The flags of Ukraine and the OSCE are seen at the 20th OSCE Ministerial Council in Kiev, December 2013.

© 2013 OSCE

The Ukraine crisis has focussed attention on the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Germany and elsewhere. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has consistently pushed for a stronger role for the OSCE in Ukraine and defended it against criticism in Berlin following the release of the kidnapped OSCE military observers in early May.

Steinmeier is right that the OSCE is in a strong position to make a difference in de-escalating the crisis in Ukraine. It is one of the few international organisations with the necessary political backing, from Russia, Ukraine and the West, plus the resources to provide a strong presence on the ground and to counter the propaganda churned out by both sides.

Yet this international attention also highlights the challenges facing the organisation, and its 57 participating states in ensuring its effectiveness in the future.

The biggest practical test for the effectiveness of the OSCE in Ukraine concerns the role of its international monitors in the hotspots in the east and elsewhere. The creation of this ‘Special Monitoring Mission’ in March was a major breakthrough, as it underlined the willingness of Russia and Ukraine to invest trust in the OSCE. 

Since being set up in Helsinki in 1975 as a framework for dealing with Cold War tensions, the OSCE has had three dimensions to its work: politico-military, economic and environmental, and the ‘human dimension’.

The human dimension was key because the Soviet Union had to acknowledge, at least on paper, that protecting human rights was a core aspect of international security. The organization has produced important results in defending human rights, and promoting high standards of democracy and the rule of law. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), its main human rights body, mounts the most credible election monitoring missions in the former Soviet Union and is in charge of observing the presidential poll in Ukraine on May 25, with plans to deploy a thousand international monitors on election day.

ODIHR last week published, jointly with the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities, an assessment of the human rights situation in the Ukraine highlighting major human rights abuses by Ukrainian authorities and anti-Maidan groups. It rightly underscored the urgent need for a credible investigation that would identify individual criminal responsibility for the deaths and ill-treatment that occurred between November 2013 and February 2014. ODIHR should continue to document abuses by both pro-Kiev and anti-Kiev groups including those in recent weeks, such as the deaths of at least 40 people this month in Odessa, and urge the government to reject discriminatory legislation. Berlin has a particular stake in ODIHR’s work:  Michael Link, a former minister of state in the German foreign ministry was this month named director of the Warsaw-based body.

The OSCE’s efforts under the Swiss ‘chairmanship in office’ to establish a national dialogue between opposing groups, are important, as such a dialogue is as an essential part of addressing human rights abuses, perceptions about them, and grievances that preceded the crises.

The monitoring mission in Ukraine has been slow to get started and there remains confusion over its role. Coordination is lacking with other OSCE operations active in Ukraine, including the election monitoring mission, and ODIHR. Effective information-sharing and agreement on promoting common goals should be a priority.

More monitors, including more local experts, are needed, especially as events in the east remains highly unpredictable and inflammatory. There are currently around 220 monitors, but up to 500 are envisaged in its mandate. The OSCE should ensure that it is giving proper methodological and legal guidance to monitors on the ground, as the situation shifts around them.

The monitors’ updates provide a snapshot of what’s happening in up to a dozen cities, which is no mean task. But the mission should be more forthright and detailed about the kidnappings, beatings and threats by anti-Kiev forces and should not mince words about threats and beatings by Ukrainian nationalists and paramilitary groups. Human rights reporting requires extra time to ensure accuracy, but the mission could accommodate this need by publishing more comprehensive, human rights information on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

These problems need to be addressed urgently if the OSCE is to maintain its credibility and to require a new show of political will by all parties involved.

Diplomats in Vienna, where the OSCE is based, admit they welcome the attention they are getting from their capitals and the media due to the Ukraine crisis. They should not waste this chance to ensure that the organisation remains relevant more broadly as well, especially in places like Central Asia or Azerbaijan, where deeply rooted repression and rights abuses remain rife.

One priority would be for participating states to show more political will – missing in recent years - to enforce existing commitments in the human dimension sphere. Many members ignore their pledges to protect basic political freedoms, and to oppose discrimination and intolerance.

Another priority would be the OSCE’s activities and programmes within participating states. In recent years several governments, such as Russia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, have insisted on more control over defining these activities, often at the expense of the human rights mandate. Participating states need to agree on minimum standards of independence from host governments and set a non-negotiable baseline for their core functions.

 Most important, the OSCE needs to more fully acknowledge the extent to which its relevance hinges on the support it can lend to the many courageous human rights defenders who risk so much and whose work is so essential to giving practical meaning to the human dimension of the OSCE’s mandate.

The OSCE celebrates its 40th anniversary next year. Now is the time for governments to prepare an appropriate birthday present by ensuring its practical relevance in upholding human rights standards and the rule of law for decades to come.

Hugh Williamson is director, Europe & Central Asia division, Human Rights Watch