Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
In July 2020, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) published a report on the impact of COVID-19-related emergency measures on human rights and democracy. It shows that the pandemic has been a challenge to the commitments made by OSCE members and is disproportionately affecting already vulnerable groups.
Albania has held the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2020. However, six rights organizations said that human rights in Albania deteriorated in several areas in 2020. In December 2020, Albania passed the OSCE chair to Sweden.
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 57 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 Secretariat consist of a number of departments and unites focused on border management, combating human trafficking, conflict prevention and resolution, countering terrorism, cyber/ICT security, economic and environmental activities, gender equality, migration, and policing. 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. The Secretariat consists of a number of departments and unites focused on border management, combating human trafficking, conflict prevention and resolution, countering terrorism, cyber/ICT security, economic and environmental activities, gender equality, migration, and policing. In addition, OSCE operates through 16 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.
|Headquarters||Vienna, Austria (Secretariat)|
|Established||1995 (as OSCE; preceded by Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, established in 1975)|
|Founding Document||Helsinki Final Act|
|Head||Secretary General: Thomas Greminger (Switzerland)|
|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)
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||Liechtenstein||Sweden|
|Freedom of Association and Assembly||Legal Protection||Helsinki Final Act, 1. VII (1975)|
|Civil Society Participation||Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)||OSCE/ODIHR 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. |
Freedom of Association
|Helsinki Final Act, 1. VII||1975|
|Helsinki Document, The Challenges of Change, IV.12-18||1992|
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:
- Presumption in favour of the lawful formation, objectives and activities of associations;
- The state’s duty to respect, protect and facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of association;
- Freedom of establishment and membership;
- Freedom to determine objectives and activities, including the scope of operations;
- Equal treatment and non-discrimination;
- Freedom of expression and opinion;
- Freedom to seek, receive and use resources;
- Good administration of legislation, policies and practices concerning associations;
- Legality and legitimacy of restrictions;
- Proportionality of restrictions;
- 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.
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:
- Ministerial Declaration on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalization that lead to Terrorism
- Ministerial Declaration on Reinforcing OSCE Efforts to Counter Terrorism in the Wake of Recent Terrorist Attacks
- Inventory of Policy Documents and Legislation adopted by OSCE participating States and Partners for Co-operation on Countering violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism (last updated in December 2016)
The OSCE has continued to promote the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism since 2016. In March 2020, for example, the UN Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms asserted that, “The United Nations counter-terrorism architecture must do better in protecting human rights and the rule of law when they support and engage with national programmes.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Internal Squabbling Paralyzed OSCE (August 2020)
The terms of the OSCE’s four top leaders were set to expire in mid-July 2020, so the OSCE planned to reappoint each of them for another three-year stint. The extensions were widely seen as mere formalities. But on June 11, a letter of protest from Azerbaijan changed everything and culminated in the toppling of the OSCE’s entire senior leadership team one month later. The head of the OSCE, Secretary General Thomas Greminger, had to vacate his office along with the director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir, the representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Desir, and the high commissioner on national minorities, Lamberto Zannier. Azerbaijan refused to extend Desir’s term because it felt that the former French minister had shown “excessive criticism” of the press freedom in Azerbaijan. Tajikistan joined the protest and blocked the reappointment of Desir as well as Gisladottir, a former Icelandic foreign minister. Finally, Turkey came on board and also denied Gisladottir’s reappointment. The notes of protest caused a chain reaction. France and Iceland, together with Canada and Norway, moved to deny the reappointment of Greminger and Zannier.
Outrage at ‘authoritarian’ Hungary after parliament endorses Emergency Bill (March 2020)
The Hungarian Parliament’s approval of a controversial coronavirus-related emergency bill that allows journalists to be jailed for up to five years has raised the ire of international NGOs and led to a former UN ambassador calling for Hungary to be kicked out of the EU. Former UN ambassador Susan Rice said in a very blunt tweet: “Kick Hungary out of the EU.” Similarly, OSCE Media Freedom Representative Harlem Desir said he was seriously concerned that “The law risks penalizing independent journalists rather than disseminators of disinformation.”
Belarusian human rights watchdog wins OSCE award (March 2020)
Human Rights Centre Viasna (‘Spring’) has received the 2020 Democracy Defender Award. The award honours a person or group for exceptional contributions to the promotion of democracy and the defense of human rights in the spirit of Helsinki Final Act principles and other OSCE commitments. It was established in 2016 to recognize the enormous contribution civil society makes to defending and promoting democracy.
OSCE Pushes for Political Compromises in Albania (March 2020)
OSCE Ambassador in Albania, Bernd Borchardt, organized a meeting of the Political Council on Electoral Reform with representatives of OSCE participating states and Albanian international organizations to encourage compromises on political reform.
OSCE warns Ukraine over disinformation bill (February 2020)
A new bill aimed at curbing the spread of disinformation in Ukraine could pose a risk to freedom of expression, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe warned. Unveiled by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government in January, the bill criminalises “the dissemination of disinformation” amid a conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the country’s industrial east.
OSCE warns Ukraine over disinformation bill (February 2020)
A joint statement released on July 10 was drafted by the Special Rapporteurs for freedom of expression of the Organization of American States (OAS), the United Nations (UN), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), with the support of international civil society organizations Article 19 and the Centre for Law and Democracy. The purpose of the annual declarations has been “interpreting human rights guarantees for freedom of expression, thereby providing guidance to governments, civil society organisations, legal professionals, journalists and media outlets, academics and the business sector,” the document says.
Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw (September 2018)
HDIM of OSCE is Europe’s largest annual human rights and democracy conference. The meeting takes place in Warsaw from September 10 to 21, 2018.
ODIHR launched new version of Legislationline.org database (July 2018)
On 27 July ODIHR launched a new version of the free legislative database which supports OSCE participating states in bringing their legislation into line with international standards as a reference tool. The new website is more user-friendly, available in English and Russian.
ODIHR’s new guide to assist civil society in building lasting coalitions to address intolerance and discrimination (June 2018)
The guide aims to provide a practical basis for building successful coalitions to address anti-Semitism, discrimination i general and build more peaceful and tolerant society
Addressing Anti-Semitism through Education: Guidelines for Policymakers (May 2018)
ODIHR in collaboration with UNESCO published a guide for educating learners to resist contemporary anti-Semitism. The guide provides concrete solutions to counter prejudice and promote tolerance through education.
Venice Commission criticizes Ukraine’s bills on financial disclosure requirements for NGOs (March 2018)
Stringent financial reporting and disclosure requirements for NGOs and activists in Ukraine, coupled with severe sanctions, are likely to have a chilling effect on civil society and should be fully reconsidered, the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR said in a joint opinion adopted Friday.
Italy’s OSCE Chairmanship: priorities and programme (January 2018)
“We intend to foster a comprehensive security approach that should address also transnational threats, while protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms and investing in education and culture, as well as in the empowerment of women and youth,” said the new OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Italy, Angelino Alfano. Promoting the universality and indivisibility of all fundamental rights, in addition to combating all forms of discrimination and intolerance is one of the priorities of the Italian Chairmanship.
Human Rights Are the Core of the Answer rather than an Obstacle to Addressing Terrorism (December 2017)
The participants of the OSCE Parallel Civil Society Conference adopted the Vienna Declaration which calls on the OSCE participating states and institutions to prioritize safeguarding of human rights while combatting terrorism.
ODIHR Director: reacting to violence and discrimination against women should become a reflex for all of us (December 2017)
On the sidelines of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Vienna, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir stressed that all OSCE participating States have committed themselves to preventing and combatting violence against women. “Security of the person is one of the first rights spelled out in the Universal Declaration, and violence against women, including sexual violence and harassment, is the most basic violation of that right” – said Gísladóttir.
Improving co-operation between government and civil society in Ukraine (December 2017)
OSCE/ODHIR and the Council of Europe Office in Ukraine co-organized a conference to spur a constructive dialogue and discuss best practices in establishing partnerships between state institutions and non-governmental organizations.
Exploring ways to enhance transparency and public participation in lawmaking in Georgia (December 2017)
At a workshop co-hosted by ODIHR in Tbilisi, ODIHR experts shared examples of good practices in enabling and enhancing public participation in parliamentary legislative activities. MPs, representatives of civil society and international organizations examined practical solutions that the parliament could use to make its work more open and participatory.
Spanish authorities to ensure respect for freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression (October 2017)
Following reports of the dispersal by force of protests and assemblies by Spanish police trying to prevent the holding of a referendum in Catalonia that had been suspended by Spain’s Constitutional Court, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, Director of the OSCE/ODHIR called on the Spanish authorities to ensure respect for fundamental freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression.
OSCE/ODIHR report: threats and attacks against human rights defenders have continued to increase (September 2017)
The report assesses the implementation of the international standards outlined in the Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. “The findings in this report point to a shrinking of public space in which civil society is able to effectively play its important role in helping to protect and promote the human rights of the members of all of our societies,” emphasized Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, Director of OSCE/ODIHR.
Political participation of persons with disabilities – new ODIHR booklet (September 2017)
The ODIHR booklet is intended to raise awareness not only about current challenges to the participation of persons with disabilities, but also about existing OSCE and other international commitments in this area.
Youth engagement contributes to developing active citizenship skills and to creating effective policies that adequately address the needs of young women and men (September 2017)
Representatives of governments, civil society and youth lead organizations explored the challenges and effective practices for youth engagement throughout OSCE area of a side event of the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw on 18 September 2017.
OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting: Dialogue and the open exchange of ideas among countries and with civil society are vital to democracy and the promotion of human rights (September 2017)
Some 1,600 government representatives, human rights activists and experts gathered in Warsaw, Poland for the two-week meeting, where they reviewed the progress made by governments in implementing their commitments in the fields of human rights and fundamental freedoms, democratic institutions and governance, and tolerance and non-discrimination.
OSCE/ODIHR Opinion on the draft act on the National Freedom Institute – National Centre for Development of Civil Society of Poland (August 2017)
The Opinion details numerous concerns regarding a newly proposed, centralized institutional set-up for overseeing civil society in Poland and recommends to introduce measures or safeguards limiting potential government interference in the institute’s work. The National Freedom Institute will be established under the prime minister’s office, and will distribute public funds from the government and the European Union among Poland’s 100,000 CSOs. (Update: Poland’s President signed the bill into law on October 13.)
Meet ODIHR’s new Director: Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir (July 2017)
Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir of Iceland assumed her new duties as Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). She stressed the importance of ODIHR’s work as the main OSCE institution in the human dimension: “ODIHR’s mandate and role in assisting governments and civil society in meeting their commitments is vital.” Gísladóttir succeeds Michael Georg Link of Germany.
ODIHR expert panel assesses restrictions on peaceful assembly in OSCE States (June 2017)
The ODIHR Panel of Experts on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly concluded that many OSCE participating States still tend to regard assemblies as a threat to public order and safety, rather than the exercise of a fundamental right.
OSCE-wide Counter-Terrorism Conference 2017 (May 2017)
Almaty hosts 8th annual forum on Internet development in Central Asia (May 2017)
OSCE to Shut Office in Armenia (May 2017)
Human rights-based approach key to effectively countering phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters (April 2017)
OSCE/ODIHR-Venice Commission Opinion on Two Draft Laws on Guarantees for Freedom of Peaceful Assembly in Ukraine (April 2017)
OSCE/ODIHR Opinion on the Draft Amendments to the Legal Framework on Countering Extremism and Terrorism in the Republic of Kazakhstan (April 2017)
OSCE/ODIHR Opinion on the Draft Law of Ukraine on Public Consultations (April 2017)
Austria’s priorities for 2017 OSCE Chairmanship (January 2017)
2016 in Review: OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Steinmeier (December 2016)
Access to Information: This Is Your Right! #WPFD2016 (April 2016)
Effectively responding to violent extremism online (April 2016)
Are women getting their say in politics? (February 2016)
OSCE ODIHR keen to open new page in ties with Baku (February 2016)
OSCE/ODIHR hosts meeting on human rights defenders in Hungary (November 2014)
Defending human rights in Belarus: Two years after the crackdown (December 2012)
OSCE Chief Calls for Return of OSCE Presence in Belarus (February 2012)
Turkish OSCE veto causes a stir (June 2011)
Outcome Document of the Parallel OSCE Civil Society Conference (December 2010)
Lavrov Says OSCE Too Easy on NGOs (May 2010)
OSCE tells Kyrgyzstan to stop censoring online news (March 2010)
Kazakhstan Raises Questions over OSCE’s Direction (January 2010)