By Bob Hand,
Senior Policy Advisor
Approximately 270 parliamentarians from across the OSCE region gathered virtually from February 24 – 26 for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Winter Meeting, the first statutory meeting of the Assembly held since the COVID-19 pandemic limited inter-parliamentary diplomacy to online gatherings.
The ongoing impact of COVID-19 on security, the economy, the environment and the human rights and democratic development of the 57 OSCE States remained the focus of the annual gathering. Supported by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the U.S. Delegation remained actively engaged, fielding a bicameral, bipartisan delegation of 10 Members of Congress who participated remotely in the debates. Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) served as Head of the U.S. Delegation.
The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) is an independent institution of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) created in 1991 for parliamentarians to complement the inter-governmental work of the 57 participating States. Unlike other OSCE bodies, countries are represented based on population rather than each having a single seat at the table (the United States has the largest representation with 17 seats), and decision-making is based on a majority vote rather than consensus. The Annual Session each summer is the principal gathering, with a Winter Meeting in February and an Autumn Meeting in October to initiate and conclude the year’s work.
Despite a busy congressional schedule, the members of the U.S. Delegation successfully raised critical country, issue, and institutional concerns, including the attempted poisoning and incarceration of Alexei Navalny, Russian aggression in Ukraine, the brutal crackdown in Belarus and corruption and authoritarian tendencies elsewhere in the OSCE region. Active U.S. engagement demonstrates the depth of U.S. commitment to European security, and reflects the importance of the OSCE PA as a vehicle for advancing U.S. interests and building support on issues like human trafficking, attacks on the media, manifestations of anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance, as well as country-specific concerns.
Such a large delegation of Members of Congress reflected the diversity of opinion in the United States, setting an example of openness and honesty for others to follow, deflecting accusations of double standards on U.S. performance, and strengthening the message on human rights concerns in other countries where the Members of Congress can and do express a united view.
Improvising Engagement Amid Pandemic
Since 2002, Winter Meetings have been held in Vienna, Austria to facilitate direct interaction among parliamentarians, OSCE officials, and diplomatic representatives of the OSCE participating States. The Winter Meeting also allows the Assembly’s general committees to discuss work for the coming year.
The outbreak of the COVID pandemic in early 2020 forced the cancellation of the Annual Session scheduled for July in Vancouver and the Autumn Meeting scheduled for October in San Marino. Without rules dealing with such situations, the OSCE PA Secretariat maintained inter-parliamentary engagement by organizing a dozen or more inter-parliamentary web dialogues from April into November to substitute for the traditional gatherings. While no replacement for traditional meetings, these unofficial events provided needed continuity and contact among delegates.
First the first time in the history of the OSCE PA, no annual declaration was adopted, but the then-Assembly President George Tsereteli provided summaries of the web debates on relevant issues, a record of dialogue even in the midst of pandemic. The OSCE PA resumed election observation where possible and responded to political impasse within the OSCE itself by issuing a “Call for Action” urging a reaffirmation of the organization’s once common purpose.
For 2021, the OSCE PA has been seeking to resume its regular meeting schedule, although conditions still required the Winter Meeting to be held remotely. Five sessions were scheduled during hours that best accommodated participants across some 16 time zones, from Vancouver to Ulaanbaatar.
At the meeting of the Heads of Delegation, known as the Standing Committee, it was announced that the 2021 Annual Session would be unable to be held in person as planned in Bucharest, Romania, in early July. As a result, the Standing Committee amended the Assembly’s rules of procedure to allow statutory meetings to go forward online, including permitting elections for OSCE PA officers and other decisions to be handled remotely.
Maintaining Focus on Substantive Issues and Concerns
Beyond scheduling and procedures, the Standing Committee also looked at substance. Following reports from current OSCE PA President Peter Lord Bowness (United Kingdom), Secretary General Roberto Montella (Italy), and OSCE PA Special Representatives appointed to address particular concerns, there were heated exchanges between Azerbaijan and Armenia regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as on Russian aggression against Ukraine and the brutal crackdown on protesting opposition in Belarus—issues that would be raised repeatedly throughout the meeting.
Sen. Cardin, attending not only as Head of Delegation but also as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, delivered a report on his activities, as did Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who serves as the Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues.
“The coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented health crisis in the OSCE region, exacerbated by pre-existing inequities and disproportionately impacting people of color. Heightened anti-Asian discrimination, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and violent attacks targeting diverse populations have followed… My report details a response to these developments, as well as the global racial justice movement spurred by the tragic death of George Floyd.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Head of U.S. Delegation, U.S. Helsinki Commission
Rep. Smith noted, “Traffickers did not shut down during the pandemic—they simply adapted their methods. Meanwhile, vulnerable people were made even more vulnerable by both the virus and its deleterious impact on the global economy… As we worked to address these challenges, it was crucial to have information and recommendations based on real, concrete data.”
The Joint Session of the General Committees effectively served as the opening plenary. President Bowness opened the session with a defense of principled-based dialogue, and guest speakers included Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign minister and this year’s OSCE Chair-in-Office, as well as Helga Schmid (Germany), the OSCE’s new Secretary General.
The chairperson outlined plans for 2021, asserting that the she will “prioritize the comprehensive concept of security across all three dimensions,” namely the Security, Economic and Human Dimension, which she argued “contributes to making the OSCE truly unique.”
The Secretary General expressed her hopes to provide needed support for the organization and its mission, and she credited the OSCE PA for bringing emerging security issues into the OSCE debate.
Sen. Cardin thanked the Assembly and its parliamentarians for their expressions of concern and support for the United States in light of efforts to delegitimize the November 2020 presidential elections and the related violent mob attack on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021. He also expressed support for the comments of Lord Bowness and the priorities announced by the Swedish Chair-in-Office, including to have the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in 2021.
“We must challenge those who are seeking to weaken the OSCE or aren’t living up to their commitments. That’s our priority as parliamentarians … and we must as parliamentarians support the mission of the OSCE and help strengthen it through our actions and our capitals,” he said.
Finally, speaking on behalf of Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20), who was unable to attend, Sen. Cardin asked the Swedish chair about how the OSCE can engage Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to address outstanding issues and encourage a return to the Minsk Group settlement process to achieve a sustainable resolution of the conflict.
Taking a Closer Look at the Security, Economic and Human Dimensions of OSCE
Following the Joint Session, each of the three General Committees heard from OSCE officials in their respective fields, or dimensions, of OSCE work. Presenters included the ambassadors serving as chairs of the counterpart committees of the OSCE’s Permanent Council and the head of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. The three committees also heard from their respective rapporteurs on plans for drafting substantive reports that will be the basis of further activity at the Annual Session.
Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chairs the General (First) Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted the myriad of security and political issues confronting the OSCE during the past year, including the war in Ukraine, conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and political turmoil in countries of concern like Russia, Belarus, and most recently Georgia.
“Our engagement with critical issues in the OSCE space has been consistent and impactful,” he concluded.
Speaking during the session, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Phil Reeker called the erosion of the European security environment the “biggest challenge we face today in the organization” and highlighted U.S. plans for the Forum for Security Cooperation (FSC) during its four-month chairmanship. The Acting Permanent Representative of the United States to the OSCE and FSC chair, senior diplomat Courtney Austrian, was present for the discussion.
Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) took the floor during subsequent debate to condemn Russian violations of Helsinki Principles in its aggression in Ukraine. He said that “Moscow must withdraw proxies in eastern Ukraine” and “respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” asserting that relevant sanctions will remain in place until that happens.
Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) also responded to an intervention on youth and drugs by a delegate from Belarus, arguing that citizens need to be given greater freedom if young people are to feel a commitment to the country.
Three other Members of Congress participated in the session of the General (Second) Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment, which covered issues ranging from corruption to climate change.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) focused on addressing corruption.
“It should come as no surprise to anyone … that legislatures have one of the most important roles to play in combating corruption—that of establishing a transparent and accountable legal and financial framework that empowers law enforcement officials and is maximally resistant to fraud,” he said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) said that the United States “is back” in efforts to combat climate change and noted recent U.S. legislation designed to address shell companies that support a global dark economy by sheltering “assets of thieves.”
Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) spoke about the devastating impact of the pandemic on women in the healthcare industry as well as on small business, and she expressed concern about risks to supply chains and business ties to both China and Russia.
Three Members of Congress also participated in of the General (Third) Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions.
Rep. Cohen asserted that human rights has reclaimed its place in U.S. foreign policy, and emphasized human rights in concerns in Russia, Belarus, and Hungary. He expressed particular concern about the poisoning and recent arrest of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and called for Belarus to release political prisoners and to hold elections with OSCE observers.
Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) took the floor in a later debate, responding to a report on the OSCE’s observation of the U.S. general elections in November 2020. He stressed the need for U.S. states that currently prohibit or restrict international observation to consider a more open approach and concluded that “our election officials and state legislators should read this report,” along with “any American who cares about his or her country. It is a broad snapshot of our entire electoral complex system that we have here.”
Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised concerns about discriminatory restrictions on religious assembly during the pandemic, as well as on the diminishing free media environment in many participating States.
“Press freedom in the OSCE region has continued to decline as some governments are using economic, legal, and extra-legal tools to silence independent media and also to bolster loyal outlets and dozens of journalists are imprisoned in the OSCE region,” he said. “We’ve seen that in Russia, we’ve seen that in Belarus, we’ve seen that in Turkey, detaining scores of journalists in recent national protests.”
There was one side event held in conjunction with the Winter Meeting, organized by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in cooperation with the Lithuanian Mission to OSCE. Seven panelists in two sessions highlighted how international instruments—such as the Moscow Mechanism, Magnitsky-like legislation, the International Criminal Court, the European Court of Human Rights, and the promotion of a universal criminal jurisdiction—could increase accountability of state actors, support Belarus’ democracy movement, and deny financial safe havens to Russian kleptocrats. Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom chairman Vladimir Kara-Murza were among the event panelists.
Assessing the Effort
The virtual three-day, five-session Winter Meeting could not replace an in-person gathering in Vienna, a point frequently made by the parliamentarians themselves. However, it did allow for a resumption of constructive debate in the general committees and interaction among parliamentarians and other OSCE institutions, paving the way for a return to more traditional work as the year progresses. The need to cancel the Annual Session planned for July in Bucharest was a major disappointment, but the adoption of rules governing such emergency situations now permit some continuity of effort.