The very model of a modern IGO

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was founded on the basis of the Helsinki Act of 1975, the first international agreement on human rights. Today, a major part of the OSCE’s work is in ensuring the independence of democratic institutions, including monitoring election processes and the press. As an inter-governmental organization, anti-terrrorism is inevitably included among its activities, above dealing with internet hate-speech. Here, opinion is divided within the organization about the appropriateness of filtering systems. A recent publication by the OSCE Representative of the Freedom of the Media proposes avoiding intervention.

There are countless numbers of international organizations endeavouring to lead the field in an age of heightened security awareness. Their founding mandates and modes of operation might differ significantly, but with time and the changing shape of the world, inevitably their role shifts. One of the earliest developments in the Council of Europe, for instance, was the creation of the European Convention on Human Rights; more recently, however, it has devoted much of its time to counter-terrorism and is pushing its problematic Convention on Cybercrime. The United Nations was founded to ensure world peace after World War II but it, too, is focusing on model laws and international agreements on terrorism, standardising powers internationally and ensuring the capacities of countries to conduct surveillance. No international organization today is immune from the security virus.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was founded on principles of security and co-operation. Over the years, despite institutional pressures to change, it remains a protector of human rights and civil liberties, disseminating and protecting both throughout its member states.

In the late 1960s, the Warsaw Pact countries, a military alliance of the eastern European communist bloc, expressed the desire to hold a pan-European conference to foster economic co-operation between East and West. It was also intended to stabilise and legitimate the status-quo in Europe: Germany and Europe would remain divided.

In 1972, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) met in Helsinki and Geneva. Over the following three years, the 35 founding states negotiated the terms of the agreement. While economic co-operation was one of the main interests of the Warsaw Pact, acting on the principle that there can be no security without respect for human rights, the West lobbied to include human rights and civil liberties in the treaty. The Helsinki Final Act, adopted in 1975, groups activities in three so-called baskets: political-military, which addresses the military aspects of security; economic-environmental, which mainly addresses the issues of energy, the environment and economic development; and human, which focuses on the rule of law and the protection of human rights.

It was the first time East and West had come together on a humanitarian platform. With the adoption of the Final Act, human rights issues were no longer purely an internal matter for individual states; they became the legitimate concern of all members, who now had not only the right to intervene to protect them but the criteria against which to measure violations.

The political and social climate of the 1970s largely restricted humanitarian co-operation to such areas as travel, tourism and youth exchanges. The heightened Cold War climate of the 1980s nearly brought the whole Helsinki process to a standstill. But the Helsinki Final Act remained an important document for civil rights movements in eastern Europe. For the first time, they had a catalogue of principles signed by their own governments to which they could refer. Helsinki became a symbol for dissidents in a time of samizdat and imprisoned writers and intellectuals.

Today, the OSCE has 55 member states stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok and including all former communist countries. Partner states include the Mediterranean countries, Afghanistan, South Korea and Japan.

The “third basket” of the OSCE consists of three independent institutions. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in Warsaw was founded to help post-Soviet states hold democratic elections. It remains the organization’s main election observation body. The High Commissioner for National Minorities (HCNM) in The Hague uses quiet diplomacy to prevent conflicts and provides early warning of potential conflict situations. The Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFOM), instituted in 1997 and based at the organization’s secretariat in Vienna, is the youngest of the three institutions. The first representative, Freimut Duve of Germany, acknowledged the importance of the Helsinki process in the establishment of his Office:

When the OSCE established the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media with the right to intervene, this was only possible because of the particular Helsinki history. Without Solidarnosc, without Alexander Solshenyzin, without Vaclav Havel, without thousands of unnamed authors, many of whom were still serving prison terms from the 1970s, without all these the willingness to monitor press freedom on a supra-national level cannot be understood.

The organization argued that a free press safeguards the rule of law and acts as a watchdog on corruption and the arbitrary use of power by governments and corporations. Censorship curtails the exchange of ideas, innovation and social and economic development. Freedom of the media is mandatory for modern democratic societies and for affiliation to Europe.

Not that the OSCE is without its critics, even from within its membership, some of whom accuse it of double standards. A frequent complaint is that the OSCE picks on countries “east of Vienna” but does not criticise similar developments in the older democracies “west of Vienna”. While the observation is certainly true in the case of the media representative, intervention is justified by the reports of free expression organizations. They consistently show less press freedom in precisely those countries criticised by the representative – which are also those that complain of double standards. Their accusations are more often a tactic to silence criticism than the reflection of a justifiable cause for complaint.

Other participant states complain about a lack of balance in the OSCE’s attention to its three baskets. This focuses on the allegedly disproportionate amount of time devoted to the protection of human rights compared with its other mandated responsibilities in the economic field and in conflict prevention and early warning. Less humanitarian intervention, more assistance and training goes their argument, a contravention of the organization’s 30-year charter.

In spite of its activities in the “human dimension” – monitoring elections, protection of human rights and the NGO-style kind of work of the media representative–the OSCE remains an inter-governmental organization. Its focus may differ from other international governmental organizations but the actors are largely the same. It is no surprise that the OSCE includes the fight against terrorism and hate speech on the Internet among its activities.

Hate speech has been one of the most controversial subjects within the OSCE. While some are happy to leave the singling out of distasteful content to the marketplace of ideas, others want an outright ban. The office of the media representative is among the leading institutions supporting Internet freedom. Other voices within the OSCE are calling for a more restrictive approach on online hate speech and intolerance. In their desire to appear responsive to the offence this causes, they are attempting to institute filtering systems, block websites and more restrictive legislation.

Arguing against this, the Media Freedom Internet Cookbook sets out other, alternative mechanisms for countering intolerance online. Education and media literacy, not regulation, are the best filters, writes the current media representative, Miklos Haraszti, and it is at least arguable that the Internet functions best when left alone. Any Internet legislation is likely to cause severe collateral damage to freedom of expression and pave the way for even more restrictive measures. The “war against terror” will be always be fought on the Internet, says the OSCE. A workshop on the “Use of the Internet by Terrorists” is planned for the autumn of 2005. In spite of the dangers posed by terrorists on the Internet, the respective actors against this threat stress that human rights must be respected and should not be limited more than absolutely necessary. It is not only the right of freedom of expression that is at stake, but also the right to privacy and, eventually, other rights such as freedom of movement.

The OSCE is one of the major security policy bodies in Europe but its “third basket” gives it added value and distinguishes the “European 55” from all other IGOs. But it is, at times, a fragile union. Without the continuing commitment of all its participating states to civil liberties and human rights, the OSCE cannot remain true to its unique mandate.

Published 25 October 2005
Original in English
First published by Index on Censorship 3/2005

Contributed by Index on Censorship © Christian Möller / Index on Censorship / Eurozine

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