By Janice Helwig and Mischa Thompson, Policy Advisors
Since 1999, the OSCE participating States have convened three “supplementary human dimension meetings” (SHDMs) each year – that is, meetings intended to augment the annual review of the implementation of all OSCE human dimension commitments. The SHDMs focus on specific issues and the topics are chosen by the Chair-in-Office. Although they are generally held in Vienna – with a view to increasing the participation from the permanent missions to the OSCE – they can be held in other locations to facilitate participation from civil society.
The three 2010 SHDMs focused on gender issues, national minorities and education, and religious liberties. But 2010 had an exceptionally full calendar – some would say too full. In addition to the regularly scheduled meetings, ad hoc meetings included:
A February 9-10 expert workshop in Mongolia on trafficking;
A March 19 hate crimes and the Internet meeting in Warsaw;
A June 10-11th meeting in Copenhagen to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Copenhagen Document;
A (now annual) trafficking meeting on June 17-18; and
A high-level conference on tolerance June 29-30 in Astana.
The extraordinary number of meetings also included an Informal Ministerial in July, a Review Conference (held in Warsaw, Vienna and Astana over the course of September, October, and November) and the OSCE Summit on December 1-2 (both in Astana).
Promotion of Gender Balance and Participation of Women in Political and Public Life
The first SHDM of 2010 was held on May 6-7 in Vienna, Austria, focused on the “Promotion of Gender Balance and Participation of Women in Political and Public Life.” It was opened by speeches from Kazakhstan's Minister of Labour and Social Protection, Gulshara Abdykalikova, and Portuguese Secretary of State for Equality, Elza Pais.
The discussions focused mainly on “best practices” to increase women’s participation at the national level, especially in parliaments, political parties, and government jobs. Most participants agreed that laws protecting equality of opportunity are sufficient in most OSCE countries, but implementation is still lacking. Therefore, political will at the highest level is crucial to fostering real change. Several speakers recommended establishing quotas, particularly for candidates on political party lists. A number of other forms of affirmative action remedies were also discussed. Others stressed the importance of access to education for women to ensure that they can compete for positions. Several participants said that stereotypes of women in the media and in education systems need to be countered. Others seemed to voice stereotypes themselves, arguing that women aren’t comfortable in the competitive world of politics.
Turning to the OSCE, some participants proposed that the organization update its (2004) Gender Action Plan. (The Gender Action Plan is focused on the work of the OSCE. In particular, it is designed to foster gender equality projects within priority areas; to incorporate a gender perspective into all OSCE activities, and to ensure responsibility for achieving gender balance in the representation among OSCE staff and a professional working environment where women and men are treated equally.)
A few participants raised more specific concerns. For example, an NGO representative from Turkey spoke about the ban on headscarves imposed by several countries, particularly in government buildings and schools. She said that banning headscarves actually isolates Muslim women and makes it even harder for them to participate in politics and public life. NGOs from Tajikistan voiced their strong support for the network of Women’s Resource Centers, which has been organized under OSCE auspices. The centers provide services such as legal assistance, education, literacy classes, and protection from domestic violence. Unfortunately, however, they are short of funding.
NGO representatives also described many obstacles that women face in Tajikistan’s traditionally male-oriented society. For example, few women voted in the February 2010 parliamentary elections because their husbands or fathers voted for them. Women were included on party candidate lists, but only at the bottom of the list. They urged that civil servants, teachers, health workers, and police be trained on legislation relating to equality of opportunity for women as means of improving implementation of existing laws. An NGO representative from Kyrgyzstan spoke about increasing problems related to polygamy and bride kidnappings. Only a first wife has any legal standing, leaving additional wives – and their children - without social or legal protection, including in the case of divorce.
The meeting was well-attended by NGOs and by government representatives from capitals. However, with the exception of the United States, there were few participants from participating States’ delegations in Vienna. This is an unfortunate trend at recent SHDMs. Delegation participation is important to ensure follow-up through the Vienna decision-making process, and the SHDMs were located in Vienna as a way to strengthen this connection.
Education of Persons belonging to National Minorities: Integration and Equality
The OSCE held its second SHDM of 2010 on July 22-23 in Vienna, Austria, focused on the "Education of Persons belonging to National Minorities: Integration and Equality." Charles P. Rose, General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Education, participated as an expert member of the U.S. delegation.
The meeting was opened by speeches from the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek and Dr. Alan Phillips, former President of the Council of Europe Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Three sessions discussed facilitating integrated education in schools, access to higher education, and adult education. Most participants stressed the importance of minority access to strong primary and secondary education as the best means to improve access to higher education.
The lightly attended meeting focused largely on Roma education. OSCE Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues Andrzej Mirga stressed the importance of early education in order to lower the dropout rate and raise the number of Roma children continuing on to higher education. Unfortunately, Roma children in several OSCE States are still segregated into separate classes or schools - often those meant instead for special needs children - and so are denied a quality education. Governments need to prioritize early education as a strong foundation. Too often, programs are donor-funded and NGO run, rather than being a systematic part of government policy. While states may think such programs are expensive in the short term, in the long run they save money and provide for greater economic opportunities for Roma.
The meeting heard presentations from several participating States of what they consider their "best practices" concerning minority education. Among others, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Greece, and Armenia gave glowing reports of their minority language education programs. Most participating States who spoke strongly supported the work of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities on minority education, and called for more regional seminars on the subject.
Unfortunately, some of the presentations illustrated misunderstandings and prejudices rather than best practices. For example, Italy referred to its "Roma problem" and sweepingly declared that Roma "must be convinced to enroll in school." Moreover, the government was working on guidelines to deal with "this type of foreign student," implying that all Roma are not Italian citizens. Several Roma NGO representatives complained bitterly after the session about the Italian statement.
Romani NGOs also discussed the need to remove systemic obstacles in the school systems which impede Romani access to education and to incorporate more Romani language programs. The Council of Europe representative raised concern over the high rate of illiteracy among Romani women, and advocated a study to determine adult education needs.
Other NGOs talked about problems with minority education in several participating States. For example, Russia was criticized for doing little to provide Romani children or immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus support in schools; what little has been provided has been funded by foreign donors.
Charles Rose discussed the U.S. Administration's work to increase the number of minority college graduates. Outreach programs, restructured student loans, and enforcement of civil rights law have been raising the number of graduates.
As was the case of the first SHDM, with the exception of the United States, there were few participants from participating States’ permanent OSCE missions in Vienna. This is an unfortunate trend at recent SHDMs. Delegation participation is important to ensure follow-up through the Vienna decision-making process, and the SHDMs were located in Vienna as a way to strengthen this connection.
OSCE Maintains Religious Freedom Focus
Building on the July 9-10, 2009, SHDM on Freedom of Religion or Belief, on December 9-10, 2010, the OSCE held a SHDM on Freedom of Religion or Belief at the OSCE Headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Despite concerns about participation following the December 1-2 OSCE Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, the meeting was well attended. Representatives of more than forty-two participating States and Mediterranean Partners and one hundred civil society members participated.
The 2010 meeting was divided into three sessions focused on 1) Emerging Issues and Challenges, 2) Religious Education, and 3) Religious Symbols and Expressions. Speakers included ODIHR Director Janez Lenarcic, Ambassador-at-large from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Madina Jarbussynova, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, and Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Silvano Tomasi of the Holy See.
Issues raised throughout the meeting echoed concerns raised during at the OSCE Review Conference in September-October 2010 regarding the participating States’ failure to implement OSCE religious freedom commitments. Topics included the: treatment of “nontraditional religions,” introduction of laws restricting the practice of Islam, protection of religious instruction in schools, failure to balance religious freedom protections with other human rights, and attempts to substitute a focus on “tolerance” for the protection of religious freedoms.
Notable responses to some of these issues included remarks from Archbishop Silvano Tomasi that parents had the right to choose an education for their children in line with their beliefs. His remarks addressed specific concerns raised by the Church of Scientology, Raelian Movement, Jehovah Witnesses, Catholic organizations, and others, that participating States were preventing religious education and in some cases, even attempting to remove children from parents attempting to raise their children according to a specific belief system. Additionally, some speakers argued that religious groups should be consulted in the development of any teaching materials about specific religions in public school systems.
In response to concerns raised by participants that free speech protections and other human rights often seemed to outweigh the right to religious freedom especially amidst criticisms of specific religions, UN Special Rapporteur Bielefeldt warned against playing equality, free speech, religious freedom, and other human rights against one another given that all rights were integral to and could not exist without the other.
Addressing ongoing discussion within the OSCE as to whether religious freedom should best be addressed as a human rights or tolerance issue, OSCE Director Lenarcic stated that, “though promoting tolerance is a worthwhile undertaking, it cannot substitute for ensuring freedom of religion of belief. An environment in which religious or belief communities are encouraged to respect each other but in which, for example, all religions are prevented from engaging in teaching, or establishing places of worship, would amount to a violation of freedom of religion or belief.”
Statements by the United States made during the meeting also addressed many of these issues, including the use of religion laws in some participating States to restrict religious practice through onerous registrations requirements, censorship of religious literature, placing limitations on places of worship, and designating peaceful religious groups as ‘terrorist’ organizations. Additionally, the United States spoke out against the introduction of laws and other attempts to dictate Muslim women’s dress and other policies targeting the practice of Islam in the OSCE region. Notably, the United States was one of few participating States to call for increased action against anti-Semitic acts such as recent attacks on Synagogues and Jewish gravesites in the OSCE region. (The U.S. statements from the 2010 Review Conference and High-Level Conference can be found on the website of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE.)
In addition to the formal meeting, four side events and a pre-SHDM Seminar for civil society were held. The side events were: “Pluralism, Relativism and the Rule of Law,” “Broken Promises – Freedom of religion or belief in Kazakhstan,” “First Release and Presentation of a Five-Year Report on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe” and “The Spanish school subject ‘Education for Citizenship:’ an assault on freedom of education, conscience and religion.” The side event on Kazakhstan convened by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee featured speakers from Forum 18 and Kazakhstan, including a representative from the CiO. Kazakh speakers acknowledged that more needed to be done to fulfill OSCE religious freedom commitments and that it had been a missed opportunity for Kazakhstan not to do more during its OSCE Chairmanship. In particular, speakers noted that religious freedom rights went beyond simply ‘tolerance,’ and raised ongoing concerns with registration, censorship, and visa requirements for ‘nontraditional’ religious groups. (The full report can be found on the website of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.)
A Seminar on Freedom of Religion and Belief for civil society members also took place on December 7-8 prior to the SHDM. The purpose of the Seminar was to assist in developing the capacity of civil society to recognize and address violations of the right to freedom of religion and belief and included an overview of international norms and standards on freedom of religion or belief and non-discrimination.