Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am a member—together with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, and colleagues from another place—of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the OSCE. The question tonight is about the OSCE and not the Parliamentary Assembly, although there is a connection to which I will return.
Noble Lords here tonight will know the history of the OSCE, but for the record, and to emphasise the breadth of its membership and activities, I will briefly outline its structure and history. Its origins go back to the early 1970s and the East-West détente, and the formation of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, which became the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1994. In the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 the participants agreed commitments in three security dimensions—political and military, economic and environmental, and human rights—and also agreed 10 principles to govern relations between the member states and their peoples.
There are 56 member states, from Vancouver to Vladivostok, including the largest and the very smallest nations: the USA and Canada in North America, through all Europe to the Caucasus, and into Eurasia, Russia and Kazakhstan. Even the Holy See is a member. The highest decision-making body is the Meeting of Heads of Government, or summits. These are infrequent, the last being in Astana. The Ministerial Council meets once a year unless there is a summit. The last was in Vilnius, last December, at the conclusion of the Lithuanian chairmanship, that role having being taken up at the beginning of this year by Ireland.
The Permanent Council, attended by our Permanent Representative, discusses and decides upon current developments in the area. It meets weekly in Vienna, as does the Forum for Security Co-operation, the chairmanship of which rotates among the member states on a four-monthly basis.
The Vienna Document requires states to share information on their military forces, equipment and defence planning, and provides for inspections and evaluation visits. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is involved in the implementation of OSCE commitments to democracy, rule of law and human rights, and plays a particular role in the monitoring of elections. The High Commissioner on National Minorities addresses the problems of ethnic tensions in member states, and works with the states to improve legislation related to such issues. The Representative on Freedom of the Media acts as a watchdog to promote compliance with OSCE values on freedom of the media.
The OSCE is also involved in areas of vital interest to the United Kingdom and its European Union partners. A list of its operations and missions is a roll call of actual or potential trouble spots: Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It is involved in all these vital areas. Important work is done on the ground in activities essential to any state governed by rule of law and democracy, and to all the states in the region, such as control of the spread of illegal arms and border control.
In 2010 the local office in Kosovo, which I visited in November last year, was involved in the following activities: monitoring community rights; property rights, including resolution of problems arising from returning refugees; human rights; rule of law issues; development of the police service; anti-trafficking training; good governance and support for the Kosovo assembly; support for the electoral process; assisting the media regulator; promoting police and public partnerships, and many other initiatives.
The organisation has relations with other international and regional organisations and with Asian and Mediterranean partners for co-operation. The organisation and the Parliamentary Assembly have already been involved in monitoring elections in Tunisia, in which the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, took part.
A Conflict Prevention Centre works on problems which include Moldova and Transnistria, and Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. The Office of the Co-ordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities works on the problems of hazardous waste, energy security and sustainable development in places where—particularly in Soviet times—there appears to have been rather less concern for the environment and the damage caused by industrial process.
Lastly, a Department of Management and Finance provides financial management and administrative advice to participating states.
I believe that there is a considerable lack of knowledge about OSCE and what it does, not just in the wider world but, with great respect, also in Parliament itself. I therefore pose some questions to Her Majesty’s Government. Do the Government consider the OSCE to still be a relevant organisation? Do they believe that an organisation based on consensus can work, when the position of Russia on issues such as Georgia makes resolution almost impossible? Do we co-ordinate our efforts in OSCE with our European Union partners? Surely it is a forum where the elusive CFSP could begin to work. Apart from our budgetary contribution, how far are we prepared to go in funding secondees to assist in the work of OSCE? A 2010 report showed that we provided 48 people. How many are financed now by additional finance beyond our budget?
Why is it that we hear so little from Her Majesty’s Government about OSCE, about our position in that organisation and the policies that we seek to promote in it? Since May 2010 there has, as far as I can see, been only one Written Statement following a ministerial meeting. No separate Statement was issued after the Astana summit. The 18th ministerial meeting in December in Vilnius did not even merit a Statement, written or otherwise, to either House of Parliament. The most we have is a blog on the FCO site by my right honourable friend Mr David Lidington, and I thank him for it—any information is welcome—but is a blog, however good, an appropriate way to inform Parliament?
If Her Majesty’s Government are convinced of the importance and relevance of the OSCE, surely Statements, written or otherwise, should be made to Parliament after every summit and every ministerial meeting, formal or informal; and from time to time Parliament should be brought up to date with the proceedings of the Permanent Council and the Forum for Security Co-operation. With weekly meetings of both in Vienna, it is difficult to believe that there is nothing in the course of a year which merits some report to Parliament.
This is where I square the circle with membership of the Parliamentary Assembly. As a member of the Parliamentary Assembly, I would find it much easier to fulfil the role of the Parliamentary Assembly, which includes, though not exclusively, assessing the implementation of OSCE objectives, discussing subjects addressed at the OSCE Ministerial Councils and summits, contributing to the development of OSCE and its institutional structures and relations, and co-operation between the existing institutions of the organisation.
The Parliamentary Assembly has problems about the way in which its business is transacted and the use of the time available, but that is for the Parliamentary Assembly to resolve. Without the information, there is no point in putting the time to better use. I believe that Her Majesty’s Government could help these objectives to be better fulfilled if Parliament and the public were better informed about OSCE activities. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, on initiating this debate. I know that it is normal to congratulate those who have initiated a debate, but in this case he really has broken important new ground. I very much agree with the thrust of what he said, although I find it hard to distinguish between the work of the OSCE as a whole and the work of the Parliamentary Assembly. I prefer to see them as part and parcel of a wider issue.
I have been on the Parliamentary Assembly since the previous election and I have attended two meetings in Vienna and Belgrade. In the next month or two, there will be another meeting in Vienna. In my discussions with colleagues, there is little awareness of the work of the OSCE. It might almost not exist. The first time I told people that I was off to the OSCE in Vienna or wherever it was, most people asked, “What is that?”. Even Members of this House and the Commons asked that and I had to explain. There is something the matter with an organisation, which involves a lot of good work, effort and money on the part of its member Governments, if its work is so little known and regarded.
At the first meeting in Vienna about a year ago, I was quite astonished. The OSCE local office in Belarus had just been closed by the regime and we were looking forward to hearing the OSCE official who had been in charge of Belarus. He was due to give us a report on the situation prior to his expulsion, but he did not turn up and we were unable to discover why. In terms of his own ability, there was certainly no reason for him not to come to the meeting, but something in the OSCE bureaucracy stopped him.
I very much appreciate a lot of the good work that has been done by the OSCE, to which the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, referred in some detail and which I shall not repeat. The local offices do good work. Clearly, election monitoring is very important and involves a lot of the organisation’s time and energy. The OSCE produces regular bulletins and reports on the situation in many countries about which there are concerns that are invaluable for keeping members of the Parliamentary Assembly informed of what is going on.
I was also appointed to a group of four parliamentarians who looked at the situation in Moldova. We had one visit to Moldova and to the Transdniestrian part of Moldova, which was a useful approach. We are going to continue with that and do some follow-up work. Having said that, I am still aware that one has to explain very hard to people what we are doing and why we are doing it.
In terms of the effectiveness of the organisation, the OSCE operates from three centres—Vienna, Copenhagen and Warsaw—which seems a little excessive for an organisation of that size. I am not totally clear why it has to be done in that way. I have two main criticisms. First, there is a lack of connection between what the OSCE does and the Parliamentary Assembly. Very little of the work of the OSCE and its many facets come before the Parliamentary Assembly, which is the one body that can properly scrutinise what is going on. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we have got into this position. It seems to me that the Parliamentary Assembly really has one main function: to scrutinise, monitor and oversee the work of the OSCE, the local offices, election monitoring and so on. It is very hard to get feedback on that at the Assembly meetings. This disconnect does not seem proper. I very much hope that the Irish presidency will be able to do something about that.
Surely we need proper accountability by the OSCE to the Parliamentary Assembly. I cannot understand how it can work unless there is such accountability. After all, we and the Commons are here in order for the Government to be accountable to Parliament. I cannot see why we have a Parliamentary Assembly that does not have a similar form of accountability. After all, it happens in the European Parliament. Even the Council of Europe seems to have more accountability than there appears to be in the OSCE.
My key point is that every organisation needs to have within itself the ability to assess on an ongoing basis its efficiency and effectiveness. We do not do it as well as we might at Westminster but we certainly do it. I should like to feel that the OSCE had some form of mechanism that did the same thing, otherwise we have no sense that the money is being spent in the best possible way or that the work is being done as efficiently as possible. We should look at the outcomes to see whether our priorities are right. It is a general proposition that organisations should assess their efficiency and effectiveness, but it certainly applies to the OSCE.
I should say that I have enjoyed my attendance at the Parliamentary Assembly and learning about the OSCE. Despite my criticisms, it does a lot of good work. I should like to know more about it. It is an odd comment to make that I have learnt more about the OSCE from the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, than I did in many days of attending Parliamentary Assembly meetings, looking at my e-mails and so on. There is something the matter. Noble Lords might say that that is my fault, but I do not believe that it is. I believe that something is amiss when we have to have a debate such as this to learn about an organisation on whose Parliamentary Assembly I serve.
As I said, I believe that the OSCE does good work. It has the supreme advantage that it includes the United States and Canada, which the Council of Europe does not. We get a broad spectrum of countries that can bring their experience and strength to bear on the many difficult issues in some countries, such as breaches of human rights, problems with elections and so on. I congratulate the OSCE on its good work but I would like to see better scrutiny and more accountability.
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in expressing very warm thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, for securing this short debate. His experience of intergovernmental organisations is extensive and it is too rarely that this House has the benefit of hearing and learning from that wide experience.
My knowledge of the OSCE in no ways matches the noble Lord’s but it goes back a long way. I first became involved nearly two decades ago through the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR for short—an acronym I shall continue to use, although it does not sound as enthusiastic as it might. It is the OSCE’s work in relation to democracy, human rights and the rule of law about which I want to make a few remarks this evening.
In the mid-1990s, that office was headed by a very distinguished British public servant, Audrey Glover, who was a former legal adviser to the Foreign Office and a most eminent contributor to human rights and the rule of human law. This was the time when the newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union were beginning to reform their legal systems and prison systems. ODIHR was in the forefront of that work and did a great deal of good.
Over the years, the work of ODIHR has developed in line with the changing times. Now, as the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, pointed out, much of it is concerned with how far elections are free and fair. For example, last Thursday, 12 January, an OSCE report was released on the state Duma elections held in Russia in December. That report noted that although the elections were technically well administered, the election administration was not independent. The count was characterised by frequent procedural violations; there were instances of apparent manipulation, including several serious instances of ballot box-stuffing; and there was undue interference by state authorities at different levels. Therefore, the election was slanted in favour of the ruling party. I am sure the Minister would agree that having an independent report like this in the public domain is invaluable and that probably only the OSCE could produce it.
A fair and impartial legal system is the bedrock of a state run according the rule of law. For some former Soviet countries, it has been a hard struggle, a struggle that is still going on, to achieve that. I am sure the Minister would also agree that a conference held in Ukraine last month about strengthening the independence of Ukraine’s judiciary, where specific and pragmatic suggestions for change were made, was important not just for Ukraine but for the rest of us in Europe.
Next week, ODIHR is organising a visit to Croatia for officials from the Ministry of the Interior and the security services training school in Tajikistan to learn about the methods of teaching on human rights and countering terrorism used by the Police Academy of Croatia. I imagine that we can all see the advantages of such a programme, and once again the OSCE is the organisation best placed to arrange it. However, in case this sounds a little theoretical, I want to bring in a little personal experience.
A year ago, I attended a number of events organised by the OSCE office in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to coincide with UN Human Rights Day. I much appreciated the efforts of our excellent and hard-working embassy there to arrange my participation and to support the events. One of the events was a very big meeting to consider a report of the ODIHR election observation mission on the 2010 parliamentary elections in Tajikistan. The meeting was well attended by large numbers of what might be called “ordinary people”: that is, not officials or young people with laptops, but elderly women who looked as if they had had to walk a long way to get to wherever they picked up transport eventually to reach the capital and a lot of men who obviously came from a lifetime of agricultural work. A very passionate discussion took place and it was clear how much democracy mattered to these people.
On my second visit, which was this year, the OSCE office allowed me to attend a meeting of the non-governmental organisations they worked with and supported in the law enforcement and justice sector. These organisations tried among other things to provide legal representation to arrested people, to raise concerns about ill-treatment and to visit prisons—not easy or very safe work. The support from the OSCE was enormously important to them and made it possible to do that work, otherwise it would not have been done.
Why is this important and why should the UK support it perhaps a little more energetically than it does at present? The promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law is in the interests of all of us, and the work of the intergovernmental organisations that support it has made a huge difference to the shaping of the post-Soviet world. The OSCE brings to that reshaping two important factors: first, it has a broader remit than the Council of Europe; and, secondly, it brings together security and human rights. That conjunction is vital if we really want a more secure world.
The OSCE calls its human rights work the human dimension, and the human dimension is indispensable for real security. Additionally, its work is very important in countries that are not in the Council of Europe: the countries of central Asia, for instance. For them, the OSCE provides a forum where they can interact with European colleagues on an equal footing through regional and international events, allowing them access to expertise and best practices that they would not otherwise encounter.
What is Government’s policy on seconding British expertise to the OSCE and in particular to ODIHR, where people from the United Kingdom made such a contribution in the past? Are we still enthusiastic about seconding people? Do we encourage groups to come here to see good practice: for example, in dealing with violence against women, where we have some of the best services and approaches in the world which those involved would be most willing to share, or in detention monitoring and security sector reform? Does the FCO offer UK expertise to ODIHR when it is looking for help with training, such as in human rights and the rule of law? How far do the Government see the OSCE’s work in human rights, democratisation, the protection of minorities and resolving conflict as a valuable part of the achievement of UK ambitions in these areas? If indeed the Government value that work, could they perhaps develop ways of showing that enthusiasm a little more than they do currently?
My Lords, it is reasonable and fair from time to time to point a finger at any organisation. Rather like the small child who had the unfortunate experience of watching Lord Randolph Churchill canvassing and pointed his finger and said, “Mama, Mama, what is that man for?”, it is quite fair to point a finger at an organisation from time to time and say, “What is that organisation for?”. There will be more of that later on in my speech.
It is also very important to judge the OSCE against the things to come in 2012; 2012 may see more dangerous moments than have been seen at any time since the end of the Cold War, the events of 9/11 included. The litany is long and scary: Iran, North Korea, India-Pakistan and the side-winds of withdrawal from Afghanistan, Syria and the flashpoints around Mediterranean. Add to that not just that Russia at the end of December fired a salvo of two Bulava-30 intercontinental missiles from the White Sea to hit its targets on the Kamchatka peninsula, nearly 5,000 miles away, at exactly the same time as China formally confirmed for the first time in a statement from its Ministry of National Defence that it had also successfully fired from a submarine some Julong-2 ballistic missiles in the face of the imminent Taiwanese elections, and the atmosphere for 2012 can be seen to be pretty turbulent, to put it delicately, at a high level.
All these issues arise in the middle of severe economic difficulties in Europe and the US that affect our capabilities in everything from conflict prevention and resolution to hardcore defence. The West must not fail in economic regeneration, for the old USSR failed as its old economic system failed and lost as a result military and economic power, which are simply inseparable.
Yet the new economic reality demands difficult but necessary cuts in capabilities of all sorts. We see this with the United States. I do not know the current view of the United States Government on the OSCE, but President Obama issued new strategic guidance on 5 January this year, coincidentally just after those Russian and Chinese missiles started flying. His announcement demonstrated that, just as we in the UK once faced up to the need to withdraw from east of Suez, so the US is now pulling back a bit, for reasons that I fully understand, from west of Suez. It is quite clear and quite deliberate. This is not only in the face of the difficulties of funding the most capable armed forces that the world has ever seen—the Pentagon being much larger than that of the next 10 countries combined—but, I sense, because President Obama sees himself as a Pacific president and not as a European president. Unfortunately—and I think this applies right across the political spectrum in the United States—the US also sees most European countries as not even, when the going was good, fulfilling their defence responsibilities to the extent of, let us say, spending 2 per cent of GDP per annum, with the honourable exceptions of France and of the United Kingdom. Not only that but the forces that they do have left are not deployable. My right honourable friend Philip Hammond was right to say earlier this month in the US:
“Too many countries are failing to meet their financial responsibilities to NATO, and so failing to maintain appropriate and proportionate capabilities”.
Less diplomatically, I would say that most NATO countries are getting a free ride. It is because of that and because of American disillusion that we see, Dover beach-like, the slow, almost unnoticed, withdrawal of once very detailed and intense American involvement in Europe. Their attention is going elsewhere. I do not see this as declinist in any way; I simply see it as realistic and reasonable on the part of the United States. We must set the OSCE against this background. I do so declaring my interests as recorded, but also I have nothing in the way of foreign affairs expertise to declare—no membership of even the smallest think tank.
How should we see the OSCE? It is itself a creature of the Cold War, as my noble friend Lord Bowness said in his splendid introductory speech, but now boasts 56 members, ranging geographically in a pretty contorted way from the US all the way through to those “-stans” in central Asia. None of the countries at either end of this geographical arc is exactly European, although the core of the membership most certainly is. No longer is the OSCE a Cold War forum for better East/West understandings as it once was. It now has—and I have done my research—three self-styled dimensions: politico-military, economic and environmental, and human.
Conflict resolution, for example, is part of its remit, and I applaud that. It does excellent work. However, it is interesting watching the delightfully titled—and I do not make this up—“chairperson in office” at the head of the OSCE. That is what he is called. The rest of his title is Irish DPM, Eamon Gilmore. When presenting his 2012 priorities last week in Vienna on 12 January, he ranged over an extraordinarily lengthy and sprawling shopping list, from protecting freedoms of expression in the digital age to money-laundering and back again. It is very hard to get one’s hands and arms around these concepts as always necessarily being integrated. Discussion of money-laundering must be very interesting indeed, and I imagine sometimes quite amusing, when Governments of member countries like Belarus or Montenegro are brought to account.
The big question in asking what the OSCE is for is whether we would today invent such a geographically extraordinary, democratically diverse and sometimes very unfocused organisation that is largely unknown to most politicians and opinion-formers, let alone to the general public. We would almost certainly not invent it in its present form, despite the good work that has been done, which I do recognise; it has, for example, brought Russia to the bar of world opinion over the Georgian situation, tried to help resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and all the rest.
Am I going to say that it should be abolished? Again, probably not, at least not at the moment, on the grounds that it is there; that it brings together all sorts of good countries, indifferent countries, bad countries, and some very bad countries indeed from Europe and central Asia, in the spirit of jaw-jaw being better than anything else; and that it tries to encourage the setting of better standards and freedoms, even if these are much more honoured in the breach in the case of Belarus and a number of the aforementioned “-stans”.
Does it need reform, and does it need more focus? Surely the answer is that someone has to get a grip on this organisation, reform it and give it some focus so that one can point one’s finger at it. I will then readily understand what this organisation is for. To get greater credibility, even though it is a consensus-driven organisation, it might have to face up to suspending some of its freedom-repressing members until they decide to reform themselves rather than benefit from the cloak of respectability that is thrown around their shoulders from simply having OSCE membership bestowed upon them. It is politically very poorly led. No one is getting a grip on it or giving it a political lead.
I end on this point. In March this year, NATO, which is in high-profile difficulty, as many of your Lordships will know, hopes to begin to try to resolve at the forthcoming Chicago summit of NATO countries some of the difficulties that are facing it. OSCE’s difficulties are of a much lower profile. As a number of other distinguished speakers have already said, it has such a low profile that most people do not know that it exists. However, it too needs the treatment of such a summit, or of some similar mechanism, urgently to resolve what it is really for. I do not know the answer to that at the beginning of 2012.
My Lords, once again the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, has done the House a service in raising this Question for Short Debate about the future of the OSCE. We would all like to thank him and my noble friend Lord Dubs for the work that they do on its parliamentary assembly.
As my noble friend Lord Dubs said, many people, including many parliamentarians, have probably never heard of the OSCE and there is always a temptation—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, is going in that direction—to see the organisation as some kind of redundant hangover from the Cold War, an organisation that has outlived its time, a fossilized relic of the past. You can think of all the phrases. On this side of the House we would certainly agree with him that the Government should be asking the OSCE to justify itself. There should be more information in this House and in the other place about the activities of the OSCE and the value that it is creating. However, from listening to the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, my noble friend Lord Dubs and the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, it is clear to me at least that it would be wrong and misguided to rush to the judgment that the OSCE should go. We say that because it is a multilateral organisation—we are committed supporters of multilateralism—working in one of the most difficult and troubled areas of the world. The Deputy Prime Minister does not get many tributes these days, but he deserves a generous tribute for his decision to attend and speak at the OSCE’s summit in Kazakhstan just over a year ago.
We live in a dangerous world where, if anything, the trends are against multilateralism and commitment to multilateral organisations. Emerging powers such as China put much more emphasis on their own sovereignty, not on working together in multilateral organisations. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, referred to the trends in the United States to focus on the Pacific and, with the necessity for huge defence cuts, pull in its horns in Europe. It seems to us that that means that we should tread warily in dismissing the value of the OSCE, given the work that it does.
It feels like a long time since the collapse of the Soviet Union and since the OSCE’s members signed up to the Paris charter in which they declared their belief in a,
“new era of democracy, peace and unity”.
We know that that lofty ambition has not been fulfilled. Vladimir Putin has redefined democracy in Russia as something he calls “sovereign democracy” and we do not know quite what that means. There has been a war in Georgia between two OSCE members and there are many other troubles throughout the region.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, that we can be critical of the OSCE’s work and say that it is inadequate, but it is doing something to deal with human rights abuses, democratic flaws and the absence of the rule of law in some of the most difficult areas possible. Of course the responses are inadequate. If you have an organisation where 56 participating members have to agree and one of them is the mighty Russia, it is going to be difficult to get things done. However, the role that the OSCE plays in the areas of election monitoring, human rights and media freedom is a valuable one. It is a bit better than a case of “stick with nurse for fear of something worse”. There is a real role for this organisation.
From this side of the House, we would like to know what the Government think about the possibilities of making the OSCE more effective. My noble friend Lord Dubs asked some relevant questions about the relationship between the organisation and the assembly that is supposed to monitor it. He asked what steps have been taken to review its efficiency and effectiveness. The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, asked whether we support it, whether the Government are prepared to back it with resources—I am thinking of staff secondments in particular—and whether we are prepared to use our diplomatic efforts to build alliances within it. For instance, do we work in it within an EU framework as we now do in many international organisations?
The OSCE could be more effective in partnership with the European Union. My noble friend Lady Crawley gave me the latest edition of the magazine that we get from Azerbaijan, which referred to my noble friend Lady Ashton’s visit there quite recently when she talked about the EU working with the OSCE Minsk Group in trying to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. We have leverage over the EU as well as being members of the OSCE. How are we working to try to make those interventions more effective? The EU has real leverage that it can bring to bear in terms of its budgets, its trade access and of course visas.
The work of the OSCE is more relevant in the Balkans where there is enlargement fatigue regarding the EU. If we think that we are not going to be able to get enlargement in the next decade or so, we need to continue to support the OSCE. More than that, we can see within the region that many troubles are likely to flare up in future. We have seen in the recent Duma elections in Russia the need for proper election monitoring. We saw the role that the OSCE played in monitoring the farcical elections in Belarus. If anything, these problems will mount in future; they will not go away. It will therefore be important, from the perspective of noble Lords on this side of the House, to feel that the Government are taking this seriously and have a strategy for making the OSCE as effective as possible.
My Lords, if the world were straightforward, and all states were democratic, I am sure that we could have a number of effective, well organised and well respected international organisations.
In thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, for initiating this debate, I should say that I was reminded how far back we all go. Some of us will remember the Helsinki Declaration and the Final Act of 1975, and the extent to which that set of criteria—particularly the human rights dimension—was part of the way in which democratic states gained leverage over socialist states. Dissidents within those states felt empowered because they were able to quote at their rulers the standards which they had signed up to. I remember in particular some extremely brave former dissidents in Prague, whom I got to know in the early 1990s, who told me how they used to quote these things at length at the secret policemen who were inspecting and searching their apartments when they were holding meetings there. I also remember, as a former think-tanker and, at one point, the secretary of the British-Soviet Round Table, the extent to which the fact that the Soviet elite wanted to be thought of as civilised Europeans gave us some degree of leverage over their behaviour.
After that, when the CSCE became the OSCE in the early 1990s, there was a brief period of tremendous optimism that it would become a core organisation for a post-socialist Europe. Those hopes were disappointed, but nevertheless I would argue, and Her Majesty’s Government would argue, that it remains a useful organisation—even though it so often operates in the margins of international relations—with the constructive ambiguity of providing modest leverage to improve the behaviour of states which are perhaps less democratic and less concerned about the rule of law than many of us would like.
I should declare an interest. I spent some time working with my former employer, the London School of Economics, in a series of training courses for Kazakh officials before they took over the OSCE chairmanship. It was a useful exercise, partly because we saw a large number of Kazakh officials who were interested in the role of the OSCE and how it affected Kazakhstan’s role in the world. Therefore, this is all part of a process at the margins, in which we begin to inform each other about our different domestic standards.
However, the nature of the organisation, which, as noble Lords have remarked, is based on consensus, is that all progress is slow and major change is rare and hard earned. I would suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, that, if there are good arguments for remaining an inclusive organisation, which I would suggest there are, then pulling states such as Russia along with us—let alone Ukraine, Belarus or Uzbekistan—takes a great deal of effort. One sometimes feels one is not achieving very much, but it is the nature of diplomacy that persistence is required to achieve slow progress on this range of issues. One often feels that very little progress is being made—as indeed it did feel in the mid-1980s—but eventually one makes real progress.
Noble Lords have mentioned that there are three dimensions. There is the security dimension, on which a Written Ministerial Statement was laid in both Houses on 25 November 2011, advising of the British decision to take legal and proportionate countermeasures against Russia in response to Russia’s suspension, in 2007, of participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe verification arrangements. On the second dimension, which is the economic and environmental dimension, most of the work is quiet and expert, and a matter of missions coming and going, but, as noble Lords have suggested, it is nevertheless useful work. Much of our debate so far has been about the third dimension, the human dimension in all its complexity, including in particular the work of ODIHR in inspecting elections.
I am informed that the OSCE is much better known among the public and Parliaments of those member states east of Vienna. It is not as well known in Britain, partly because we need the OSCE less. I inquired about this and am happy to remind noble Lords that there was indeed an OSCE mission to observe the British general election. That is quite right; there had to be. There was an OSCE mission to observe the previous US presidential election, which I understand did not manage to agree the quality of its report. The OSCE mission to oversee the Duma elections will be repeated to oversee the Russian presidential elections. I imagine that a number of us will look forward avidly to that report when it comes.
Some noble Lords asked for much greater efficiency and effectiveness in the organisation. Of course, we would all like that. However, when one is moving with a number of very reluctant member states—I have spent a lot of time since 1989, as well as before, arguing with senior Russian officials—one can only move slowly. One also needs to be careful to preserve the autonomy of the secretariat. The United Nations itself is not a perfect or efficient—or often effective—organisation. Nevertheless, it is a useful organisation. We all recognise the limits within which we have to operate.
The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, asked a range of questions, which I will try to follow. On his question about whether the OSCE has joint EU operations within it, I am informed that it was one of the first bodies to which the EU applied joint action post-Maastricht. The United Kingdom supports that. However, nearly half the membership is now drawn from the membership of the EU, and one has to say that on a number of sensitive issues there is not entire consensus within the EU. The relations that some EU members have with Russia, for example, are very different from those that the UK would wish to have. The amount of pressure that is put on Russia in view of its role in some of the frozen conflicts with which the OSCE is dealing varies from EU member state to member state, so what we are able to agree in the EU context about OSCE policy is not always as coherent as the United Kingdom would wish.
Therefore, we have a mixed record on frozen conflicts. The Minsk Group, the group that deals with Georgia and the various consultations that deal with the Moldova-Transnistria conflicts have not made as much progress as we would have wished. Progress in the Balkans has been rather better. I remind noble Lords that the largest of all the OSCE field missions is the mission in Kosovo, which continues to work. Progress in the Balkans has been a great deal more encouraging.
The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, asked how far we are prepared to go in funding secondees. We currently fund three civilians in OSCE field presences but have no further plans at the moment to finance additional secondees. The 2010 report suggested that we were funding some 48 national secondees. I can confirm that, as of the beginning of last year, we were indeed funding 48 UK national secondees and contracted staff, of whom three are funded by the UK Government through the FCO budget and the others through the common budget.
The question of how much the Government should report to the two Houses on the OSCE is one that we take on board. Perhaps there should be more Statements to Parliament. That is something that we will take back and consider. With hindsight, we recognise that noble Lords might have welcomed a Written Ministerial Statement about the Astana summit in December 2010, where the British delegation was led by the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Vilnius Ministerial Council in December 2011.
Perhaps there is an argument for greater visibility but much of the useful work of the OSCE is done partly because an enormous amount of political capital is not made out of it. We regret that there is on occasion a degree of rivalry between the Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE’s secretariat as such and we would very much like to see the Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE secretariat working more closely together. We encourage members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to bring what they have learnt back into the British debate. I recall that on one occasion the noble Lord, Lord Judd, did his work on Chechnya through the Council of Europe Assembly and brought that back very actively into the British Parliament.
I think that the OSCE operates from four centres, not only from three. I think that there is also an office in The Hague. I will check that and will write to the noble Lord, but that is one of the necessary ways in which international organisations have to operate. The EU, after all, has offices scattered through the majority of member countries. However, I agree strongly with the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, that only the OSCE could have provided the quality of report that it did on the Duma elections. This is not in any sense a perfect organisation but it provides useful work. It works by consensus, which is both its strength but also its weakness as it means that decision-making is ponderous when each participating state has an effective veto on most substantive action.
This Government believe that if the organisation did not exist there would be a significant gap in the family of international organisations, particularly in respect of wider European security issues. We will therefore support fully our Irish colleagues throughout this year in their chairmanship in office in our own right and, as appropriate, in concert with a large number of like-minded partners which we have within the organisation. The nature of the OSCE all but excludes earth-shattering new developments and agreements. Nevertheless, it plays a valuable role in European security in promoting the values which we and many of our partners share.