Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)


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The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is a security oriented intergovernmental organization. Despite its name, OSCE members come from around the world and not just Europe, including the United States and Canada. Recognized as a regional arrangement under Chapter VIII of the United Nations Charter, the OSCE is concerned with early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management, and post-conflict rehabilitation. The OSCE was originally created during the Cold War as an East-West forum. Today, however, the work of the OSCE is much broader and can be divided into three sections: the politico-military dimension, the economic and environmental dimension and the human dimension. Under the human dimension, the OSCE covers human rights issues such as freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and non-discrimination. Other issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex “marriage” do not currently arise at the OSCE.

The Helsinki Final Act 1975, also known as the Helsinki Accords or Helsinki Declaration, was signed in 1975 by 35 States following the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe held in Helsinki, Finland, during July and August 1975. The Act is not a treaty and is therefore non-binding. Similar documents were adopted in the decades that followed and are as follows: Charter of Paris for a New Europe 1990, CSCE Helsinki Document 1992: The Challenges of Change, Budapest Document 1994: Towards a Genuine Partnership in a New Era, Lisbon Document 1996, Istanbul Document 1999, and the Astana Commemorative Declaration: Towards a Security Community 2010.

Other OSCE documents include decisions made by the Ministerial Council and Permanent Council as well as resolutions made by the Parliamentary Assembly. All of the OSCE documents are considered to be non-binding in international law.

OSCE diagram

Key Bodies and Institutions

The OSCE is made up of decision-making bodies, operational bodies and a number of field operations that focus on specific issues. The most relevant bodies and institutions are outlined below.

Decision-making bodies

Summits are the meetings of Heads of State or Government of OSCE Participating States, and each summit sets priorities and provides orientation for the OSCE. The first summit took place in 1975, where the OSCE’s principal document, the Helsinki Final Act, was adopted. There have been eight summits in total, each resulting in a declarative document for the OSCE.

In periods between summits, decision-making and governing power lies with the Ministerial Council, comprised of the Foreign Ministers of the OSCE participating states. The Ministerial Council was established in 1990 and is considered the central decision-making and governing body of the OSCE. The Ministerial Council meets once a year to consider issues relevant to the OSCE. Each year it passes a number of decisions. These are not legally binding, but are expressions of political will.

Under the chairmanship of Ukraine, the Ministerial Council passed a decision on Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Religion or Belief in December 2013. The Decision called on Participating States, amongst other things, to “[f]ully implement OSCE commitments on the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief” and “[t]ake effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination against individuals or religious or belief communities on the basis of religion or belief.”

The Permanent Council based in Vienna, Austria, is the body for regular political consultation and decision-making. The Permanent Council is formed by the delegations of the 57 Participating States, although the OSCE’s 11 partner states may attend as observers. In the Plenary Meetings of the Permanent Council, the delegates raise issues relating to their own State or to other OSCE participating States. OSCE decisions have to be taken by consensus, meaning that there is no voting on issues and approval must be gained from all delegations. In the case of one or more delegations opposing a decision, the issue goes back into negotiation. Only once all the delegates are in agreement can the decision become politically binding for all the participating states.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE was established in 1990 to promote greater involvement in the OSCE by national parliaments in the participating states. The 323 member Assembly aims to facilitate inter-parliamentary dialogue and also pursues other objectives stated in its rules of procedure, for example: assessing Participating States’ implementation of OSCE objectives, and developing and promoting mechanisms for the prevention and resolution of conflicts. The Assembly has several meetings per year throughout Europe and one Annual Session held each July at a different location. At the end of each Annual Session there will be a Final Declaration and numerous resolutions adopted. The Assembly discusses a wide variety of issues and although the parliamentarians debate, vote and pass recommendations, the Assembly does not have any binding authority.

The Parliamentary Assembly also contains different committees, special representatives, secretariat, president and bureau. The bureau is comprised of the President, Vice-Presidents, Treasurer, Officers of the three General Committees, and the President Emeritus, and plays the role of ensuring that the decisions of the Standing Committee are implemented.

The three General Committees relate to the areas of the OSCE’s work, as outlined in the Helsinki Final Act: the General Committee on Political Affairs and Security; the General Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and Environment; and, the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions. The Standing Committee consists of Heads of National Delegations to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Members of the Bureau. There are also a number of ad hoc committees that address specific issues or areas.

The OSCE has also been the first major organization to recognize the growing trend in Western Europe of intolerance and discrimination against Christians. In July 2011, the Parliamentary Assembly passed a resolution on combating intolerance and discrimination against Christians in the OSCE region.

As members of the Parliamentary Assembly are elected representatives in the Member States of the OSCE, NGOs can contact the parliamentarians and engage with them in exactly the same way they would do domestically. A directory of all 323 Members, together with contact information, can be found on the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly website.

During the Annual Session, NGOs can put on side events on topics of their choosing. The side events present an excellent opportunity to raise issues with the Parliamentary Assembly members, and operate as spring boards for potential resolutions that may be adopted by the Assembly in the future.

Operational and executive bodies

The Chairmanship of the OSCE goes to a different Member State each year and is headed by a Chairman-in-Office – the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the participating state holding the Chairmanship. The Chair-in-Office is assisted by the former Chair and succeeding Chair. Together, the three form the OSCE Troika. The Chairman-in-Office has the overall responsibility for the executive activities of the OSCE, such as coordinating the work of the OSCE institutions and representing the OSCE to other international organizations and the Participating States. Each country that holds the Chairmanship is responsible to provide the personnel required to carry out the functions of the position.

The Chairman-In-Office has created several Personal Representatives to help tackle intolerance and discrimination. One of the Personal Representatives is tasked with Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, while also focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of other Religions. The Personal Representative conducts fact-finding missions, produces statements and presents an annual report to the Permanent Council of his or her findings.

The Secretariat is based in Vienna, Austria, and is headed by the Secretary General. The main function of the Secretariat is to provide operational support to the various bodies of the OSCE and coordinate the day-to-day management of OSCE structures. The Secretary General acts as the representative of the Chair-in-Office and is authorized to bring matters to the Permanent Council on behalf of the Chair-in-Office. The Secretariat has a number of subsidiary bodies including a Conflict Prevention Centre, Gender Section and Office of the Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings.

Based in Warsaw, Poland, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is the human rights institution of the OSCE. It promotes democratic elections, respect for human rights, tolerance and non-discrimination, and the rule of law. ODIHR was established in 1991 and is mandated to assist OSCE Participating States to promote human rights, the rule of law and the principles of democracy. ODIHR is tasked with promoting freedom of religion in the OSCE region, as well as other related issues such as freedom of expression and assembly and non-discrimination.

ODIHR organizes the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) – a two week human rights conference that reviews governments’ progress in putting their commitments into practice and gives NGOs a platform to raise concerns and highlight their issues.

NGOs can attend the HDIM and make oral interventions during the plenary sessions as well as organize side events during the lunch break and evenings. The HDIM brings together NGOs from around the world, as well as delegations from 57 countries and OSCE staff. Often, when a NGO makes an oral intervention that refers to a particular country, that country will then respond to the intervention with a right of reply. The direct interaction between NGOs and the participating states makes the HDIM a very lively and useful conference.

 ODIHR also organizes and facilitates Supplementary Meetings on specific topics throughout the year in various locations. NGOs can participate in these meetings in much the same way as they can at the HDIM – engaging in the plenary sessions and organizing side events. ODIHR has facilitated Supplementary Meetings on the issue of intolerance and discrimination against Christians in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

NGOs can attend Supplementary Meetings and make interventions during the plenary sessions as well as organize side events.

In 1997 the ODIHR established a Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The Panel formerly comprised of 60 members nominated by Participating States with an Advisory Council of around 15 experts nominated by the ODIHR. In 2012 the Panel was reformed and reduced to 12 members. The Panel provides advice to the ODIHR and OSCE Participating States helps the ODIHR develop guidelines on issues relating to religion or belief. Such guidelines include: the 2004 Guidelines for Review of Legislation Pertaining to Religion or Belief, the 2007 Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religion at State Schools and the 2014 (forthcoming) Guidelines on Recognition of Religious or Belief Communities.

NGOs are consulted on the documents that the Advisory Panel produces. For example, for the 2014 Guidelines on Recognition of Religious or Belief Communities, meetings with NGOs were held in Warsaw and Brussels to discuss the drafting of the guidelines. NGO participation in the work of the Panel is by invitation.

The Representative on Freedom of the Media is a subsidiary institution of the OSCE. The office of the Representative defends the media’s freedom of expression within the OSCE region. In recent years, the office ofthe Representative has been one of the few international institutions that has not shown unwavering support for “hate speech” laws and regularly issues press releases stating that speech should not be criminalized. In 2004, the Representative produced an extremely helpful publication entitled, “Ending the Chilling Effect: Working to Repeal Criminal Libel and Insult Laws.”


Although formed in the Cold War era as an East-West forum and predominantly a security-oriented organization, the OSCE is still a very important and relevant body for promoting human rights today. It commands a smaller budget than most other international organizations and has less formal powers; however, the OSCE does allow NGOs to interact directly with its Member States’ representatives and contribute effectively to its decision-making processes. It has also taken on other issues that other international organizations appear to neglect, including intolerance and discrimination against Christians, repeal of certain “hate speech” laws, and parental rights.

OSCE Ways to Engage: Checklist


  •  Attend and participate in the Human Dimension and Implementation Meeting and Supplementary Meetings – present written and oral submissions and organize side events.
  • Where possible, work with the ODIHR Advisory Panel on Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or belief.
  • Work with participants in the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE and Permanent Council to pass resolutions and decisions. Where possible, engage with the annual Ministerial Council and OSCE summits.
  • Present issues of concern to the Representative on Freedom of the Media and Personal Representative on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, also focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of other Religions.