As Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis addressed the OSCE Permanent Council on January 13, speaking in his capacity as the new OSCE Chairman-in-Office, he was be keenly aware of the challenges facing Lithuania’s chairmanship in the coming year. In the immediate term, Vilnius must try to convince its neighbor, Belarus, to reverse its decision made in the aftermath of the troubled December 19 presidential elections to discontinue the mandate of the OSCE Office in Minsk. Over the longer-term, Lithuania must promote consensus on the OSCE Plan of Action, which hopes to address problems confronting the organization, ranging from the frozen conflicts in the Caucasus to the declining state of democracy and human rights in post-Soviet states. Among OSCE insiders, rights and democratization issues are known as the “human dimension.” Consultations on the Action Plan represent a piece of unfinished business left by Lithuania’s predecessor, Kazakhstan. A December OSCE summit in the Kazakhstani capital Astana managed to produce a declaration which, surprisingly, given the recent actions of post-Soviet leaders, reaffirmed the notion that “the [OSCE] commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating states and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the state concerned.” The heads of OSCE states also noted “the important role played by civil society and free media in helping us to ensure full respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy, including free and fair elections, and the rule of law.” The declaration on these lofty principles notwithstanding, the Astana summit failed to adopt an Action Plan that outlines concrete steps to close the philosophical gulf separating the eastern and western parts of the OSCE region, especially in the sphere of human rights and democracy. Fortunately, Azubalis, the new OSCE chairman-in-office, can refer to one document that emerged from Astana to help guide Lithuania as it sets a course for the coming year. It is the Outcome Document of the Parallel Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Conference, which took place in the Kazakh capital a couple of days prior to the official summit. The Parallel Conference represented an unsung success for civil society representatives, who convened the two-day gathering to take a close look at the OSCE, and to produce a 70-paragraph document [http://parallelosceconference.org] containing clear recommendations for the organization, in particular in the human dimension. The document notes the achievements of the OSCE since the Helsinki Process was launched in 1975, but it expresses “strong disappointment at the inability if the OSCE structures to effectively address the ongoing and evolving threats to human security and decreasing implementation of human dimension commitments by many participating states.” The NGO conference document can be seen as a call to shift the focus of OSCE work to better emphasize fundamental freedoms. It also points to concrete issues on which the OSCE can sharpen its focus, asserting the organization has not spent sufficient time addressing freedoms of expression, association and assembly; protection of human rights defenders; freedom of movement, protection of human rights in the context of combating terrorism, human rights and extractive industries. The NGO document makes specific requests of the OSCE. For example, NGOs activists want the OSCE to analyze the 1993 Minsk CIS Convention on legal assistance and legal relations in civil, family and criminal matters. This convention has been used in the recent years to justify the extradition of political opponents of CIS leaders to their home countries, where they face imprisonment and possibly torture, while having no hope of receiving fair trials. The NGO document also calls on OSCE states to pay special attention to Central Asia and commission a report from ODIHR, the organization’s human rights and democracy office, to evaluate freedom of expression, assembly, association and movement in Central Asia. Election observation, perhaps the field for which the OSCE is best known, did not receive significant attention from NGOs, suggesting that this sphere is overemphasized in the work of the organization. The NGOs recommend that the ongoing arguments between ODIHR and various parliamentary bodies observing elections be resolved for good by having each body issue a separate conclusion of its own monitoring efforts, rather than compiling joint statements that tend to be unclear since they incorporate differing judgments generated by various components of the OSCE. Significant attention was paid by the NGOs to the internal functioning of the OSCE, which should be particularly helpful for the Lithuanian chairmanship. The NGO document suggested that civil society representatives should have greater access to the organization’s structures and meetings. It also called for upgrading the profile of heads of OSCE field operations in Central Asia by appointing experienced diplomats, and for replicating the model of a very successful ODIHR panel of experts on freedom of peaceful assembly. The ODIHR panel issued groundbreaking guidelines a few years ago on holding peaceful demonstrations. A similar, newly minted panel of experts could focus on thorny issues, such as NGO registration and taxation. Finally, the NGO document recommended the creation of an OSCE Representative on Human Rights Defenders, a post that would be similar to the existing Representative on the Freedom of the Media.
Reflecting the NGO recommendations in the OSCE Action Plan will be a tall order given the opposition of many Eurasian governments. However, in Minister Azubalis, himself a former journalist and a Lithuanian Helsinki Committee member, Lithuania has someone who is capable of acting as a forceful democratization advocate.
Vladimir Shkolnikov served in several capacities with the Warsaw-based ODIHR, including heading the office’s Migration Unit, and later its Democratization Department.