What is the OSCE–and why is it having a moment of truth in Ukraine? Called the “least bad option” by Richard Gowan of NYU, it was common to debate the role of this until-recently-more-obscure, European regional security organization, until Russia chose to takeover Crimea.
More than ever before, the situation in Ukraine — and within the OSCE during this crisis — prove that we must finally adjust the consensus-based decision-making which prevents collective action against blatant violations of OSCE commitments.
The OSCE as an organization must resolve that it will not be taken hostage by any one state to remain silent and helpless while human suffering and brutal aggression continue.
The OSCE as an organization must resolve that it will not be taken hostage by any one state to remain silent and helpless while human suffering and brutal aggression continue. OSCE parliamentarians have long called on the governmental side to consider new rules — perhaps consensus minus one or two, or two-thirds-majority or some procedure that prevents a single country veto by a transgressor. Achieving this change will no doubt be a diplomatic battle royale, but this current episode has demonstrated just how much we need to take it on
Gowan explains on CFR.org the past view of OSCE:
The OSCE is the perennial also-ran among Europe’s security institutions. It lacks NATO’s military clout and the European Union’s economic resources. Its main strength is that it includes all the countries of Europe and the former Soviet Union, as well as the United States and Canada, but it is often hard to forge consensus among such diverse and sometimes antagonistic members.
The organization was prominent in the 1990s, when it offered a framework for Western and Eastern states to manage the crises that flared up in Europe after the Cold War: it sent peacemaking missions to the former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Moldova, and other trouble spots. It also handled questions such as the status of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states, which had the potential to spark conflict with Moscow. The OSCE had officials in Crimea in the mid-1990s trying to ease tensions between ethnic Russians and Tatars.
Although the OSCE developed expertise on issues such as minority rights and good governance, it began to lose momentum in the early 2000s. In recent years, it has ended up tending to long-standing conflicts, like the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, rather than taking on new challenges. It still has officials dealing with complex, if low-priority, problems like the future of the Serb minority in Kosovo, but the OSCE as a whole has been weakened by the mounting tensions between Russia and the West.
So the OSCE tends to be an afterthought until one of the half-resolved problems left over from the 1990s, like the status of the Crimea, explodes again and makes it relevant.