As the OSCE celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Helsinki accords from which it was born, the body is searching for a new role in the post-Cold War era, diplomats in Vienna say.
The OSCE is little known outside of Europe's conflict-ridden regions
The Helsinki Final Act marked the beginning of a political process that later became the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the world's largest regional security body. With its 55 European, Eurasian and North American member states spanning the geographic area from Vancouver to Vladivostok, it works to defuse political, humanitarian and economic crises. But 16 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, its profile on the international stage alongside bodies like NATO and the European Union is lower than officials would like.
A meeting in Vienna last week to mark the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Helsinki accords on August 1, 1975 provided an opportunity for a bit of soul-searching and self-criticism. Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld urged the organization to make strife-ridden central Asia a priority, telling delegates: "What is now going on in that part of the world highlights the fiasco of our policies."
He argued that the OSCE should also extend membership to Mediterranean states, in what was read as a hint at Israel and the Middle East conflict, while his Austrian counterpart Ursula Plassnik said she believed the "OSCE should rethink its definition of security by broadening it."
The current chairman of the OSCE, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitry Rupel, said the body needed to boost economic development in former communist countries, a role that the European Union has largely taken on itself.
Room for OSCE and NATO in Europe?
East Germany's Erich Honecker (left) and West Germany's Helmut Schmidt signed the accords in Helsinki along with 33 other heads of state and government in 1975
But Victor-Yves Ghebali, from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, says there is space for more than one organization in building a new Europe, and downplays notions of competition both with the EU and NATO.
"No organization can cope alone with the problems that we face in the aftermath of the Cold War. Competition between international institutions is outdated," he wrote on the Web site of the Courrier des Balkans. "In fact we are now seeing the OSCE and NATO working in tandem. When NATO intervened in Bosnia to stabilize the situation, when in fact the United Nations should have, it did so with the assistance of the OSCE. In Kosovo we are seeing a repeat of this."
OSCE spokesman Ayhan Evrensel defined the respective roles of the two organizations by saying: "NATO is out in the streets wearing helmets, while the OSCE contributes mainly to efforts to build democracy …We are involved in countering the threat of international terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking and the proliferation of arms and also dealing with economic problems and environment problems which can have serious security consequences," he added.
US vs. Russian approach
A source close to the OSCE said it was standing at a crossroads and that there were "two schools of thought" as to how it should position itself in the future.
The OSCE advises governments in putting on elections as well as observing them
"There are the Americans who want to strengthen NATO and see the OSCE playing a civilian support role in case of military intervention by the alliance. Then there are others like the Russians, who want to limit NATO's influence and say the OSCE must be given the opportunity to lead peacekeeping missions. And then in between the two, you have the EU," he said.
A report on OSCE reform handed to Rupel at the end of June advised the body to refocus itself on security missions, supporting the Russian line of thinking. Moscow's unhappiness with the OSCE's focus on human rights, and its criticism of flawed elections in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan has recently led to strife within the organization.
The Helsinki accords, which created the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- which later became the OSCE -- are considered to have contributed to the fall of the Iron Curtain due to their focus on the promotion of human rights, particularly in old communist bloc states encouraged.