Despite its shortcomings and many dooming predictions, the OSCE is back on stage. What lessons can we draw from its recent engagement in the Ukraine crisis? And what is needed to prepare the OSCE for future challenges?
A comment by Nico Schernbeck
The Many Tales of the OSCE
Toothless tiger, sleeping beauty or rather a serious force of peace after all? The Organization for Security and Co-operation and its predecessor, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), have never lacked ascriptions downplaying its role in the global concert of security organizations. Long before the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine, the parody of the OSCE as a talking shop of dining and wining diplomats was anything but unfamiliar among policy-makers, scholars and the media. In fact, this narrative is deeply rooted in a feeling of defeatism and frustration about the many stumbling blocks and shortcomings that characterize the 40 years after Helsinki. But why?
Legal, Political and Organizational Obstacles
Firstly, it is quite ironic that the world’s largest regional security arrangement under chapter VIII of the UN Charter still lacks legal personality due to the ongoing resistance of a few important stakeholders like the United States.
In addition, the permanent search for consensus among 57 participant states poses huge obstacles to the translation of state dialogue into concrete political action.
Thirdly, protracted conflicts in the South Caucasus, Transnistria and now in Ukraine do not only represent an enormous challenge to the OSCE’s operational capacities, they also spoil progress all across the organization’s three policy dimensions (1. politico-military, 2. economic-environmental and 3. human dimension).
Lastly, ever since its creation the OSCE suffers from a lack of organizational strength. The short-termed Chairmanships (1-year) often fail to cope with the need for leadership and smooth transitions; a sine qua non if we look at the vast agenda.
The Renaissance of Dialogue
All of these problems are anything but irrelevant. Nonetheless, ever since the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the image of a seemingly stagnant OSCE has changed. In the vacuum of vanishing communication channels, the organization has experienced a renaissance and filled the gap that other formats like the NATO-Russia Council and the G8 have left. Despite all the difficulties, the OSCE has proven its value as an authority on mediation and dialogue in Ukraine.
The crisis has notably highlighted the need for a structured process to tackle some main organizational weaknesses. If we want the OSCE to be more than an occasional tool used out of pure necessity, strengthening the organization’s mind and body is inevitable. All involved participant states and stakeholders should therefore use this moment to introduce new lessons and experiences to enrich the OSCE’s knowledge on peace and security in Europe and beyond.
New Knowledge, Fresh Practices and the Transformation of Conflict Management
The Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) is the best case to illustrate this pledge. Only one month after the outbreak of the conflict – thanks to the ingenious diplomatic efforts of the Swiss Chairmanship – the SMM became the eyes and ears of the international community in Eastern Ukraine. Since then, the mission gathered large experiences making it a field laboratory for transforming practices and fresh knowledge on conflict management. Originally designed for the purpose of dialogue facilitation, the SMM constantly faced new stumbling blocks and adapted to new challenges. After the escalation of violence in spring 2014 and the crash of flight MH17, the SMM quite rapidly became the last actor being able to mediate between the conflict parties. Until today, it remains one of the international community’s last warrantors of a long-term perspective for conflict settlement in Ukraine.
The last years’ transformation of OSCE conflict management is eye striking, not only in the area of monitoring and observation. There is a growing conscience in the OSCE that long-term conflict settlement in Ukraine will be linked tightly to measures of mediation and national reconciliation. In formats such as the National Dialogue Project, mediators try to facilitate dialogue on issues of social cohesion, humanitarian and minority rights or tolerance to counter social disintegration in Eastern Ukraine. These experiences and practical lessons learned are worth gold.
Saving this knowledge and use it to enhance its conflict-management capabilities will not only help to pave the way for long-term conflict transformation in Donbass and Lugansk. It could further open new paths for the OSCE in other conflicts.
Strengthening the OSCE’s Mind
The prolongation of the SMM’s mandate and the increase of financial support to the Conflict Prevention Centre (CPC) in Vienna at the beginning of the German Chairmanship year have been the first successful steps on this path. However, more needs to be done in order to empower institutions and structures of the OSCE to improve its knowledge and practice management. And despite the many obstacles and budgetary disagreements at the Hofburg of Vienna, there is always room for improvement.
Initiatives taken by Germany, Switzerland and Austria to second their national diplomats on the working level are simple yet effective in order to smoothen transitions between the Chairmanships. By the same token, embedding the expertise of NGO and academia into the work of the Chairmanship and the Secretary-General would help to include alternative insights. All of these measures are hardly part of grand design. Nonetheless, they have the potential to broaden operational knowledge for peace and security within the OSCE and strengthen the pillars of the European security architecture. The CSCE’s role in the Cold War reminds us that sometimes the small steps in foreign policy may lead further than we think.
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