The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is not a “sexy” international institution, like the UN, the IMF, the WTO, NATO, or even the African Union. It seldom grabs headlines. When its parliamentary assembly meets, there are no riots, no smashed storefronts. There is no Model OSCE —as far as I know of. The OSCE, a little organization with a long name, strange history, confusing structure, small budget, and unorthodox practices, is mightily unglamorous. But don’t take this to mean unimportant. In reality, the OSCE is an essential part of what, along with the European Union and Council of Europe, is known as the “European Human Rights Regime.”

The OSCE has fifty-six member states, including the United States and Canada, and many other countries that are not typically thought of as “European,” such as those in the Caucuses and Central Asia. It was founded in 1973 as the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), an intergovernmental organization to facilitate the melting of Col War tensions, foster trust between West and East, and better the circumstances of people in the Soviet Union.

In 1991, the USSR, as it had existed since 1922, came to an abrupt end, ushering in a new era in international relations. Suddenly, the CSCE faced a crisis of purpose –but a crisis that did not last long. The newly independent states of Europe and Central Asia faced serious problems economically, militarily, socially, and politically, and quite a few posed security risks to their neighbors. In 1995, the CSCE was renamed the OSCE, and began the second phase of its life by expanding its mission into new areas. Today, the  OSCE functions as an early warning system for conflicts, promotes trust and cooperation between the governments of its member states, and promotes democracy and respect for fundamental human rights. It’s most publicized activities include, human rights monitoring, election-monitoring, holding negotiations between member states, and providing technical training to national police forces to combat human and drug trafficking.

Much of the OSCE’s day-to-day work on the ground, however, is much more subtle, and involves nurturing local civil society. It does this in highly unusual ways; helping Albanian journalism students publish their articles nationwide, organizing conferences for Serb youths to discuss religious tensions and tolerance in their country, and lending support to independent radio in Tajikistan. The OSCE even dabbles in projects that would likely be deemed absurd by other international organizations. Perhaps the best and latest example was the OSCE’s sponsorship of a rock festival to promote friendship between teenagers on both sides of Moldova’s Transnistrian conflict. Can you remember the last time the UN rocked out?

What makes the OSCE wondrously unique in the universe of international organizations is its peaceful, hands-on approach building a better Europe and beyond. NATO has fighter jets, the EU has sanctions, and the UN has the Security Council, but the OSCE has the power of creative thinking, which is vital to building a peaceful, just, and democratic future for us all.

Additional reading:

The OSCE official website

The Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights

By the way, Belgium (where I currently live) holds the 2006 OSCE Chairmanship. Take a look at the Chairmanship homepage.

Una Hardester, Senior Political Analyst