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Bulgaria Holds Early Parliamentary Elections; OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission
Tuesday, May 28, 2013

By Helsinki Commission Staff

Country-Wide Street Protests Trigger Snap Elections

In early 2013, 30 Bulgarian cities were rocked by demonstrations. In some instances, violence erupted between demonstrators and police. In addition, in the months immediately preceding the elections, six people committed suicide by self-immolation in acts of public protest and desperation.

The street demonstrations were triggered by sharply rising electricity rates in a country widely described as the poorest of the EU’s 27 members. Discontent was further fueled by dissatisfaction with political leaders across the board and widespread corruption.

In February, following the street demonstrations, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned, paving the way for May 12’s early parliamentary elections.

For those elections, 8,100 candidates stood for seats in the 240-member unicameral National Assembly allocated by proportional representation from 31 multi-mandate constituencies (with a 4% threshold for both parties and coalitions to enter parliament). Altogether, 63 parties (38 outside of coalitions and 7 coalitions) were registered as well as two independent candidates.

The resulting ballot was roughly a yard long.

OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission

The OSCE mounted a full scale Election Observation Mission (EOM) – the first in Bulgaria since 1997 and the first ever in an EU country.

Eoghan Murphy (MP, Ireland) was appointed by OSCE Chair-in-Office Leonid Kozhara to serve as Special Coordinator and leader of the short-term observer mission (parliamentarians and observers seconded by OSCE participating States). The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) long-term observer team was headed by Miklos Haraszti. Roberto Battelli (MP, Slovenia) headed the OSCE PA delegation. Andreas Gross (MP, Switzerland) headed the observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

On Election Day, there were 158 observers deployed from 39 countries.

Of an estimated 6.9 million voters (a number that, in any case, the OSCE and Council of Europe Venice Commission suggest may be high), 3,541,745 went to the polls. Voter turnout was at about 50 percent – the lowest turnout since the fall of communism – reflecting the voters’ antipathy even more than apathy.

Approximately 850,000 votes were cast for parties that failed to overcome the 4% threshold to get into parliament.

Reportedly 107,799 Bulgarian citizens voted abroad, with 63,152 votes cast in Turkey.

The Mysterious Case of the Extra Ballots

The administration of the elections on E-Day was largely unremarkable. It was, however, preceded by two separate but related wiretapping scandals suggesting that the Ministry of Interior had bugged journalists and state officials. The day before the elections, an “extra” 350,000 ballots were discovered in a printing house in Sofia. (A week after the elections, it was reported that more than 2,000 extra stamps for electoral commissions had also surfaced.)

In its preliminary findings, the Election Observation Mission drew particular attention to the alienation of voters, lack of confidence in the electoral process, concerns over ballot security (the “extra” ballots), and persistent allegations of vote buying or voter intimidation. (A final report from the Mission is forthcoming.)

Roma and Other Minorities in the Electoral Context

Bulgaria has a population of 7.36 million (from almost 8 million in the 2001 census and roughly 8.4 million in the 1992 census). This continuing drop reflects declining birth rates and labor migration to other parts of Europe.

The ethnic Turkish minority comprises 8.8 percent of the population. Almost 5 percent of the population self-identified as Romani on the last census, but Roma are estimated to be roughly 10 percent of the population. Last year, the Bulgarian Government estimated that 23 percent of the working age population is Romani.

The Bulgarian Constitution prohibits the formation of political parties on ethnic, racial or religious lines, which is contrary to OSCE and other international norms on freedom of assembly. The OSCE has criticized this restriction in previous reports on Bulgarian elections.

The Electoral Code stipulates that the election campaign must be conducted in the Bulgarian language only, also contrary to standards on free speech and minority language use set out in the 1990 Copenhagen Document. These restrictions also impede get-out-the-vote efforts.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms is, de facto, an ethnic Turkish minority party, although it has largely been allowed to function with a wink and a nod from the authorities. After the elections, it was reported that Lyutvi Mestan, head of the MRF party, was fined in Sliven for campaigning in Turkish.

Bulgaria's last two local and Presidential elections (which were held simultaneously in 2007 and 2011) were preceded by outbreaks of anti-Roma violence. In 2011, just a few weeks before the elections, 14 Bulgarian cities erupted into anti-Roma riots. In July 2012, the headquarters of the EuroRoma political party were firebombed, killing one man. The investigation has not produced any results.

On April 8, 15 Romani civil society organizations withdrew from their advisory role with the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, effectively deeming the government’s work in this area and the consultative process to be a sham.

There were no Roma in electable positions on the lists for any of the leading parties. As a result, the National Assembly produced by the May 12 elections will be the first Bulgarian parliament since the fall of communism to have no Romani MPs.

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    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. Numerous international documents, including those adopted by the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), establish freedom of expression as a fundamental right. However, the right to free speech is not absolute. Consistent with international law, certain kinds of speech, such as obscenity, may be prohibited or regulated. When governments do restrict speech, those restrictions must be consistent with their international obligations and commitments; for example, the restrictions must be necessary in a democratic country and proscribed by law. Criminal defamation and "insult" laws are often defended as necessary to prevent alleged abuses of freedom of expression, but they are not consistent with OSCE norms and their use constitutes an infringement on the fundamental right to free speech. Despite this, criminal defamation and insult laws continue to be abused for political purposes in several OSCE participating States. Download the full report to learn more.

  • The 2017 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting: An Overview

    Each year,1 the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) organizes the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, Poland. As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress.  The 2017 HDIM will be held from September 11 to September 22. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2017 The HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma.  Each year, three special topics are selected for a full-day review.  2017 special topics will be 1) ensuring “equal enjoyment of rates and participation in political and public life,” 2) “tolerance and nondiscrimination,” and 3) “economic, social and cultural rights as an answer to rising inequalities.”  This year’s meeting will take place at the Warsaw National Stadium (PGE Narodowy), the site of the NATO summit earlier this year. The meeting will be webcast live. Background on the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting When the Helsinki Final Act was signed in Finland in 1975, it enshrined among its ten Principles Guiding Relations between Participating States (the Decalogue) a commitment to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion" (Principle VII). In addition, the Final Act included a section on cooperation regarding humanitarian concerns, including transnational human contacts, information, culture and education. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as trafficking in human beings and refugees), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (e.g., countering anti-Semitism and racism). One of the innovations of the Helsinki Final Act was agreement to review the implementation of agreed commitments while considering the negotiation of new ones. Between 1975 and 1992, implementation review took place in the context of periodic “Follow-up Meetings” as well as smaller specialized meetings focused on specific subjects. The OSCE participating States established permanent institutions in the early 1990s. In 1992, they agreed to hold periodic Human Dimension Implementation Meetings” to foster compliance with agreed-upon principles on democracy and human rights. Additional changes to the modalities for the HDIM were agreed in 1998, 2001, and 2002, which included shortening the meeting from three weeks to two weeks, and adding three “Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings” annually on subjects selected by the Chairmanship-in-Office on particularly timely or time-sensitive issues. One of the most notable features of the HDIM is the strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a strong advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE modalities allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. 1 In exceptional years when the OSCE participating States hold a summit of heads of state or government, the annual review of human dimension commitments is included as part of the Review Conference which precedes the summit, and also includes a review of the political-military and economic/environmental dimensions.

  • Taming the OSCE’s Least-Developed Region: the Arctic

    By Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor, U.S. Helsinki Commission, Dave Zwirblis, Coast Guard Fellow, Office of Chairman Roger F. Wicker, Neal McMillian, NOAA Fellow, Office of Chairman Roger F. Wicker, and Alanna Schenk, Intern, U.S. Helsinki Commission The Arctic region—with its rapidly growing ecological, political, and economic importance—is almost as large as Africa, yet it is often overlooked in critical policy debates. As an Arctic nation and one of two nuclear powers within the region, the United States is central to Arctic development and maintaining the stability of the region. Despite including all eight Arctic nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been largely dormant when it comes to Arctic issues. However, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) includes a Special Representative for Arctic Issues, Ola Elvestuen of Norway, and has passed resolutions on the Arctic at its Annual Sessions, including as part of the 2010 Oslo Declaration and the 2013 Istanbul Declaration. Given the growing importance of the Arctic, the OSCE has many opportunities to increase its engagement in the Second Dimension—its portfolio of economic and environmental issues—in ways that would supplement the work of the Arctic Council, the primary intergovernmental actor in the region. Economic Opportunities In the near future, there likely will be a significant rise in human activity along the Northern Route. As sea ice melts, new shipping lanes are opening up offering unprecedented access to trade routes, natural resources, and even tourism opportunities. For example, the CRYSTAL SERENITY, a 1,000 passenger luxury cruise liner, is conducting a first of its kind month-long Arctic cruise through the Northwest Passage in summer 2017.  Increased maritime traffic and engagement stemming from these economic opportunities present numerous new challenges for the Arctic nations.  The Arctic region remains underdeveloped and lacking in critical infrastructure. The absence of continuous and robust U.S. and international community assets means response to any type of transportation or environmental disaster in these remote areas would be extremely slow and difficult to execute. Additionally, only 4.7 percent of the U.S. Arctic and 9 percent of the total Arctic waterways are charted to modern navigation standards.  Any increase in economic development and shipping in the Arctic will require cooperation from all stakeholder nations to build up the emergency infrastructure and provide the icebreaker vessels necessary to conduct pollution response and cleanup, search and rescue, and maritime security operations. Currently, the U.S. Coast Guard only has two polar icebreakers in operation.  These vessels break channels through the ice to maintain shipping lanes, perform search and rescue and law enforcement operations, and act as platforms for scientific research.  The Coast Guard’s oldest icebreaker and only one capable of heavy icebreaking, the POLAR STAR, was commissioned in 1976 and is operating well past its intended service life. If this vessel were to break down, it would be a single point of failure in the United States’ ability to protect its sovereign interests throughout the Arctic.  According to a 2011 Coast Guard assessment, the agency will need a minimum of six icebreakers to fulfill its statutory missions in the polar regions.  In an effort to recapitalize its aging icebreaker fleet, the Coast Guard plans to award a contract to a U.S. shipbuilder in 2019 with anticipated delivery of the first vessel by December 2022. Other Arctic nations, including Canada, Sweden, Finland and Demark have limited icebreaking capability as well. Russia currently owns and operates a fleet of more than 40 icebreakers. Ensuring that the increasing economic activity in the Arctic region is sustainable can only be achieved if the Arctic nations become fully engaged as soon as possible. It is imperative that this infrastructure is developed responsibly and sustainably with regard for the Arctic land and people—whether it is through low-effect shipping, sustainable shipping lanes, or science-based marine management.  Throughout this economic development, engaging and involving the native Arctic peoples will be vital to integrate Arctic communities into the global economy during this time of rapid change. Environmental Challenges The way that the Arctic nations respond to the changing climate and its respective perils and possibilities will shape the world’s response to climate change and the future of international cooperation.  Science and technology in the Arctic present opportunities for this collaboration. The Arctic is an emerging hotbed for scientific research.  Much is still to be learned regarding ice sheets, under-ice conditions, glacial dynamics, polar ecosystems, and biodiversity.  In the face of rapid ecological changes, it is vital for the international science community to come together to gather baseline information and develop the infrastructure to monitor the ecological changes. Based on temperature changes and shifts in food regimes, species are moving around the Arctic, shifting from territorial waters into the newly accessible Arctic high seas.  While commercial fleets have yet to coalesce in the high-seas Arctic, the international community has the unique opportunity to develop governance frameworks and complete baseline studies in anticipation of the new fishery.  In 2015, five Arctic nations—the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark, and Norway—agreed to halt high seas fishing in the Arctic until research gaps on the condition of the emerging fisheries were better understood.  Oil spill prevention and response as well as search and rescue are areas where infrastructure is minimal in the Arctic. Emergency response efforts are hindered by an absence of basic logistical support and infrastructure. Furthermore, while private companies have invested in infrastructure related to oil and gas exploration and extraction, this is not sufficient to fulfill infrastructure needs and additional investment will be required.

  • Reaching Consensus on Senior OSCE Appointments

    On July 18, 2017, the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) formally approved by consensus new leaders for four OSCE institutions: Thomas Greminger (Switzerland): OSCE Secretary General. Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir (Iceland): Director of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Harlem Désir (France): Representative on Freedom of the Media. Lamberto Zannier (Italy): High Commissioner on National Minorities. Following weeks of debate, the agreement was reached on the margins of an informal Ministerial Council meeting in Mauerbach, near Vienna, held under the auspices of the 2017 Austrian chairmanship.  Download the full report to learn more.

  • Muslims & Minorities in the Military

    A demographic shift spanning both sides of the Atlantic has brought the issues of diversity and inclusion to the forefront of the agendas in the public and private sector, including the security sector across the OSCE region.  The OSCE has had a focus on diverse populations, from Roma and Jewish populations to national minorities and migrants in Europe and the United States, since its inception.  This focus has increased in recent years with the demographic shifts being experienced in the US and throughout Europe.  The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that racial and ethnic groups will comprise close to 60 percent of the U.S. population by 2060, and that by the next decade the majority of the U.S. workforce will be people of color – e.g., Asian, Latino, and migrant populations – which will also account for much of the U.S. population growth in years to come.  In Europe, demographers predict that aging and waning birthrates will lead to a decline in workers. Historically, racial, ethnic, religious, and gender minority groups have been under represented in the security sector, yet they hold untapped potential to address the new and complex challenges of the 21st century. Panelists suggested making the military more attractive to all individuals, including from these groups, and addressing barriers of prejudice and bias.  Additionally, panelists recommended leadership in governments and the security sector embrace change efforts through words, actions and policies.  The expertise and experiences of the panelists were broad and included representation from various countries in Western Europe.‎  Rozemina Abbasi from the U.K. Ministry of Defense detailed research and outreach programs being carried out to achieve diversity targets set by military leadership as well as the Prime Minister in the United Kingdom. Dr. Elyamine Settoul, an academic at the French Ministry of Defense, spoke about the historical and present day contributions of muslims in the military, including assisting in the liberation of France during World War II.  Dominik Wullers a procurement spokesman for the Federal Ministry of Defense, explained the struggle to change perceptions and stereotypes of German soldiers, and how he launched the Deutscher.Soldat (German Soldier) initiative to address these issues. Samira Rafaela, the Organizational Strategy Advisor for the Dutch National Police, detailed community policing and other initiatives in the Netherlands to advance diversity in the forces. Helsinki Commissioner Representative Gwen Moore joined the panel and discussed the history of desegregation in the United States and patriotism in response to questions about the President's tweet stating transgender individuals would no longer be able to serve in the military. European panelists also responded to the question detailing diversity policies in their countries. The briefing took place against the backdrop of Helsinki Commissioners Senator Ben Cardin, Ranking Member and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, and Representative Alcee Hastings speaking at the German Marshall Fund's conference, "Mission Critical: Inclusive Security: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector". Addressing European and American security sector leaders and practitioners on the importance of diversity, Commissioner Cardin told of his work with Republican Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker to include diversity provisions for the national security workforce in the State Department Authorization Bill before the Committee that day. Commissioner Hastings spoke of his efforts on the Rules committee to include diversity provisions in the Intelligence Bill being voted on the next day. Both Commissioners spoke at the first Mission Critical conference that took place in 2013. http://bit.ly/mcreport2017

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on Muslims & Minorities in the Military in the OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: MUSLIMS AND MINORITIES IN THE MILITARY Changing Demographics in the OSCE Region and Implications for Europe’s Security Sector Wednesday, July 26, 2017 11:00AM to 12:00PM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Demographers predict that aging, shifting birth rates, and immigration will change the face of European and North American populations over the next few decades. For example, researchers predict that persons of Muslim origin will make up a quarter of the French and third of the German populations by 2050. At the briefing, European security practitioners will discuss how demographic change is impacting the security workforce, and the subsequent implications for the OSCE region.  Panelists will also highlight the ways in which recruitment, personnel, and other security workforce policies and practices are changing in light of Europe’s increasing ethnic and religious diversity. Speakers include: Dominik Wullers (Germany), Economist, Spokesman of the Federal Office for Federal Ministry of Defense Equipment, and Vice President of Deutscher.Soldat Samira Rafaela (Netherlands), Organizational Strategy Advisor, Dutch National Police  Rozemina Abbasi (United Kingdom), Assistant Head, Armed Forces Targets, Ministry of Defense Dr. Elyamine Settoul (France), Professor, Institute for Strategic Research at the Military College, French Ministry of Defense

  • Engaging Belarus on Human Rights & Democracy

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing titled, “Engaging Belarus on Human Rights and Democracy” on July 21, 2017, which built on renewed interest in Belarus after members of the Commission traveled to Minsk earlier in the month for the annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting. The panelists for the briefing included Stephen Nix, Regional Program Director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute in Washington, DC; Katie Fox, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Department at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC; and Sanaka Samarasinha, the United Nations Chief in Belarus. Brief remarks were also delivered by Belarusian Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky. Stephen Nix began the briefing by highlighting the importance of Belarus in U.S. foreign relations, including the relationship between Belarus and Russia, especially in light of the increased Western presence in the Baltics and the surrounding area. Mr. Nix “applaud[ed] Belarus’s expressed intent at engagement” and offered some examples demonstrating optimism for the democratic process in Belarus, such as the appointment of opposition party members to parliament with limited power. Katie Fox echoed this optimism when addressing “democratic openings,” such as the concessions the Belarusian government made in response to protests, increasingly democratic electoral processes, and “the growth and development of the democratic parties.” Sanaka Samarasinha discussed engagement in relations to the human rights issues Belarus presents today and the areas of particular concern to the UN. The UN in Belarus has focused primarily on “development activities,” but also issues such as human trafficking and the rising number of HIV/AIDs cases. Samarasinha also highlighted the need for a “safe space” for discussions of human rights issues and transparency to allow Belarusians and Belarusian civil society to be able to have a conversation. Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky highlighted ways that Belarus is working with its NATO neighbors through defense cooperation, including relinquishing nuclear weapons and inviting representatives of NATO to observe the Belarusian-Russian strategic joint exercise scheduled for September 2017. Shidlovsky also stated, “Belarus has always regarded normalization of relations with the United States as a priority of its foreign policy. Yes, we have had our ups and downs, but never has the leadership of Belarus underestimated the importance of full-fledged engagement with the U.S.” In the final Q&A session the panelists were cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the improvement of human rights practices in Belarus and improvements in the electoral code that could someday lead to elections that could be certified as free and fair by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  However, they also stressed that it is critical to continue to fight for changes that are sustainable, beginning with the removal of restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.

  • 2017 OSCE Gender Equality Review Conference

    By Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE The OSCE held its second Gender Equality Review Conference in Vienna on June 12-13, 2017. The meeting was not a traditional review conference;  it did not systematically evaluate how OSCE participating States are doing in implementing their commitments, but rather offered a framework for an exchange of information and best practices among governments, international organizations, and NGOs. Austrian Federal Minister for Families and Youth Sophie Karmasin opened the conference, followed by a video address from the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau. The conference was also addressed by the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office on Gender Issues Ambassador Melanne Verveer. The conference was held in a non-traditional format for the OSCE, which usually holds meetings with government delegates speaking from behind their country’s nameplate. It comprised concurrent panel discussions viewed by an audience, followed by a question and answer session. Panelists came from governments, the OSCE Institutions and field missions, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the European Union, the United Nations, and civil society. Panelists discussed women’s participation in the security sector; women’s participation in political and public life; equal economic opportunities for women; combating violence against women; strengthening institutional mechanisms; and emerging issues and ways forward. Issues raised included the disproportionately low number of women in political decision-making positions or in military, security, and conflict management roles; the pay gap between women and men for similar work; discrimination and harassment, including of minority women; and the vulnerability of women and girls to trafficking and sexual abuse.   Recommendations for areas that need more attention included improving access to and the quality of education for girls; alleviating poverty and other situations that make girls more vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation; doing more to better prevent violence against women; promoting women’s participation in conflict management, mediation, and peace processes; closing the pay gap; focusing on the role of women in perpetrating or countering violent extremism and terrorism; and the need to gather more sex-disaggregated data and research to develop the most effective programs to address these issues. Several speakers also discussed OSCE efforts to promote equal opportunities for women inside the Organization, as well as to incorporate a gender perspective in its work. They noted that the OSCE has established a network of Gender Focal Points throughout all OSCE structures; raised the percentage of women working in the Organization from 35 percent in 2004 to 49 percent today; increased gender components in OSCE projects; and stepped up assistance to participating States in implementing their gender-related commitments. They recommended that the OSCE strive to increase the number of women appointed to senior level positions, provide more coaching on gender issues for OSCE management, develop a mechanism to more systematically incorporate a gender perspective in all OSCE projects and activities, ensure no all-male panels at OSCE events, and update the 2004 Action Plan for the Promotion of Gender Equality.

  • The OSCE Moscow Mechanism

    The Moscow Mechanism is a tool allowing for the establishment of a short-term fact finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. It grew out of the earlier Vienna Mechanism, which was designed as a vehicle to enable participating States to raise and address specific concerns in the human dimension.  Together, the two today form what is generally referred to as the OSCE Human Dimension Mechanism, although in practice, the Vienna Mechanism has largely been overtaken by the Moscow Mechanism. Download the full report to learn more.

  • The 2017 OSCE Asian Partners Conference

    By Janice Helwig, Policy Advisor and Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the USOSCE From June 19 to June 20, 2017, approximately 150 representatives of governments, academia, and international organizations from 41 OSCE participating States and seven Partners for Cooperation gathered in Berlin for the annual OSCE Asian Partners. The venue of the annual conference rotates among the five OSCE Asian Partners for Cooperation; however, as this year’s chair of the Asian Partners Contact Group, Germany hosted rather than Afghanistan. The conference, with a theme of “Common Challenges and Common Opportunities,” opened with a high-level session in which participants discussed security challenges in the OSCE and Asian regions. H.E. Adela Raz, Afghanistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Cooperation, described the growing complexities of combating terrorism, including an increase in foreign terrorist fighters, links between international organized crime and terrorist financing, and the vulnerability to recruitment of unemployed and marginalized youth. The session also focused on threats stemming from North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing programs, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and cybercrime. A second session focused on connectivity and regional economic cooperation, particularly between Afghanistan and the countries of the Central Asian region. Participants discussed various initiatives to foster trade along the historic Silk Road, including building roads, railways, and modernized ports, as well as developing digital and financial connectivity. The third session looked at three specific United Nations Sustainable Development Goals –, goal 4 on ensuring inclusive and quality education for all, goal 5 on achieving gender equality, and goal 16 on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies – and opportunities for the OSCE to support them. Common priorities discussed included increasing access to and funding for quality education, combating violence against women, and promoting human rights and the rule of law. A side event organized by the OSCE focused on a project to increase women’s participation in water management and promote confidence-building between Afghanistan and Central Asia. Women play a major role in household use of water in the rural areas of the region, but often have little say in decisions concerning water management. The OSCE project  fosters the development of a regional network of female water professionals from state agencies, NGOs, research institutes, and water users associations and providing capacity building in negotiation and mediation skills.

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