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What the OSCE is

The OSCE’s origins date back to the early 1970s, in the Final Act of Helsinki (1975), and the creation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) that, during the cold war, acted as an important multi-lateral forum for dialogue between the East and the West.

Today, the OSCE is a forum for political dialogue, covering a wide array of questions related to security, as well as being a platform for joint action to improve the lives of individuals and communities. The Organisation helps to overcome differences and increase trust between Countries, by means of cooperation in preventing conflicts, dealing with crises, and post-conflict reconstruction.

Thanks to its experts, institutions, and missions in the field, the OSCE tackles problems that affect our common security, such as armaments control, terrorism, good government, energy security, the human rights treaty, democratisation, the freedom of means of information, and safeguarding national minorities.

Institutions and structures

Each week the Permanent Representatives of the 57 Member Countries meet in the Permanent Council, the OSCE’s ordinary decision-making body, and in the Forum for Security Cooperation, within which the Member Countries adopt decisions regarding the military aspects of security. A Ministerial Council is called each year to evaluate the OSCE’s activities, and to provide general guidelines for the Organisation. Summits of Heads of State and Government of the Member Countries are called from time to time, to define priorities at a political level.

Each year Presidency of the OSCE is exercised by a different Member Country, with their foreign affairs ministry taking up the Chairperson-in-Office role, in collaboration with the previous and successive presidencies, making up the OSCE’s Troika. The Chairperson-in-Office can nominate personal representatives. Currently, these personal representatives cover a wide range of the Organisation’s activities, including preventing and managing conflicts, and coordination in specific areas such as general questions, children’s rights, and matters related to tolerance and non-discrimination.

The Secretary General’s term of office lasts for three years – they head the Secretariat, are based in Vienna, and support the Presidency. Besides its administrative departments, the Secretariat is made up of the Centre for Preventing Conflicts, and departments and units that deal with economic and environmental activities, cooperation with partner countries and organisations, questions related to equality in general, combating illegal trafficking, transnational threats, terrorism, border management, and reforming the police forces. They are tasked with monitoring developments regarding their respective areas of competence, with providing specialist analyses, and with implementing projects in the field.

The OSCE is made up of three institutions with specialist work areas. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), based in Warsaw, promotes democratic development and human rights. Their work area includes observing elections, rule of law, promoting tolerance, and improving the condition of Romani and Sinti people. The Representative for Freedom of the Means of Information, based in Vienna, sees to developments in the media field, and reports violations of freedom of expression and freedom of means of information. The High Commissioner for National Minorities, based in The Hague, uses discreet diplomacy and timely action as tools to prevent conflicts and tensions based on ethnicities.

Finally, the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly brings together 300 legislators from the parliaments of the OSCE’s Member Countries, in order to facilitate dialogue and cooperation, and promote responsibility. In addition, the OSCE’s Parliamentarians play a guiding role when it comes to observing elections, carrying out visits in the field, and guiding organisational reform works.

Area of action

The OSCE’s approach to security has three main dimensions: political – military, economic – environmental, and human. By way of its three-dimensional approach, the OSCE supports Member Countries with creating a security community that is free, democratic, and indivisible, covering the Euro-Atlantic, and Eurasian area.

On the military front, the OSCE is involved in creating greater openness, transparency, and cooperation, and has developed the most advanced regime in the world for controlling armaments, and measures for increasing trust. Its activities deal with reforming the security sector and secure storage and destruction of small-calibre arms and conventional munitions.

Economic and environmental aspects are also key factors for enhancing security. Promoting good government, combating corruption, sensitisation on environmental questions, sharing natural resources, and managing waste cycles, are areas in which the OSCE makes its contribution.

Human rights and basic liberties are the cornerstones of stability. The OSCE helps Member Countries to strengthen democratic institutions, organise free elections, ensure the respecting of human rights, the freedom of means of information, minority rights, and the rule of law, as well as promoting tolerance and non discrimination.

In wider terms, the OSCE deals with security problems arising from cross-border threats, as well as climate change, terrorism, radicalisation and violent extremism, organised crime, computer crime, and trafficking of drugs, arms, and humans. It promotes closer ties and greater cooperation between the Countries, creating public/private partnerships and involving civil society.

When it comes to activities covering all three dimensions, the OSCE acts in facilitating gender equality and involving youth in its peace and security agenda, as well as promoting an approach to dealing with migrants and refugees based on inclusive, cooperative respecting of human rights.

Activities in the field

Most of the OSCE’s personnel and resources are used for operations within South-East Europe, Eastern Europe, the Southern Caucasus, and Central Asia.

Field operations are set up based on requests from the respective host Countries, and their mandates are agreed by consensus between the Member Countries. They assist the host countries in respecting OSCE principles, by means of projects that meet their needs. Some operations, such as the Special Monitoring Mission in the Ukraine involve 1300 civilians, including 700 observers. Others play a critical role in the post-conflict phase, helping to reinstate mutual trust between the communities involved.

One of the OSCE’s main activities is resolving ongoing conflicts within its region using agreed formats, which include negotiations for an overall political solution to the conflict in Transnistria, the OSCE’s Minsk Group, tasked with finding a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as well as International Talks in Geneva, launched after the conflict in Georgia in August 2008, presided over jointly by the United Nations and the European Union.