the construction of new minarets in the country. The referendum was initiated by right-wing and nationalist politicians from the Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union. While the Swiss Government opposed the measure, arguing that it was contrary to the Swiss Constitution and freedom of religion, a majority of voters supported its passage. Switzerland’s Muslim population is roughly four percent of the total population (approximately 350,000 people). There are currently four minarets in Switzerland, none of which are used to issue the call to prayer. Meanwhile, on December 2, the OSCE Ministerial Council reached agreement to hold a High-Level Conference on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination in June 2010. They declared that “. . . tolerance and non-discrimination are important elements in the promotion of human rights and democratic values and that respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law is at the core of the OSCE comprehensive concept of security.”

II. Human Dimension Activities

Regularly scheduled meetings

During the course of 2009, the participating States held several meetings that are mandated to be convened on an annual basis. These included three Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings in Vienna and a seminar in Warsaw.

The topics for the three Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings are chosen by the Chair-in-Office (for 2009, Greece). The subjects chosen for 2009 were: Hate Crimes: Effective Implementation of Legislation (May 4-5); Freedom of Religion or Belief (July 9-10); and Gender Equality, with a special focus on combating violence against women (November 5-6).

The participating States also convened a seminar selecting, by consensus decision of the 56 participating States, “constitutional justice” as the 2009 subject. The annual human dimension seminars are held in Warsaw.

In addition, the OSCE Permanent Council established a Human Dimension Committee in 2007 that met regularly in Vienna throughout 2009, although those meetings are closed to the public and documents are limited to internal circulation.

Ad hoc meetings

In addition to these regularly scheduled events, a large number of ad hoc events were also organized by the participating States.

On February 4, 2009, members of the Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief held an informal briefing in Vienna for delegations to the Permanent Council. (The Advisory Panel consists of about 15 experts selected by the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. They serve as a steering group for the full Panel of Experts, which consists of up to two members nominated by each of the participating States.) On March 4, 2009, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights convened a Roundtable in Vienna on “Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians, focusing on exclusion, marginalization and denial of rights.” On March 17, 2009, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights convened a Roundtable on “Combating Anti-Semitism.” (These three events were tied to a December 17, 2008, roundtable convened in Vienna by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Vienna on “Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims (with a focus on youth and education)”.)

Other ad hoc human dimension meetings convened in 2009 included:

  • The 9th “Alliance Against Trafficking in Persons” conference (September 14-15), which opened with a video address by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; 
  • An expert workshop on “public-private partnerships: engaging with the media in countering terrorism” (October 18-20), partially funded by the Moscow City Government, Russian Federation;
  • The 2nd annual meeting of National Points of Contact on Combating Hate Crimes (October 28-29);
  • An experts’ workshop to examine ways to build trust and understanding between police and Romani communities, organized by the OSCE Strategic Police Matters Unit in co-operation with the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (also October 28-29); and
  • AConference on Roma Migration and Freedom of Movement organized jointly by the OSCE, the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency and the Council of Europe (November 9-10).

All of the ad hoc meetings were held in Vienna.

III. The 2009 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

From September 28 to October 9, 2009, the OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The meeting was organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, according to an agenda approved by consensus of all 56 participating States. The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights gathering.

The annual HDIM agenda provides a review of the implementation of the full range of core human rights and fundamental freedoms (e.g., freedoms of speech, assembly and association; prevention of torture; right to a fair trial), as well as rule of law, free elections and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, tolerance and non-discrimination are also on the agenda. As at previous meetings, the allocation of time during the meeting remains highly problematic with speaking time at some of the sessions on fundamental freedoms limited to only one or two minutes to accommodate dozens desiring the floor, while other sessions ended early with time unused.

In accordance with OSCE procedures, the agenda included three specially selected topics, each of which was given a full day of review. In 2009, those subjects were: 1) human rights education; 2) freedom of expression, free media and information; and 3) Roma/Sinti and, in particular, early education for Roma and Sinti children.

The U.S. Delegation to the 2009 HDIM was headed by Dr. Michael Haltzel, Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and former Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to Senator Joseph Biden. Other members of the delegation included Chargé d’Affaires Carol Fuller, U.S Mission to the OSCE; Bruce Turner, Director of European Security and Political Affairs, Department of State; Fred L. Turner, Chief of Staff of the Helsinki Commission; and Ambassador Douglas Davidson, Senior State Department Advisor to the Helsinki Commission. Petra Gelbart, Department of Musicology, Harvard University, and Dan Mariaschin, Executive Vice President, B’nai B’rith International, served as expert Public Members on the delegation. Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, Democracy, and Labor Michael Posner – confirmed just as the meeting opened – participated in the meeting and delivered the closing statement for the United States. The United States continued its longstanding practice of naming specific countries and cases of concern.

During the meeting, Kazakhstan’s forthcoming chairmanship was an overarching concern – beginning when NGO demonstrators, during Kazakhstan’s opening statement, silently stood up wearing t-shirts supporting jailed human rights activist Evgeny Zhovtis. The Kazakhstani delegation was large and high-level, and numerous NGOs from Kazakhstan participated and criticized the country’s human rights record in light of its 2010 OSCE Chairmanship. Although Kazakhstani officials started the meeting on a good foot, their efforts at self-restraint failed over the course of the two–week long meeting and, at times, individual Kazakhstan officials demonstrated hostility and contempt towards some NGO participants from their country.

A Russian theme throughout the meeting was concern for “historical revisionism” and the “falsification of history.” In its opening statement, Russia threatened to boycott next year’s HDIM if certain NGOs were permitted to participate, and Russian delegates walked out to protest whenever a representative of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society spoke. However, OSCE procedural rules – adopted by consensus – allow all NGOs to have access to human dimension meetings. Only “persons and organizations which resort to the use of violence or publicly condone terrorism or the use of violence” may be barred from participating; there are no other grounds for exclusion.

As in past years, participation by European Union countries continued to be uneven; one observer remarked that “every EU statement is a statement of high principle devoid of any specifics.” The United Kingdom, however, sponsored a side event on freedom of expression and Slovenia organized an event on Romani educational assistants in Slovenia.

As in the past, the United States faced criticism for retaining the death penalty. In addition, NGOs argued that there should be accountability for instances of torture perpetrated by U.S. officials (including those who ordered or authorized abuse), and access to justice for individual victims of torture.

A large number of side events were also part of the HDIM, organized by non-governmental organizations, OSCE institutions, offices, or missions, other international organizations, or participating States. The United States convened a well attended side event on “The Role of the Human Dimension in European Security Architecture,” at which former U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE John Kornblum addressed this aspect of the Corfu process. Ambassador Kornblum’s remarks, as well as U.S. interventions, are available on the website for the U.S. Mission to the OSCE.

IV. The Athens Ministerial

In the run up to the Athens Ministerial, several draft decisions relating to human dimension subjects were circulated and negotiated. Most of them were prepared by the Greek chairmanship, including drafts on freedom of the media; combating hate crimes; enhancing OSCE efforts to ensure Roma and Sinti sustainable integration; the rule of law/access to justice; trafficking in human beings; and women’s participation in political and public life.

Separately, Belarus, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Russian Federation and Tajikistan circulated a draft decision on freedom of movement in the OSCE region. Their draft decision audaciously proposed that the OSCE participating States declare “a visa-free travel regime” to be their “strategic purpose” in the field of human dimension.

Of the various drafts, only the decisions on enhancing OSCE efforts to ensure Roma and Sinti sustainable integration, on combating hate crimes, and on women’s participation in political and public life were adopted. The draft decision on freedom of the media was lost in a shell game: Russia blocked that decision until agreement was reached on a separate declaration on the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II. However, once Russia agreed to the free media decision (having pocketed agreement on the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II), the free media decision was blocked by Uzbekistan. The draft decision on the rule of law/access to justice was, in any case, so muddled that that the OSCE community is better off without it.

V. Observations for 2010

As the OSCE enters 2010, a number of observations may be made about the organization’s approach to the human dimension.

Human Dimension Meetings

First, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting continues to be the most widely attended regional human rights meeting in Europe, and provides unparalleled opportunities for governments and non-governmental organizations to exchange views. The breadth of the agenda ensures that timely human dimension issues can be addressed. It is the anchor which grounds the OSCE’s human dimension discussions, sometimes serving as the forum where ideas for OSCE action and decisions are born and nurtured.

But the record for other human dimension meetings remains mixed.

As part of an effort to enhance its review of the implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, the OSCE Permanent Council decided in 1998 to restructure the Human Dimension Implementation Meetings periodically held in Warsaw. In connection with this decision – which cut Human Dimension Implementation Meetings from three to two weeks – it was decided to convene annually three informal Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings in the framework of the Permanent Council. It was hoped that, by mandating the Chair-in-Office to select the subjects for those meetings (rather than selecting them by consensus), it would be possible to focus on issues that were timely, even if sensitive for some participating States.

In fact, the subjects chosen by the Chair-in-Office for the Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings are often overly broad. But a meeting intended to be all things to all people is, finally, about almost nothing. Accordingly, the agendas for the Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings should be narrowly tailored.

Moreover, although these meetings are, as a rule, held in Vienna to facilitate participation by the participating States’ missions to the OSCE and thereby bring the debate closer to the decision-makers, it is debatable whether the degree of engagement by Permanent Council delegations actually warrants continuing to hold these meetings in Vienna, as opposed to other cities. Varying the location of OSCE human dimension meetings makes the meetings more accessible to a broader segment of the OSCE public, as has been the case with ad hoc human dimension meetings held in The Hague, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Bucharest, and Cordoba. (In addition, a Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on “Defense Lawyers” was hosted by Georgia in Tbilisi in 2005.) The OSCE participating States should seek to hold more human dimension meetings in diverse locations, not just Vienna and Warsaw. In addition to the regularly scheduled Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings and the human dimension seminar in Warsaw, the OSCE participating States have organized an increasing number of ad hoc human dimension meetings. These meetings create both challenges and opportunities for the OSCE participating States.

On the one hand, ad hoc meetings are often the result of initiatives taken by individual participating States (sometimes holding the chairmanship, sometimes not) that are willing to invest time, resources and political capital in a particular subject and, to that end, willing to host a special OSCE meeting on that subject. A few examples of such initiatives include a 2003 meeting in The Hague on human rights and counter-terrorism, a 2004 meeting in Paris on hate mongering on the Internet, the first high-level OSCE conference on anti-Semitism, convened in Berlin in 2004, and a 2006 meeting convened in Budapest to address issues relating to the so-called “Danish cartoon controversy.”

These initiatives reflect the ability of the OSCE to address timely issues and to capitalize on political will and momentum.

However, some other ad hoc meetings have been criticized for being hastily convened, for restricted participation that has sometimes excluded non-governmental representatives, and for a lack of transparency. Moreover, the sheer volume of ad hoc meetings runs the risk of dissipating the participating States’ focus, political capital, human resources, accountability and the ability or will to undertake meaningful follow up to these events.

Accordingly, when the OSCE agrees to hold a special ad hoc conference or meeting, like the 2006 High-Level Meeting on Tolerance or the 2007 High-Level Meeting on the Victims of Terrorism, the OSCE participating States should agree to reduce the number of Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings in Vienna accordingly as part of an overall coordinated schedule. It is also critical that standards for NGO access to human dimension activities be maintained for ad hoc as well as regularly scheduled meetings.

The Kazakhstani Chairmanship

The Kazakhstani Chairmanship also presents significant challenges for the OSCE participating States in 2010. For some who were strongly opposed to giving Kazakhstan the chairmanship, the integrity of the OSCE as an institution is undermined by the disparity between the commitments adopted by the participating States and the practices of the government in Astana. In particular, the Kazakhstani chairmanship begins with the country’s most well-known human rights activist behind bars in a penal colony.

Meanwhile, the same person who, in 1992, signed the Helsinki Final Act on behalf of a newly independent Kazakhstan remains firmly in office as President 18 years later. By assuming the leadership of the OSCE, Kazakhstan has ensured that its domestic human rights record will be under sustained and intense scrutiny throughout the year. Moreover, it remains to be seen how effectively Kazakhstan will steward the organization, and in particular, how it will bridge disparate views among participating States on future OSCE work in the human dimension.

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