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 19 August 2016

Introduction

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the largest regional security organization in the world, with 57 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 Border Management 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 57
Established 1995 (as OSCE; preceded by Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, established in 1975)
Founding Document Helsinki Final Act
Head Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Germany) (2016) (annually rotating chairmanship);
Secretary General: Lamberto Zannier (Italy) (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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Members

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

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At a Glance

Freedom of Association and Assembly 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)

Guidelines on Associations (2014)

Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly (2014)

Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly: Second edition (2010)

Human Rights Handbook on Policing Assembly (2016)

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 in 2007, 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. In 2014 OSCE launched Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.  

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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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Overview

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 Relating 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.”

The joint OSCE/ODIHR and Venice Commission Guidelines on Freedom of Association adopted in 2014 offer advice and expertise on how to legislate on freedom of association-related matters, in a manner that is compliant with international human rights standards and OSCE commitments. They also reflect evolving good state practices, and are intended to enhance awareness of the above right in general. This is a practical toolkit to legislators tasked with drafting laws, which regulate or affect associations, but also to associations, members of associations and human rights defenders, to support advocacy in this field of human rights law.

As the main principles for protection of freedom for associations the Guidelines list:

  1. Presumption in favour of the lawful formation, objectives and activities of associations;
  2. The state’s duty to respect, protect and facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of association;
  3. Freedom of establishment and membership;
  4. Freedom to determine objectives and activities, including the scope of operations;
  5. Equal treatment and non-discrimination;
  6. Freedom of expression and opinion;
  7. Freedom to seek, receive and use resources;
  8. Good administration of legislation, policies and practices concerning associations;
  9. Legality and legitimacy of restrictions;
  10. Proportionality of restrictions;
  11. Right to an effective remedy for the violation of rights.

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. 

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.

Counter-terrorism

With its expertise in conflict prevention, crisis management and early warning, the OSCE contributes to worldwide efforts in combating terrorism. Many effective counter-terrorism measures fall into other areas in which the OSCE is active, such as police training and border monitoring. The OSCE also looks at human rights issues in relation to counter-terrorism.

Recently, OSCE participating States adopted two declarations at the 2015 OSCE Ministerial Council, which address the issue of preventing extremism and importance of joint efforts in combating terrorism, including through implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions 2170, 2178, 2199 and 2249. The declarations also underline the importance of the rule of law and fundamental and human rights in mutually reinforcing counter-terrorism efforts:

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Reports

Freedom of Association

Joint Guidelines on the Freedom of Association (2014)

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)

Freedom of Assembly

Human Rights Handbook on Policing Assembly (2016)

Second report on monitoring of freedom of peaceful assembly in selected OSCE countries (2014) 

Handbook on Monitoring Freedom of Peaceful Assembly (2011)

Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly: Second edition (2010)

Civil Society

Overview of OSCE Counter-Terrorism Related Commitments (2015)

Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (2014)

Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (2014)

Civil Society Recommendations for the 10th Anniversary of the OSCE’s Berlin Conference on Anti-Semitism (2014)

Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (2014)

Freedom of expression and hate speech (2013)

Civil Society Recommendations to the participants of the OSCE Ministerial Council Meeting in Kiev (5-6 December 2013)

Dublin Declaration adopted by the OSCE Civil Society Parallel Conference in Dublin: Security of Human Rights Defenders: Time for OSCE to Act (2012)

Conclusions of the NGO Preparatory meeting for the 2nd OSCE Tolerance Implementation Meeting (2006)

Human Rights Defenders

Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (2014)
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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News

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.

Key Events

Concluding Meeting of the 24th OSCE Economic and Environmental Forum
14 September 2016 - 16 September 2016, Prague, Czech Republic, Czernin Palace

General News

OSCE media freedom representative urges protection for journalists reporting on civil unrest in Armenia (August 2016)
At the end of the siege of police headquarters in Yerevan, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović sought reassurance from the foreign minister of Armenia that journalists’ rights and safety during times of civil unrest would be protected.

UN Special Rapporteur and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media deplore crackdown on journalists and media outlets in Turkey (July 2016)
Two top holders of media freedom mandates of the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) condemned the ongoing crackdown on journalists and the media launched by Turkish Government in the wake of the attempted coup.

A High-level OSCE Counter-Terrorism Conference (May 2016)
Violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism can only be effectively addressed through a broad range of measures, co-ordinated in a joint international effort, the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said as they opened a high-level OSCE-wide Counter-Terrorism Conference in Berlin.

Access to Information: This Is Your Right! #WPFD2016 (April 2016)
This year's World Press Freedom Day puts the focus on the inter-connectivity between press freedom, a culture of openness, the right to freedom of information and sustainable development in the digital age. Journalism is the key enabler for all of these. It is therefore crucial to safeguard those who bring the service of journalism to the public.

Effectively responding to violent extremism online (April 2016)
While the 21st century has brought us many new ways of communicating, there have been examples all over the world of spreading destructive messages through those peaceful means.  

Are women getting their say in politics? (February 2016)
How has women’s participation in politics changed in the last 20 years in the OSCE region? A new guide published by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in February 2016 examines the trends and brings together a wealth of good practices on advancing women’s position in politics.

OSCE Official Calls On Azerbaijan To Release More Prisoners (March 2016) (March 2016)
A top official with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has welcomed Azerbaijan's recent release of some civil-society activists and journalists and called for the release of more people believed imprisoned for political reasons. Michael Georg Link, head of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), said in a press release that the release was "a positive, welcome step."

Interview with the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier (March 2016)
Interview with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Chairperson-in-Office of the OSCE in 2016.

Oligarchs and Political Elites vs. Media Freedom and Civil Society (March 2016)
During her six years as the representative on freedom of the media of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Dunja Mijatović has seen an erosion of press freedom in many of the organization’s 57 member states. Look at what happened in Turkey on March 4. The police raided the offices of the Zaman newspaper, whose journalists had criticized Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian policies.

ODIHR expresses appreciation for work of Poland’s Commissioner for Human Rights (March 2016)
The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) joined with other global and regional intergovernmental human rights organizations and experts in issuing a statement of appreciation for the work of Poland’s national human rights institution, the Commissioner for Human Rights, on 1 March 2016.

OSCE ODIHR keen to open new page in ties with Baku (February 2016)
The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights seems to open up new page in the relations with Azerbaijan, which saw definite disagreements lately.

EUAM and OSCE brought together officials and civil society to discuss the challenges of reforming the justice system in Ukraine (November 2015)
On 27 November 2015, the European Union Advisory Mission and OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine organized the second meeting of the “Parliament-Civil Society Platform” on the topic “Constitutional Reform in Part of Judiciary: Fair Wind and Hidden Pitfalls”. The event was held in the hotel “Hilton” in Kyiv and brought together over 100 officials, parliamentarians, experts, civil society activists, judiciary and journalists to discuss the judicial reform in Ukraine.

News Archive

OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Baku discontinues its operations in Azerbaijan (July 2015)

ODIHR Director Link calls on Armenian authorities to respect right to freedom of peaceful assembly of protesters in Yerevan (June 2015)

Freedoms of association and assembly cornerstones of democracy and security (April 2015)

Freedom of Assembly in Crimea Occupied by the Russian Federation (April 2015)

OSCE/ODIHR and Venice Commission launch guidelines on freedom of association (March 2015)

Restrictive measures toward Russian journalists reporting from Ukraine excessive (February 2015)

OSCE/ODIHR opens mission to observe parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan (December 2014)

OSCE/ODIHR hosts meeting on human rights defenders in Hungary (November 2014)

OSCE/ODIHR director raises case of Azerbaijani human rights defender (October 2014)

Recommendations to facilitate establishment and functioning of associations (September 2014)

Political will is key to ensuring the protection of human rights defenders (June 2014)

Roundtable in Warsaw discusses funding for associations (May 2014)

Protecting Peaceful Protest: The OSCE/ODIHR and Freedom of Peaceful Assembly (February 2013)

Defending human rights in Belarus: Two years after the crackdown (December 2012)

OSCE Supplementary Meeting on Freedom of Assembly held November 8-9 in Vienna (September 2012

OSCE media freedom representative concerned by arrest of social media activists in Belarus (September 2012)

OSCE suggests travel bans in response to Russia’s NGO Bill (July 2012)

All participating States must intensify real steps to defend media freedom, says OSCE media freedom representative (May 2012)

OSCE representative on freedom of the media urges Tajikistan to end shutdown of Facebook and other websites (April 2012)

OSCE Chief Calls for Return of OSCE Presence in Belarus (February 2012)

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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