In Challenging Times, the OSCE Needs Principled Leadership

For millions around the globe, the end of a tumultuous 2016 brings with it hope and expectation, anticipation and uncertainty. 2017 promises to be a year of transitions. In the first weeks of the year, a number of significant political transitions are already underway. A new president takes office in the United States next week. Austria will swear in its new president only a few days later. Elections are on the horizon in France, Germany, Hungary, and potentially — depending on when President Putin decides to stage them — Russia.

The start of a new year also brings a change in leadership for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with Austria taking the baton as the OSCE’s 2017 Chair. Today, delegations from the Organization’s 57 participating States gather at the Hofburg for their first meeting of the year, where Austrian Foreign Minister and new OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Sebastian Kurz will lay out his vision for the Organization and its work over the next twelve months.

The stakes are high. Brexit, Russia’s manufactured conflict in Ukraine, migration pressures, shrinking space for independent voices in authoritarian states and backsliding democracies, and the rise of authoritarian populism have left many questioning the future of European security and whether countries — and their leaders — are capable of meeting the challenges of our time.

With Minister Kurz at the helm of the world’s largest regional security organization and a vital forum for countries from across Europe, Central Asia, and North America to address pressing political, security, and human rights issues, Austria is uniquely positioned to make a positive and long-lasting contribution to international peace and security.

Here are five ways Austria can work to ensure a successful OSCE chairmanship:

1. Maintain unity and focus on Ukraine: Russia’s manufactured conflict in eastern Ukraine and illegal occupation of Crimea continue unabated, with no indication that the Kremlin intends to make good on its commitment to live up to the terms of the Minsk Agreements. Moscow’s political, military, economic, and propaganda efforts to undermine Ukraine’s democratic progress remain Europe’s most pressing security challenge in 2017. Foreign Minister Kurz’s recent visit to Mariupol sent a strong signal that Austria will keep Ukraine at the top of the OSCE’s agenda. Maintaining political, financial and other needed support for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in eastern Ukraine, and advocating for expansion of the Observer Mission on the Russia-Ukraine border are critical to providing the international community with unbiased, factual information on the situation on the ground as diplomatic efforts to end the violence continue.

2. Demonstrate principled leadership: Austria is uniquely positioned to use its Chairmanship to advance our collective security and our shared values. Reaching consensus at the OSCE is difficult, and it is important not to fall into the trap of making the false choice between ensuring security or protecting human rights. The two go hand and hand. Standing up for fundamental freedoms, human rights, democratic principles, and universal values like equality, tolerance, and diversity contributes to security and stability within and among states. As Chair, Austria can be fair and balanced in holding all OSCE members — including the United States — to account for living up to these principles and commitments, and hold fast when countries deliberately seek to erode them.

3. Strengthen the OSCE and its institutions: 2017 will be an important transition year not only for leadership in OSCE states, but also within the OSCE itself. Identifying and selecting strong, competent, effective leaders for the positions of OSCE Secretary General, Director of the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Representative on Freedom of the Media, and High Commissioner on National Minorities will be critical to the Organization’s success. These selection processes should be transparent, competitive, and merit-based to ensure the appointment of highly qualified candidates who have the knowledge, skills, and experience to succeed. As Chair, Austria also wields great influence in negotiating the Organization’s budget, and could significantly improve the Organization’s internal operations by working to streamline and improve internal decision-making and administrative processes.

4. Open up the OSCE: It’s no secret that most people are unfamiliar with the OSCE and its work, in part due to the fact that the majority of the Organization’s work is done behind closed doors. Austria can help raise the profile of the Organization, win new partners, and build public support for the OSCE by enhancing civil society and public participation in the Organization’s work. Transparency and confidence building aren’t just hard security terms, as they are most typically used in the OSCE context — we owe it to our citizens to show them how their governments are working for them. Livestreaming Permanent Council meetings, advertising and enhancing opportunities for NGOs, academics, industry leaders and human rights activists to participate in OSCE events, and improving access for journalists to cover the OSCE would help the Organization live its principles and values more fully.

5. Mobilize the OSCE to address the challenges of our time: The OSCE is a unique forum, with all members of the EU, Russia, and Central Asian states at the table. Austria should leverage that to engage in real, meaningful dialogue on tough issues, not just reach agreement on low-hanging fruit. As Chair of the OSCE, Austria is the CEO of an organization with reach from Vancouver to Vladivostok, and has the opportunity to energize and elevate efforts to resolve protracted conflicts, and rally OSCE states and partners in the Mediterranean and Asia to improve the speed and quality of the international community’s response to emerging security challenges. Appointing special representatives for key issues can help focus conversations and identify a point-person to drive priority issues forward.

In a year of transition and change, principled Austrian leadership as Chair of the OSCE can make a meaningful and significant contribution to our collective efforts to realize a Europe whole, free, and at peace. As the Organization’s mantle holder, others are looking to Minister Kurz and his team not only to help resolve disputes and tackle security challenges, but to advance four decades of work to build democratic societies that are freer, more just, and afford people the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. It is a great undertaking, but it is the right one. By meeting the challenge with steely determination and anchoring its engagement in our shared values, I am confident Austria’s OSCE Chairmanship will succeed.

About the author: Daniel B. Baer serves as U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe