Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)
Expected Council Action
In May, North Macedonia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bujar Osmani, in his capacity as the current Chairman-in-Office (CiO) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), is expected to brief the Security Council on the organisation’s activities. Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis is expected to chair the meeting.
Background and Key Recent Developments
The Council has received annual briefings from the OSCE CiO since 2004. The chairmanship of the OSCE rotates yearly, and on 1 January, North Macedonia succeeded Poland in this function. May’s briefing will give Osmani an opportunity to inform the Council about North Macedonia’s main priorities as chair and discuss possible avenues to strengthen OSCE-UN cooperation. The meeting will also mark the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Framework for Cooperation and Coordination by the UN and the OSCE on 26 May 1993.
North Macedonia outlined its priorities as OSCE chair at a 12 January session of the OSCE Permanent Council. At that meeting, Osmani said that Ukraine will remain the chairmanship’s top priority, while instability in other crisis settings across the region will require the organisation’s continued attention. He indicated that while the chairmanship’s priorities will largely depend on security developments, it will strive to advance several overarching objectives, including the promotion of human security through support for sustainable economic growth and environmental cooperation, as well as upholding human rights and promoting tolerance as prerequisites for comprehensive security. Osmani further stated: “[c]hallenges will continue to emerge, but we are here to persevere.”
The OSCE has come under significant stress since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Ukraine has been a major focus of the organisation’s work since the outbreak of hostilities in 2014, which saw fighting between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. In line with the OSCE’s responsibility for monitoring the 2015 Minsk II agreement—which outlined steps for ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine through a political settlement—its Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) had gathered daily information related to ceasefire violations and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the Donbas region.
The OSCE has had to alter considerably its Ukraine-related work since Russia’s invasion. The organisation announced the closure of its two field operations in the country, the SMM and the Project Co-ordinator—which supported Ukraine in developing its legislation, institutions, and practices in line with democratic standards by working with the government and civil society on such issues as combatting human trafficking and humanitarian de-mining—on 28 April and 30 June 2022, respectively. OSCE Secretary-General Helga Maria Schmid emphasised that the field operations were not closed because of security reasons, but because of Russia’s opposition to the extension of their mandate. (OSCE decisions require the consensus of its 57 members.) On 1 November 2022, the OSCE launched a donor-funded support programme in Ukraine to continue work on areas previously addressed by the Project Co-ordinator. Since April 2022, three Ukrainian OSCE personnel have been detained by pro-Russian forces in Luhansk, two of whom were sentenced on 19 September 2022 to 13 years in prison for alleged treason.
Osmani has highlighted on several occasions, including during the UN Security Council’s 24 February meeting marking one year since Russia’s invasion, the importance of the OSCE’s work aimed at promoting accountability for crimes committed in the context of the Ukraine war. In 2022, 45 participating states twice invoked the Moscow Mechanism to create an independent fact-finding mission to investigate abuses of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in Ukraine. (The mechanism, which was created by 1991, allows participating states to initiate an investigation into human rights violations over the opposition of the state under scrutiny.) The fact-finding missions presented their findings in reports dated 12 April and 11 July 2022.
On 30 March, the same 45 participating states invoked the Moscow Mechanism again, requesting the establishment of a fact-finding mission to investigate possible violations of human rights, international humanitarian law, and international human rights law, as well as possible cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity associated with “the forcible transfer of children within parts of Ukraine’s territory temporarily controlled or occupied by Russia and/or their deportation to the Russian Federation”. This request followed the 17 March decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, for allegedly committing the war crime of “unlawful deportation” and “unlawful transfer” of children from Ukraine to Russia.
Objections by Russia have been preventing unanimity on broader decisions crucial to the OSCE’s work. The organisation has been unable to agree on its annual budget for 2022 and 2023; as a result, the OSCE has been working on monthly allotments. In a 1 December 2022 statement, Schmid called the situation “untenable” and noted that the OSCE is struggling to attract and retain staff. Agreement has also not been reached on the organisation’s 2024 CiO, as Russia has been opposing the candidature of Estonia, which launched its bid for the role in 2020.
The heightened tensions within the organisation have not only created operational constraints but have also led some to call into question the utility of the OSCE, an organisation whose raison d’être is to serve as a platform for dialogue on regional security issues between Russia and Western states. Speaking at a 23 February meeting of the General Assembly on Ukraine, Osmani asserted that “[t]he Russian aggression against Ukraine also erodes the foundations” of the OSCE by “violating the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act”. The Helsinki Final Act, which was signed in 1975, enshrined the OSCE’s founding principles, which commit the organisation’s members, among other things, to refrain from the use of force and to settle disputes peacefully.
Osmani and Schmid have continued to stress that despite the fundamental challenges faced by the OSCE, it has adapted its operations and continued to deliver, both in Ukraine and beyond. It has continued to play a role in international efforts regarding frozen conflicts in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Transdniestria. Given that these conflicts are not regularly discussed by the Council, some members might want to use May’s briefing to hear about the OSCE’s mediation efforts in these situations.
Analysts have warned that if the difficult dynamic within the OSCE continues, the organisation may decline in relevance and capacity. Some of them have emphasised the importance of the OSCE as the only multilateral forum outside the UN where Russia and Western countries can hold dialogue on security issues. In light of the markedly altered context in which the organisation operates, members may also discuss new avenues for cooperation between the organisation and the UN that utilise the OSCE’s expertise. In the context of the war in Ukraine, members might suggest a possible role for the OSCE in monitoring potential future interim agreements, for example on securing the safety of nuclear sites—an issue which has been discussed at the UN Security Council on multiple occasions.
Council and Wider Dynamics
Over the years, Council members have expressed sharply diverging positions on issues within the OSCE’s purview, most notably Ukraine, and on the broader European security architecture. These divisions have become more pronounced following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
The Council’s last meeting on OSCE-UN cooperation was held on 14 March 2022, less than a month after the invasion. At that meeting, several Council members—including the P3 (France, the UK, and the US)—argued that Russia ignored the efforts of the OSCE’s then-CiO, Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Zbigniew Rau, to prevent the crisis by addressing Russia’s security concerns through his Renewed European Security Dialogue initiative. Russia dismissed such allegations and said that such a dialogue would not have been successful due to the Western countries’ position on the principle of “indivisible security”. It claimed that this principle “requires avoiding any actions that would strengthen one party’s security to the detriment of the security of any other country” and blamed Western countries for ignoring such a requirement by prioritising “the right of any country to choose which alliance it wished to join”. China expressed a similar position during a 17 February Council meeting requested by Russia to mark the eighth anniversary of the Minsk II agreement, in which it maintained that “the Ukraine crisis is the culmination of European security conflicts that are closely related to NATO’s constant eastward expansion since the Cold War”.
At the 17 February meeting, several Council members, including the P3 and several European members, highlighted the OSCE’s crucial work in the region and its continued relevance. Switzerland noted in this regard the organisation’s expertise in monitoring, confidence-building measures, and verification. Russia for its part accused the OSCE of partiality and argued that it had provided biased reporting on the implementation of the Minsk II agreement. Such differing positions are likely to colour the discussion during the briefing in May.
UN DOCUMENTS ON THE OSCE
|Security Council Resolution|
|17 February 2015S/RES/2202||This was a resolution that endorsed the “Package of measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements” signed on 12 February 2015.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|17 February 2023S/PV.9262||This was an open briefing requested by Russia on the “Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements”, also known as the Minsk II agreement, adopted on 12 February 2015.|
|14 March 2022S/PV.8992||This was a briefing by the Chairperson-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).|