29th Sep 2023


What's the point of the OSCE if everyone just ignores it?

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You are the ambassador of a country accredited to an international organisation, say the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). You have an expensive office in central Vienna, a team of qualified colleagues, a pleasant residence, a limousine and other perks that come with the job. People who don't know diplomacy are convinced that you do a very important job for your government, that you engage in important high-level international politics — which, of course, justifies all these expenses.

They are wrong.

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  • The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe is not some NGO or opposition party

OSCE officials are doing a lot of relevant things, but the governments paying for the organisation and sending their diplomats to attend its permanent Council in Vienna's Hofburg Palace, do not make much use of that work. They are in the organisation out of inertia, path dependency and a vague sense that its mission — trying to ensure peace and security on the European continent — is a useful one.

What makes me so critical? Quite simply that a lot of what the organisation is doing and saying is being ignored.

Exhibit 1: Turkey's presidential election

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan got the best out of the process by making it look competitive, with all the legitimacy that flows from that, while at the same time controlling the unfair process sufficiently to make sure he would win.

In so doing, he adopted a winning strategy regularly followed by competitive authoritarian regimes that I have described here.

The one organisation that clearly highlighted the serious flaws in the elections was the OSCE.

And yet, few people noticed. The governments that spend all that money on the OSCE? They shrugged and sent congratulatory telegrams to Erdoğan regardless.

Exhibit 2: Hungary

On two occasions, the OSCE has found that its elections violated international norms for democratic elections. The reaction of other EU member states and EU bodies?: none.

The OSCE is not some NGO or opposition party. It is an international organisation in which Turkey and Hungary participate. They have agreed to honour commitments for democratic elections and invited OSCE observers to evaluate whether these commitments were met.

In other words, you cannot get a more authoritative opinion.

I could list many more OSCE reports on elections and other human rights issues that resulted in shrugging, ignoring and silence.

The situation with the Council of Europe, the continent's pre-eminent human rights body, is similar. Its human rights court in Strasbourg receives a large number of cases from across Europe and passes many judgements.

But governments regularly ignore them.

My organisation, Democracy Reporting International, working with the NGO European Implementation Network, studied the implementation of its case law and found that many states simply do not implement important judgements.

The court can do little about this. It has no police or bailiffs to enforce its judgements. Not surprisingly, Hungary is a leader in non-implementation of judgements affecting the functioning of the rule of law.

In 2016, for example, the court found that the new Fidesz government had unlawfully dismissed the president of the Supreme Court, judge András Baka. He was fired because he had expressed concerns that legal changes would endanger judicial independence.

What has Fidesz done in the last eight years to implement the judgement? Nothing.

Beyond cases like Hungary, or Poland, where the ruling party has created a rule of law chaos, we also found other, less obvious, governments lagging behind in implementation.

One of these is Finland, which despite having one of the strongest rule of law systems in the world, has been particularly passive, not implementing some important judgements for over a decade.

What needs to be done? The OSCE, the Council of Europe and similar organisations are effective when they are taken seriously. Governments can spend as much money as they want on them. But if they treat their work as secondary bureaucratic-technical processes that do not affect policy, the money is wasted.

For this situation to improve there needs to be a sea-change in the perception that democracy and human rights in other European states matters to all. It matters for our long-term security.

The Russian-Ukrainian war should have made this obvious, as I argued earlier here. It also matters for decision-making in the EU, because all governments in the EU make laws for the whole Union.

And, of course, it matters to people whose rights have been violated. People like judge Baka. What happened to him served to intimidate other Hungarian judges who learned that disagreeing with the government could cost them their jobs.

And that, in turn, affects all Hungarian citizens who seek judicial redress, as well as asylum-seekers or companies that invest in Hungary. It is because of these snowball effects that the case of judge Baka is so important.

For there to be a renaissance of these security and human rights bodies, governments — especially democracy-friendly ones — need to take them seriously, engage with them, talk about them, use their findings for policy-making.

If an OSCE election observation mission finds that an EU member state does not hold democratic elections, this should be treated as an EU emergency. And EU member state governments must lead by example and implement decisions of these bodies at home.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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