(Berlin) Germany this month assumed the one-year chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and did so, in the words of Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier during “what may be the most serious crisis in peace and security in Europe since the end of the Cold War”.

Europe faces many challenges. The Ukraine conflict, the primary reason Germany agreed to become OSCE chair, remains unresolved, despite the fragile ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. In addition, finding responses to the threat of terrorism following the Paris attacks, and managing the refugee crisis will be vital issues for Europe this year.

There is a crisis in human rights in Russia unprecedented since the end of the Cold War, in which Moscow is proudly flouting many of its OSCE commitments. Germany cannot afford to lose sight of the wider human rights context in both Ukraine and Russia as it strives to help bring an end to the conflict.

Germany should use its role as chair of this important if embattled organisation to  reinforce the OSCE’s underpinning principles of human rights and rule of law, thereby promoting long term human security, especially in regions where it is severely lacking, including Central Asia, for which the OSCE is the only regional organization with a human rights focus. Too often in recent history, government policies to promote national security without also protecting human rights have led to a downward spiral of insecurity and rights abuses. 

The OSCE traces its roots to moves during the Cold War to reduce tensions between East and West, resulting in the 1975 Helsinki Accords. As Steinmeier acknowledges, Europe, and reunified Germany in particular, owe much to these efforts. Moreover, the accords included a set of basic human rights principles, agreed upon by the Soviet Union and other eastern bloc countries as well as by Western Europe and the US that became vital international standards by which countries’ treatment of human rights were then measured.

These human rights principles remain a core part of what the OSCE is today, and are referred to as its ‘human dimension’. The OSCE has contributed to improving human rights across the continent. It runs the region’s most authoritative election monitoring operation and has defined important benchmarks for participating states on issues ranging from the protection of human rights defenders and media freedom to tackling racism and xenophobia. Recently, its hundreds of monitors in eastern Ukraine have been important in monitoring the conflict on the ground.

However the conflict over Crimea and eastern Ukraine has significantly deepened existing divisions within the OSCE between Western states and Russia and its authoritarian allies, effectively blocking most new policymaking. These divisions have hampered the work of several specialist OSCE agencies on human rights, media freedom and national minorities. Germany should help protect and strengthen these bodies.

Germany presents its 2016 agenda for the OSCE as “renewing dialogue, rebuilding trust, restoring security”. As Steinmeier puts it, Berlin aims to “renew dialogue, while not shying away from calling breaches of OSCE principles and international law by its name”.

Gernot Erler, the government’s special representative for the OSCE chairmanship, adds that  “compliance with obligations in the human dimension is of the greatest significance for sustainable security and stability in the OSCE region”. It will be important to address human rights issues “that have a direct link with the present crisis in the European security architecture” such as media freedom, tolerance and anti-discrimination work and the rights of minorities, he said.

This is a valid approach, but likely to be tested in its implementation. Berlin should defend OSCE values and not, in Steinmeier’s words, “shy away” from both public and closed-door pressure on Russia to respect basic rights.

Germany needs to ensure that the OSCE’s monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine is equipped to do effective human rights monitoring, and that it presses the Ukrainian government to end abuses. It should also ensure that the Ukrainian government does not allow nationalism to undermine media and political freedoms.

Germany should look beyond such crises in its linkage between the human dimension and security, to make the OSCE more relevant. The OSCE should play a bigger role in Central Asia. But several Central Asian countries have severely limited the OSCE’s human rights work in their territories.  Human rights are under attack across this region, and Germany should lead efforts to ensure the OSCE holds these governments to account, to protect freedom of expression and assembly, to end torture and to allow human rights activists to work without harassment.

Similarly, Azerbaijan, another participating state, is in the midst of a severe human rights crackdown. Baku has closed down the OSCE’s operations in the country and effectively blocked the OSCE from independently monitoring a recent election. The OSCE needs to find ways to stand up effectively to such behaviour.

Germany’s focus on intolerance, discrimination and xenophobia is important. Erler says, rightly, that these problems are even more important “bearing in mind the long-term challenges of present day developments with regard to refugees and migration”. Germany should help the OSCE go beyond broad recommendations on these issues by identifying OSCE states, in Western Europe, North America and elsewhere, where abuses are occurring, and proposing specific remedies including a more effective criminal justice response.

With a focus on building security by protecting basic human rights Germany is well placed to lead the OSCE through the turbulence Europe is facing. It now needs to act on its good intentions.