OSCE FlagNGO Law Monitor: Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

Introduction | Key Facts | Members | At a Glance
Key Legal Texts | Overview | Reports | News and Additional Resources
Last updated 15 May 2014


The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the largest regional security organization in the world, with 56 members in Europe, North America and Central Asia. The organization focuses on early-warning preparation, conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation.

The Chairman-in-Office is the overarching political leader of the organization and is selected on an annual basis from the member states. The OSCE priorities are defined at the OSCE Summits by government officials from the member states. Between Summits, the permanent decision-making bodies of the OSCE include the OSCE Ministerial Council and the OSCE Permanent Council. The Ministerial Council convenes once a year and consists of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the member states. The Permanent Council is made up of delegates from the 56 member states who hold weekly meetings to discuss developments in the OSCE area and make immediate decisions.

A number of offices implement the OSCE mission, including the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM), and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of Media.  The OSCE Secretariat under the Secretary General is located in Vienna and provides operational support to the organization. The Secretariat consists of a number of units, such as Action against Terrorism UnitConflict Prevention CentreExternal Co-operationGender SectionOffice of the Co-ordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental ActivitiesOffice of the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human BeingsStrategic Police Matters Unit, and Training Section. In addition, OSCE operates through 18 field missions in South-Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus, with each mission operating under its own mandate.

Additionally, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is responsible for the democratic and human rights aspect of OSCE’s work through observing elections, monitoring the human rights situation in the region and organizing an annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), which is Europe’s largest human rights conference. The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is complemented by three annual informal Supplementary Human Dimension Implementation Meetings. The currently established human rights priorities for the OSCE are freedom of movement, freedom of religion, and preventing torture and trafficking in persons.

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Key Facts

Headquarters Vienna, Austria (Secretariat)
Members 56
Established 1995 (as OSCE; preceded by Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, established in 1975)
Founding Document Helsinki Final Act
Head Current Chairperson Audronius Ažubalis (Lithuania) (2011) (annually rotating chairmanship);
Secretary General Lamberto Zannier (2011)
Governing Bodies Ministerial Council (decision-making body);
Permanent Council (decision-making body);
Parliamentary Assembly facilitates inter-parliamentary dialogue and promotes
national parliaments' involvement in OSCE.
Key Human Rights Agreements

Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE

Charter of Paris for a New Europe

Key Judicial Bodies Court of Conciliation and Arbitration (power only to settle cases between states;
does not hear human rights claims)

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Albania Hungary Romania
Andorra Iceland Russia
Armenia Ireland San Marino
Azerbaijan Italy Serbia
Belarus Kazakhstan Slovakia
Belgium Kyrgyzstan Slovenia
Bosnia and Herzegovina Latvia Spain
Bulgaria Liechtenstein Sweden
Canada Lithuania Switzerland
Croatia Luxembourg Tajikistan
Cyprus Macedonia Turkey
Czech Republic Malta Turkmenistan
Denmark Moldova Ukraine
Estonia Monaco United Kingdom
Finland Montenegro United States
France Netherlands Uzbekistan
Georgia Norway Vatican City
Germany Poland  
Greece Portugal  

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At a Glance

Freedom of Association Legal Protection Helsinki Final Act, 1. VII (1975)

Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE, II.(9.3), II.(10.1-3)(1990)

Charter of Paris for a New Europe (1990)

Document of the Moscow Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE, (43) (1991)

Helsinki Document, The Challenges of Change, VI (1992)
Civil Society Participation Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Facilitates dialogue with civil society representatives prior to OSCE conferences
OSCE Secretariat-External Cooperation The Section for External Cooperation is the point of contact for non-human dimension NGOs and academic/research institutions working on early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management, and post-conflict rehabilitation issues. The Section especially seeks to exchange information with those academic and research institutions focusing and publishing information on the OSCE.
Human Rights Defenders Current Status To assure protection of the human rights defenders, the OSCE established the Focal Point for Human Rights Defenders and National Human Rights Institutions. Its function is to monitor the situation of human rights defenders, identify issues of concern, and seek to promote and protect their interests.

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Key Legal Texts

Freedom of Association

Helsinki Final Act, 1.VII 1975
Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE, II.(9.3), II. (10.1-3) 1990
Charter of Paris for a New Europe 1990
Document of the Moscow Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE, (43) 1991
Helsinki Document, The Challenges of Change, VI 1992

Civil Society

Helsinki Final Act, 1. VII 1975
Helsinki Document, The Challenges of Change, IV.12-18 1992

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Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

The OSCE Human Rights Dimension is a set of norms and activities related to human rights and democracy and one of the dimensions of security. The Human Rights Dimension encompasses all aspects related to human rights and fundamental freedoms; democracy, including democratic elections and democratic governance and institutions; tolerance and non-discrimination; the rule of law; and national minorities, human contacts, and international humanitarian law. The Human Rights Dimension Thematic Compilation includes an overview of the OSCE commitments and the instruments for monitoring the progress in achieving these commitments. These commitments are not legally binding norms; instead, they are politically binding - a political promise to comply with the standards elaborated in the OSCE documents. Follow-up meetings to review the implementation of the commitments is based on the principle that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension directly concern all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the state at issue.

Freedom of Association

The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 recognizes the necessity for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms as the matter of international concern:

VII. The participating States recognize the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for which is an essential factor for the peace, justice and wellbeing necessary to ensure the development of friendly relations and co-operation among themselves as among all States. […]In the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the participating States will act in conformity with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They will also fulfill their obligations as set forth in the international declarations and agreements in this field, including inter alia the International Covenants on Human Rights, by which they may be bound.

A number of OSCE documents address the general issue of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of association. An overview of OSCE commitments can be found in the OSCE Commitments Related to Freedom of Assembly and Association, which was published in 2004.   

  • The Charter of Paris of 1990 asserts the right of every individual to freedom of association and peaceful assembly. 
  • The Copenhagen Document of 1990 guarantees freedom of association: “II.(9.3) The participating States reaffirm that […] the right of association will be guaranteed.[…];” In addition, “(10) […] the participating States express their commitment to (10.3) - ensure that individuals are permitted to exercise the right to association, including the right to form, join and participate effectively in non-governmental organizations which seek the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including trade unions and human rights monitoring groups.” 
  • The Moscow Document, adopted in 1991, addresses the issue of NGOs: “(43) The participating States will recognize as NGOs those which declare themselves as such, according to existing national procedures, and will facilitate the ability of such organizations to conduct their national activities freely on their territories; to that effect they will:
    • (43.1) - endeavour to seek ways of further strengthening modalities for contacts and exchanges of views between NGOs and relevant national authorities and governmental institutions;
    • (43.2) - endeavour to facilitate visits to their countries by NGOs from within any of the participating States in order to observe human dimension conditions;
    • (43.3) - welcome NGO activities, including, inter alia, observing compliance with CSCE commitments in the field of the human dimension;
    • (43.4) - allow NGOs, in view of their important function within the human dimension of the CSCE, to convey their views to their own governments and the governments of all the other participating States during the future work of the CSCE on the human dimension.” 

Civil Society Participation

Generally, any NGO, except those that resort to violence, may participate in OSCE activities such as meetings and conferences. The Section for External Cooperation under the OSCE Secretariat is responsible for organizing multilateral meetings and serves as a contact point for NGOs. In practice, some OSCE meetings are also preceded by the preparatory civil society meetings. 

The basis of NGO participation in OSCE activities is outlined in detail in the Helsinki Document 1992, adopted at the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). Through the Helsinki Document, the member states are committed to providing opportunities for increased NGO involvement in OSCE activities.

Member states commit to: 

  • apply to all CSCE meetings the guidelines previously agreed for NGO access to certain CSCE meetings;
  • make open to NGOs all plenary meetings of review conferences, ODIHR seminars, workshops and meetings, human rights implementation meetings, as well as other expert meetings. In addition each meeting may decide to open some other sessions to attendance by NGOs;
  • instruct Directors of CSCE institutions and Executive Secretaries of CSCE meetings to designate an "NGO liaison person" from among their staff;
  • designate, as appropriate, one member of their Foreign Ministries and a member of their delegations to CSCE meetings to be responsible for NGO liaison;
  • promote contacts and exchanges of views between NGOs and relevant national authorities and governmental institutions between CSCE meetings;
  • facilitate during CSCE meetings informal discussion meetings between representatives of participating States and of NGOs;
  • encourage written presentations by NGOs at CSCE institutions and meetings, titles of which may be kept and provided to the participating States upon request;
  • provide encouragement to NGOs organizing seminars on CSCE-related issues;
  • notify NGOs through the CSCE institutions of the dates of future CSCE meetings, together with an indication, when possible, of the subjects to be addressed, as well as, upon request, the activations of CSCE mechanisms which have been made known to all participating States. 

According to OSCE’s procedural rules, only “persons and organizations which resort to the use of violence or publicly condone terrorism or the use of violence” may be barred from participating in the OSCE meetings (Helsinki Document 1992, The Challenges of Change, IV (16)). 

An additional human rights forum in the region is the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), which includes participants from both governments and civil society. The OSCE member states have an opportunity to discuss the implementation of human dimension commitments that were adopted by consensus at prior OSCE Summits or Ministerial Meetings. These review conferences are open to all civil society organizations and serve as an important means of holding governments accountable. There are also three informal Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings organized within the Permanent Council. 

In 2007 individual member states attempted to introduce criteria for NGO participation in the HDIM, though these efforts failed. In 2009 the official delegation of the Russian Federation walked out of the Meeting in protest whenever the representatives of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society spoke. Moreover, the Russian Federation announced that it would boycott the next HDIM if certain NGOs are invited to participate.

On the national level OSCE field missions have established “Aarhus” centers in the countries of South-eastern Europe, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, which are intended to give greater access to civil society participation in consultations on environmental issues.

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Freedom of Association Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly (2007)

Final Report on the Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Assembly, Association, and Expression: 2007

OSCE Commitments Related to Freedom of Assembly and Association: A guide prepared for the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Warsaw, 13 October 2004.
Civil Society The Year in Review: OSCE Human Dimension Activities in 2009

EU Statement on NGO Participation in the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, HDIM: 2009

Recommendations from the Civil Society Preparatory Meeting to the OSCE High Level Conference on Combating Discrimination and Promoting Mutual Respect and Understanding: 2007

Recommendations from the NGO Preparatory Meeting for the Tolerance Implementation Meeting on Promoting Inter-Cultural, Inter-Religious, and Inter-Ethnic Understanding: 2006

Recommendations from the NGO preparatory meeting to the Tolerance Implementation Meeting on Addressing Hate Crimes Data Deficit: 2006

Conclusions of the NGO Preparatory meeting for the 2nd OSCE Tolerance Implementation Meeting: 2006
Human Rights Defenders Human Rights Defenders in the OSCE Region: Challenges and Good Practices (2008)

Human Rights Defenders in the OSCE Region: Our Collective Conscience (2007)

Extracts from the Consolidated Summary of the 2004 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting related to the Freedom of Assembly and Association: Report of the Rapporteur: 2004

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While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change.  If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at ngomonitor@icnl.org.

General News

Roundtable in Warsaw discusses accountability of and access to funding for associations (May 2014)
Key challenges in ensuring the independence and accountability of associations, as well as providing for their funding, were the focus of a roundtable discussion organized in Warsaw by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the European Commission for Democracy through Law of the Council of Europe (Venice Commission) on 6 and 7 May 2014. During the discussions, Ziya Tanyar, a lawyer at the Division of Democratic Institutions and Fundamental Rights of the Venice Commission Secretariat, stressed that "funding regulations should not obstruct the autonomy of associations and their ability to pursue statutory activities, nor should such regulations be discriminatory."

Protecting Peaceful Protest: The OSCE/ODIHR and Freedom of Peaceful Assembly (February 2013)
A new article reviews ongoing work to increase awareness of, and raise standards in relation to, freedom of peaceful assembly across Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. The work is led by the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) at the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE).

Defending human rights in Belarus: Two years after the crackdown (December 2012)
Russia is trying to “re-Sovietize” Eastern Europe and Central Asia under the auspices of a Eurasian Union, the 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe heard last week.  “We know what the purpose of these efforts is and we are trying to find effective measures in order to slow down or stop this process,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She stressed how “distressing” it is that 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, “so many of the hoped-for indicators of progress are retreating.”

OSCE Supplementary Meeting on Freedom of Assembly held November 8-9 in Vienna (September 2012)
OSCE Supplementary Meeting on Freedom of Assembly and Associations on November 8-9 in Vienna will address freedom of association: obstacles to the full realization of this right and ways to overcome them; freedom of peaceful assembly and new challenges and opportunities for dialogue; and freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the role of new technologies. The outcomes of the meeting recommendations will be made available to participating States, the OSCE at large, OSCE institutions, including the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, OSCE field operations, other inter-governmental organizations, as well as civil society actors in OSCE participating States. Registration is open October 1 - 24.

OSCE media freedom representative concerned by arrest of social media activists in Belarus (September 2012)
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, said that she was deeply concerned by the detentions and arrests of administrators of political social media groups in Belarus, which she described as a crackdown on online dissent. “I have repeatedly called on Belarusian authorities to stop persecuting journalists and bloggers. Unfortunately, recent detentions and searches in Minsk and elsewhere in the country show continued efforts to muzzle dissenting voices and clamp down on freedom of expression online,” Mijatović said. Law enforcement officers in Minsk and Vitebsk detained the administrators of opposition groups using the Russian vkontakte.ru social media network. Among them were Pavel Yevtikheev, Andrey Tkachev, Roman Protasevich and Oleg Shramuk. Investigators also searched the apartment of Sergei Bespalov, confiscating his computer.

OSCE suggests travel bans in response to Russia’s NGO Bill (July 2012)
The OSCE has chided Moscow on its human rights record and urged governments to impose sanctions by banning visas and freezing the assets of Russians connected to the death of a crusading lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky. The OSCE’s suggestion is similar to that of the US Magnitsky Act. This move comes days after the Duma gave approval to a restrictive NGO bill.

All participating States must intensify real steps to defend media freedom, says OSCE media freedom representative (May 2012)
Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, urged all governments of the 56-nation OSCE to take real steps to secure freedom of speech. "All OSCE participating States should recommit to their democratic values by deeds rather than words," she said in Tunis at an international conference marking World Press Freedom Day.

OSCE representative on freedom of the media urges Tajikistan to end shutdown of Facebook and other websites (April 2012)
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has urged Tajikistan to end a shutdown of Facebook and several Russian-language websites that published material critical of the nation's leader, President Imomali Rakhmon. Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, said in an appeal to the Tajik government she hoped that the ban of Facebook and the other websites would not set a precedent. She said the "Internet should remain an open public forum for discussion and free expression of opinions, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." She said she sent a letter to Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi on March 5 to express hope that "access to Facebook and the four news websites would be restored without delay." Facebook's popularity has soared in Tajikistan, with membership doubling last year to 26,000 people. Several Facebook groups openly discuss politics and some users have been critical of the authorities.

OSCE Chief Calls for Return of OSCE Presence in Belarus (February 2012)
The new Irish head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is calling for the reinstatement of an OSCE presence in Belarus, where he says the “continuing erosion of human rights” is cause for concern. Ireland's deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister, Eamon Gilmore, spoke Wednesday in Washington before the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government body monitoring European human rights.

News Archive

Chairperson condemns new restrictions on freedom of assembly and association in Belarus (October 2011)

Lamberto Zannier Appointed New OSCE Secretary General (July 2011) 

Turkish OSCE veto causes a stir (June 2011)

National human rights institutions need clear mandate, resources and independence, speakers at OSCE meeting say (April 2011) 

ODIHR publishes updated compilation of OSCE human dimension commitments (April 2011) 

Outcome Document of the Parallel OSCE Civil Society Conference (December 2010)

Parallel Conference sets strong precedent for civil society-OSCE engagement (December 2010) 

OSCE Centre encourages young people’s political participation in Kyrgyzstan (October 2010)

Statement by IPHR and six other human rights NGOs to the OSCE Review Conference on challenges faced by human rights defenders in Central Asia (September 2010)

Does an International Investigation in Kyrgyzstan Have Backing? (July 2010)

OSCE Chairperson announces agreement on summit, calls Kyrgyzstan crisis a 'vitality test' for Organization (July 2010)

Lavrov Says OSCE Too Easy on NGOs (May 2010)

OSCE Human Rights Chief to Visit Armenia for Talks on Justice Reform (April 2010) 

Kazakhstan Chairmanship Pushes for OSCE Summit in 2010 (March 2010)

OSCE tells Kyrgyzstan to stop censoring online news (March 2010)

OSCE Chairperson meets Belarus President, welcomes country's engagement in OSCE efforts to address new challenges, strengthen Organization (March 2010) 

Kazakhstan Raises Questions over OSCE’s Direction (January 2010)

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