The OSCE’s 2008 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting offered an opportunity to review compliance on a full range of human rights and humanitarian commitments of the organization’s participating States. Tolerance issues featured prominently in the discussions, which included calls for sustained efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. A U.S. proposal for a high-level conference on tolerance issues in 2009, however, met with only tepid support. Core human rights issues, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion, continued to draw large numbers of speakers.
Throughout the discussions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern about Kazakhstan’s failure to implement promised reforms and questioned its readiness to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2010. Greece, slated to assume the chairmanship in January, came under criticism for its treatment of ethnic minorities. As in the past, the United State faced criticism for retaining the death penalty and for its conduct in counter-terrorism operations. Belarusian elections, held on the eve of the HDIM, came in for a round of criticism, while Russia continued to advocate proposals on election observation that would significantly limit the OSCE’s independence in such activities. Finally, discussion of the Russia-Georgia conflict was conspicuous by its near absence, though related human rights and humanitarian concerns will likely receive more prominence in the lead up to and during the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki.
From September 29 to October 10, 2008, the OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual(1) Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The HDIM is Europe’s largest human rights gathering, convened to discuss compliance by the participating States with the full range of human dimension commitments they have all adopted by consensus. The meeting was organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), according to an agenda approved by consensus of all 56 participating States. The HDIM is the only multinational human rights meeting in Europe where representatives of NGOs and government representatives have equal access to the speakers list. Indeed, over half of the statements delivered at this year’s HDIM were made by NGO representatives.
Such implementation review meetings are intended to serve as the participating States’ principal venue for public diplomacy and are important vehicles for identifying continued areas of poor human rights performance. Although the HDIM is not tasked with decision-making responsibilities, the meetings can provide impetus for further focus on particular human dimension concerns and help shape priorities for subsequent action. Coming in advance of ministerial meetings that are usually held in December, the HDIMs provide an additional opportunity for consultations among the participating States on human dimension issues that may be addressed by Ministers. (This year, for example, there were discussions on the margins regarding a possible Ministerial resolution on equal access to education for Roma and advancing work in the field of tolerance and non-discrimination, including the possibility of convening a related high-level meeting in 2009.)
OSCE rules, adopted by consensus, allow NGOs to have access to human dimension meetings. However, this general rule does not apply to “persons and organizations which resort to the use of violence or publicly condone terrorism or the use of violence.”(2) There are no other grounds for exclusion. The decision as to whether or not a particular individual or NGO runs afoul of this rule is made by the Chairman-in-Office.
In recent years, some governments have tried to limit or restrict NGO access at OSCE meetings in an effort to avoid scrutiny and criticism of their records. This year, in the run up to the HDIM, Turkmenistan held the draft agenda for the meeting hostage, refusing to give consensus as part of an effort to block the registration of Turkmenistan NGOs which have previously attended the implementation meetings and criticized Ashgabat. Turkmenistan officials finally relented and allowed the adoption of the HDIM agenda in late July, but did not participate in the Warsaw meeting. Along these lines, the Russian delegation walked out in protest when the NGO “Russian-Chechen Friendship Society” took the floor to speak during a session on freedom of the media.
At the 2008 HDIM, senior Department of State participants included Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, Head of Delegation; Ambassador Julie Finley, Head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE; Ambassador Karen Stewart, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; and Mr. Bruce Turner, Acting Director, Office for European Security and Political Affairs. Mr. Will Inboden, advisor on religious freedom issues, and Mr. Nathan Mick, advisor on Roma issues, served as Public Members. Ms. Felice Gaer, Chair of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, and Mr. Michael Cromartie, Vice Chair, also served as members of the delegation.
Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Fred L. Turner and Senior State Department Advisor Ambassador Clifford Bond also served as members of the U.S. Delegation, along with Helsinki Commission staff members Alex T. Johnson, Ronald J. McNamara, Winsome Packer, Erika B. Schlager, and Dr. Mischa E. Thompson.
In comparison with previous HDIMs, the 2008 meeting was relatively subdued – perhaps surprisingly so given that, roughly eight weeks before its opening, Russian tanks had rolled onto Georgian territory. While the full scope of human rights abuses were not known by the time the meeting opened, human rights defenders had already documented serious rights violations, including the targeting of villages in South Ossetia inhabited by ethnic Georgians. Nevertheless, discussion of the Russian-Georgian conflict was largely conspicuous by its near absence.
The annual HDIM agenda provides a soup-to-nuts review of the implementation 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. The United States continued its longstanding practice of naming specific countries and cases of concern.
In accordance with OSCE procedures, the agenda included three specially selected topics, each of which was given a full day of review. This year, those subjects were: 1) education and awareness-raising in the promotion of human rights; 2) freedom of religion or belief; and 3) focus on identification, assistance and access to justice for the victims of trafficking. Of the three, the sessions on religious liberty attracted the most speakers with over 50 statements.
A large number of side events were also part of the HDIM, organized by non-governmental organizations, OSCE institutions or offices, other international organizations, or participating States. These side events augment implementation review sessions by providing an opportunity to examine specific subjects or countries in greater depth and often with a more lively exchange than in the formal sessions.
Along with active participation at these side events, the United States held extensive bilateral meetings with government representatives, as well as with OSCE officials and NGO representatives. At the end of the second week of the HDIM, Human Rights Directors from capitals also held a working meeting to discuss issues of mutual concern, with a special focus on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, on women, peace and security. This year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also hosted a reception to honor the OSCE Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief, as well as the tenth anniversary of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act and the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
Greece, scheduled to assume the chairmanship of the OSCE starting in January 2009, came under particular criticism for its treatment of minorities. Unlike the highly emotional reactions of senior Greek diplomats in Warsaw two years ago, the delegation this year responded to critics by circulating position papers elaborating the Greek government’s views. Greece also responded to U.S. criticism regarding the application of Sharia law to Muslim women in Thrace by stating that Greece is prepared to abolish the application of the Sharia law to members of the Muslim minority in Thrace when this is requested by the interested parties whom it affects directly. Issues relating to the treatment of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities in the OSCE region are likely to remain an important OSCE focus in the coming period, especially in light of developments in the Caucasus, and it remains to be seen how the Greek chairmanship will address these concerns in light of its own rigid approach to minorities in its domestic policies.
Throughout the HDIM, many NGOs continued to express concern about the fitness of Kazakhstan to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2010 given serious short comings in that country’s human rights record. In particular, Kazakhstan was sharply criticized for a draft religion law (passed by parliament, but not yet adopted into law). One NGO argued that a Kazakhstan chairmanship, with this law in place, would undermine the integrity of the OSCE, and urged participating States to reconsider Kazakhstan for the 2010 leadership position if the law is enacted. Juxtaposing Kazakhstan’s future chairmanship with the possible final passage of a retrograde law on religion, the Almaty Helsinki Committee asked the assembled representatives, “Are human rights still a priority – or not?” (Meanwhile, on October 5, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Kazakhstan.)
On the eve of the HDIM, Belarus held elections. Those elections received considerable critical attention during the HDIM’s focus on democratic elections, with the United States and numerous others expressing disappointment that the elections did not meet OSCE commitments, despite promises by senior Belarusian officials that improvements would be forthcoming. Norway and several other speakers voiced particular concern over pressures being placed on ODIHR to circumscribe its election observation activities. Illustrating those pressures, the Russian Federation reiterated elements of a proposal it drafted on election observation that would significantly limit the independence of ODIHR in its election observation work. The Head of the U.S. Delegation noted that an invitation for the OSCE to observe the November elections in the United States was issued early and without conditions as to the size or scope of the observation. (Russia and others have attempted to impose numerical and other limitations on election observation missions undertaken by the ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.)
Tolerance issues featured prominently during discussions this year, as they have at other recent HDIMs. Forty-three interventions were made, forcing the moderator to close the speakers list and requiring presenters to truncate their remarks. Muslim, migrant, and other groups representing visible minorities focused on discrimination in immigration policies, employment, housing, and other sectors, including racial profiling and hate crimes, amidst calls for OSCE countries to improve implementation of existing anti-discrimination laws. Jewish and other NGOs called for sustained efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Representatives of religious communities expressed concern about the confusion made by ODIHR in its Annual Hate Crimes Report between religious liberty issues and intolerance towards members of religious groups. This year, some governments and NGOs elevated their concerns relating to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, increasingly placing these concerns in the context of the OSCE’s focus on hate crimes. A civil society tolerance pre-HDIM meeting and numerous side events were held on a broad range of tolerance-related topics.
The United States and several U.S.-based NGOS called for a high-level conference on tolerance issues to be held in 2009. Unlike in prior years, however, no other State echoed this proposal or stepped forward with an offer to host such a high-level conference.
In many of the formal implementation review sessions this year, NGOs made reference to specific decisions of the European Court on Human Rights, urging governments to implement judgments handed down in recent cases. During the discussion of issues relating to Roma, NGOs continued to place a strong focus on the situation in Italy, where Roma (and immigrants) have been the target of hate crimes and mob violence. NGOs reminded Italy that, at the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting in July, they had urged Italy to come to the HDIM with concrete information regarding the prosecution of individuals for violent attacks against Roma. Regrettably, the Italian delegation was unable to provide any information on prosecutions, fostering the impression that a climate of impunity persists in Italy.
As at other OSCE fora, the United States was criticized for retaining the death penalty, contrary to the abolitionist trend among the OSCE participating States. Of the 56 OSCE participating States, 54 have abolished, suspended or imposed a moratorium on the death penalty and only two – the United States and Belarus – continue to impose capital punishment as a criminal sanction.
Two side events held during the HDIM also put a spotlight on the United States. The first event was organized by Freedom House and entitled, “Today’s American: How Free?” At this event, Freedom House released a book by the same title which examined “the state of freedom and justice in post-9/11 America.”
The second event was a panel discussion on “War on Terror or War on Human Rights?” organized by the American Civil Liberties Union. Speakers from the ACLU, Amnesty International and the Polish Human Rights Foundation largely focused on issues relating to the United States, including the military commission trials at Guantanamo, and official Polish investigations into allegations that Poland (working with the United States) was involved in providing secret prisons for the detention and torture of “high-value” detainees.(3)
In a somewhat novel development, Russian Government views were echoed by several like-minded NGOs which raised issues ranging from claims of “genocide” by Georgia in South Ossetia to grievances by ethnic Russians in Latvia and Estonia. Ironically, the Russian delegation, in its closing statement, asserted that this year’s HDIM had an “improved atmosphere” due (it was asserted) to the efforts by both governments and NGOs to find solutions to problems rather than casting blame.
As at past HDIMs, some sessions generated such strong interest that the time allotted was insufficient to accommodate all those who wished to contribute to the discussion. For example, the session on freedom of the media was severely constrained, with more than 20 individuals unable to take the floor in the time allotted, and several countries unable to exercise rights of reply. Conversely, some sessions – for example, the session on equal opportunity for men and women, and the session on human dimension activities and projects – had, in terms of unused time available, an embarrassment of riches.
Following a general pattern, Turkmenistan was again not present at the HDIM sessions this year.(4) In all, 53 participating States were represented at the meeting.
At the closing session, the United States raised issues of particular concern relating to Turkmenistan under the “any other business” agenda item. (This is the sixth year in a row that the United States has made a special statement about the situation in Turkmenistan, a country that some view as having the worst human rights record in the OSCE.) For the past two years, there has been a new government in Turkmenistan. The U.S. statement this year noted some positive changes, but urged the new government to continue the momentum on reform by fully implementing steps it already has begun. In addition, the United States called for information on and access to Turkmenistan’s former representative to the OSCE, Batyr Berdiev. Berdiev, once Turkmenistan’s ambassador to the OSCE, was reportedly among the large number of people arrested following an attack on then-President Niyazov’s motorcade in 2002. His fate and whereabouts remain unknown.
OSCE PA President João Soares addressed the closing plenary, the most senior Assembly official to participate in an HDIM meeting.
The Russian-Georgian Conflict
With the outbreak of armed violence between Russia and Georgia occurring only two months earlier, the war in South Ossetia would have seemed a natural subject for discussion during the HDIM. As a human rights forum, the meeting was unlikely to serve as a venue to debate the origins of the conflict, but there were expectations that participants would engage in a meaningful discussion of the human dimension of the tragedy and efforts to stem ongoing rights violations. As it turned out, this view was not widely shared by many of the governments and NGOs participating in the meeting.
The opening plenary session foreshadowed the approach to this subject followed through most of the meeting. Among the senior OSCE officials, only High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek squarely addressed the situation in the south Caucasus. Vollebaek condemned the19th century-style politicization of national minority issues in the region and the violation of international borders. At the time of the crisis, he had cautioned against the practice of “conferring citizenship en masse to residents of other States” (a reference to Russian actions in South Ossetia) and warned that “the presence of one’s citizens or ‘ethnic kin’ abroad must not be used as a justification for undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other States.” Sadly, that sound advice went unobserved in Georgia, but it is still applicable elsewhere in the OSCE region.(5) The statement delivered by France on behalf of the countries of the European Union failed to address the conflict.
During the plenary, only Norway and Switzerland joined the United States in raising humanitarian concerns stemming from the conflict. In reply, the head of the Russian delegation delivered a tough statement which sidestepped humanitarian concerns, declaring that discussion of Georgia’s territorial integrity was now “irrelevant.” He called on participating States to adopt a pragmatic approach and urged acknowledgment of the creation of the new sovereign states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, terming their independence “irreversible” and “irrevocable.” Perhaps more surprising than this Russian bluster was the failure of any major NGO, including those who had been active in the conflict zone collecting information and working on humanitarian relief, to take advantage of the opportunity to raise the issue of South Ossetia during the opening plenary.
As the HDIM moved into its working sessions, which cover the principal OSCE human dimension commitments, coverage of the conflict fared better. The Representative on Freedom of the Media remarked, in opening the session on free speech and freedom of the media that, for the first time in some years, two OSCE participating States were at war. During that session, he and other speakers called on the Russian Federation to permit independent media access to occupied areas to investigate the charges and counter-charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The tolerance discussion included calls by several delegations for Russia to cooperate and respond favorably to the HCNM’s request for access to South Ossetia to investigate the human rights situation in that part of Georgia. Disappointingly, during the session devoted to humanitarian commitments, several statements, including those of the ODHIR moderator and EU spokesperson, focused narrowly on labor conditions and migration, and failed to raise concerns regarding refugees and displaced persons, normally a major focus of this agenda item and obviously relevant to the Georgia crisis.
Nevertheless, the session developed into one of the more animated at the HDIM. The Georgian delegation, which had been silent up to that point, spoke out against Russian aggression and alleged numerous human rights abuses. It expressed gratitude to the European Union for sending monitors to the conflict zone and urged the EU to pressure Russia to fully implement the Six-Point Ceasefire agreement negotiated by French President Sarkozy. The United States joined several delegations and NGOs calling on all parties to the conflict to observe their international obligations to protect refugees and create conditions for their security and safe voluntary return. In a pattern observed throughout the meeting, the Russian delegation did not respond to Georgian charges. It left it to an NGO, “Ossetia Accuses,” to make Russia’s case that Georgia had committed genocide against the people of South Ossetia. A common theme among many interventions was a call for an independent investigation of the causes of the conflict and a better monitoring of the plight of refugees, but to date Russian and South Ossetian authorities have denied both peacekeeping monitors and international journalists access to the region from elsewhere in Georgia. A joint assessment mission of experts from ODIHR and the HCNM, undertaken in mid-October, were initially denied access to South Ossetia, with limited access to Abkhazia granted to some team members. Eventually, several experts did gain access to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, though to accomplish this they had to travel from the north via the Russian Federation.
One can only speculate why Georgia received such limited treatment at this HDIM. The crisis in the south Caucasus had dominated OSCE discussions at the Permanent Council in Vienna for weeks preceding the HDIM. Some participants may have feared that addressing it in Warsaw might have crowded out the broader human rights agenda. Others may have felt that, in the absence of a clear picture of the circumstances surrounding the conflict and with so many unanswered questions, it was best not to be too critical or too accusatory of either party. The EU (and particularly the French) were, at the time of the HDIM, in the process of negotiating the deployment of European observers to the conflict zone, and may have feared that criticism of Russia at this forum would have only complicated the task.
In fact, the EU’s only oblique reference to Georgia was made at HDIM’s penultimate working session (a discussion which focused on human dimension “project activity”) in connection with the work of High Commissioner for National Minorities. (One observer of this session remarked that there seemed to be a greater stomach for dinging the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for shortcomings in its work than for criticizing Russia for invading a neighboring OSCE participating State.) Finally, other participants, particularly NGOs, seemed more inclined to view human rights narrowly in terms of how governments treat their own citizens and not in terms of how the failure to respect key principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are invariably accompanied by gross violations of human rights and can produce humanitarian disasters.
Amid simmering tensions between Russia and Georgia which could erupt into renewed fighting, and completion of a report requested by the Finnish Chairmanship in time for the OSCE’s Ministerial in Helsinki in early December, Ministers will have to grapple with the impact of the south Caucasus conflict and what role the OSCE will have.
The relative quiet of the HDIM notwithstanding, French President M. Nicolas Sarkozy put a spotlight on OSCE issues during the course of the meeting. Speaking at a conference in Evian, France, on October 8, he responded to a call by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, issued in June during meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for a new “European Security Treaty” to revise Europe’s security architecture – a move seen by many as an attempt to rein in existing regional security organizations, including NATO and the OSCE. President Sarkozy indicated a willingness to discuss Medvedev’s ideas, but argued they should be addressed in the context of a special OSCE summit, which Sarkozy suggested could be held in 2009.
The escalating global economic crisis was also very much on the minds of participants at the HDIM as daily reports of faltering financial institutions, plummeting markets, and capital flight promoted concerns over implications for the human dimension. Several delegations voiced particular concern over the possible adverse impact on foreign workers and those depending on remittances to make ends meet.
The human rights and humanitarian concerns stemming from the war in South Ossetia will likely come into sharper focus in the lead up to the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki as talks on the conflict resume in Geneva, and OSCE and other experts attempt to document the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of fighting and current conditions. The coming weeks can also be expected to bring renewed calls for an overhaul of the human dimension and the ODIHR by those seeking to curb attention paid to human rights and subordinate election monitoring activities. It remains to be seen whether Kazakhstan will fulfill the commitments it made a year ago in Madrid to undertake meaningful reforms by the end of this year. There is also the risk that a deepening economic crisis will divert attention elsewhere, even as the resulting fallout in the human dimension begins to manifest itself. It is unclear what priorities the Greek chairmanship will be set for 2009, a year that portends peril and promise.
(1) OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meetings are held every year, unless there is a Summit. Summits of Heads of State or Government are preceded by Review Conferences, which are mandated to review implementation of all OSCE commitments in all areas (military-security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension).
(2) Helsinki Document 1992, The Challenges of Change, IV (16).
(3) Interestingly, at the session on human rights and counterterrorism, moderator Zbigniew Lasocik, member of the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, noted that Poland’s Constitutional Court had, the previous day, struck down a 2004 law that purported to allow the military to shoot down hijacked commercial aircraft – even if they were being used as weapons like the planes that killed thousands of people on 9/11. The Court reportedly reasoned that shooting down an aircraft being used as bomb would infringe on the constitutional protection of human life and dignity of the passengers.
(4) Turkmenistan sent a representative to the HDIM in 2005 for the first time in several years. While responding to criticism delivered in the sessions, the representative appeared to focus more on monitoring the activities of Turkmen NGOs participating in the meeting. Turkmenistan subsequently complained that certain individuals who had been charged with crimes against the State should not be allowed to participate in OSCE meetings. Turkmenistan officials did not participate in the 2006 or 2007 HDIMs. Participation in the 2008 meeting would have been a welcome signal regarding current political developments.
(5) The HCNM had previously expressed concern regarding Hungary’s overreach vis-a-vis ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries. In 2004, Hungary held a referendum on extending Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad – an idea that still holds political currency in some quarters of Hungary – but the referendum failed due to low voter turnout.