Skip to main content

OSCE: Helsinki+40 Process

Volume 749: debated on Thursday 7 November 2013

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their priorities for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Helsinki+40 discussions; and what progress has been made.

My Lords, I will endeavour to comply with the rubric to limit this debate to 60 minutes. I note that the second rubric, however, limits me and all other speakers except the Minister to 10 minutes. Should I err, I will rely on the former rather than the latter.

My Lords, 2015 is the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act in which the participating states agreed principles to govern relations between member states and to work through three security dimensions or pillars: political and military; economic and environmental; and human aspects. I, the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and 10 Members from the other place form the United Kingdom delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

In January 2012 I asked what the Government’s assessment was of the role of the OSCE and whether they had any plans to increase awareness of it. On that occasion, the Minister made clear the Government’s support for the organisation and noted the difficulties under which it worked, especially the need for consensus. That is understood.

The Question before the Committee this afternoon was on the Order Paper for debate on a Thursday in late June, but since it attracted no more speakers than are due to participate today, I withdrew the same. Of course, today’s tabling now clashes with major debates on China and the Armed Forces. Nevertheless, it is perhaps surprising that in general there is so little interest in the affairs of the OSCE, which should be of some concern to Her Majesty’s Government if they still believe in the organisation.

I know that the noble Lord responding for the Opposition and my noble friend the Minister will be familiar with the OSCE and all its works, and for that reason I will not go into its role at great length. However, I should like to point out for the record that the OSCE’s own website tells the inquirer that there are 57 participating states. Its membership stretches from Vancouver to Vladivostok. All the largest and smallest countries in Europe and Eurasia are members. Mongolia has recently joined.

The OSCE addresses subjects as important and varied as arms control, confidence and security-building measures, human rights, national minorities, the democratic process, policing, counterterrorism and environmental activities. There is a ministerial council, which normally meets once a year. There is a permanent council and a Forum for Security and Co-Operation, which meet weekly in Vienna. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights works on the commitment to democracy and human rights and plays a particular role in monitoring elections. Other offices deal with freedom of the media, national minorities and conflict prevention. That is not a comprehensive list.

Important work is done in field missions, which are located in what is a roll call of areas of concern to this country and our European partners. The tasks undertaken include the training of police, judiciary and border control staff.

The OSCE’s website tells me that it employs 550 people in the various institutions and 2,330 in the field operations. The 2013 budget is nearly €145 million, of which the UK pays 9.3%. Excluding expenditure on field missions, the EU member states together contribute some 70%. I suggest that the organisation has a potentially important role, which I accept is made more difficult by the need for consensus and the fact that decisions, even if taken, are binding only politically and not legally. It is against that background that I formally ask the Question on the Order Paper this afternoon.

At the ministerial council in December 2012, the then chairman in office, Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, said:

“I am delighted that we have agreed to launch the Helsinki+40 process, setting out a clear path from now until 2015 for work which will significantly strengthen the Organization”.

The ministerial decision issued by the organisation, in language rather more opaque than that, welcomed,

“the initiative to launch the ‘Helsinki+40’ process as an inclusive effort by all participating States to provide strong and continuous political impetus to advancing work towards a security community, and further strengthening our co-operation in the OSCE on the way towards 2015”.

In that decision, forthcoming chairmanships were tasked with,

“establishing an open-ended informal Helsinki+40 Working Group at the level of … participating states”.

It requested,

“the current and incoming members of the Troika”—

the past, present and immediate future chairmen—

“and forthcoming Chairmanships”,

which means Ukraine, Ireland, Switzerland and Serbia,

“to propose the agenda of meetings of the …Working Group”.

It tasked the forthcoming chairmanships and the Secretary-General,

“to regularly take stock of progress made under the Helsinki+40 process, and report to the participating States twice a year, before the summer recess”—

I presume a report was made before the summer recess—

“and before the meeting of the … Ministerial Council”,

which will be in Kiev in December.

The enthusiasm for the whole process was shared by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, who said:

“A key outcome was agreement on a new initiative designed to inject a fresh dynamic into the OSCE as we approach the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act”.

Indeed, the American Permanent Representative, speaking to a working group meeting, said that,

“it is essential that civil society has a voice and prominent role in Helsinki+40 discussions”.

I ask Her Majesty’s Government what has been achieved in the light of that ambitious decision. What are the goals that Her Majesty’s Government are hoping to achieve within the process? What indicatives are they supporting in connection with reform of OSCE? What initiatives have been put forward by others? What initiatives are we taking as the UK within OSCE to try to resolve some of the outstanding so-called frozen conflicts? I cite Moldova/Transnistria, which according to the December ministerial council was a priority, Nagorno-Karabakh and the issues in Georgia.

What is our vision for the scope and role of OSCE? We welcomed Mongolia as a participating state in the past 12 months, but do we as the United Kingdom have a view about which other states might become participating states? What about Afghanistan and Pakistan? I do not expect an answer from my noble friend this afternoon, merely an assurance that issues about expansion are being considered—and not on a purely ad hoc basis.

In discussions about OSCE at Helsinki +40, do Her Majesty’s Government see a role for the Parliamentary Assembly? Do they agree that greater involvement for the Parliamentary Assembly would assist in supporting participating states in raising awareness of OSCE’s work? The Parliamentary Assembly spends considerable time on election monitoring. While in my opinion that is a valuable and important part of its work, I believe that it could have a wider political role. If Governments wanted the work of OSCE to have a higher profile, this could be a way of achieving that.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, reminded me this week that at the annual meeting in July he proposed a resolution on Guantanamo Bay, which was adopted and formed part of the 2013 declaration of the Parliamentary Assembly. Since then, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has visited the camp, but strangely enough the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, as a member of a national delegation, has not been able to obtain a copy of the report—the Parliamentary Assembly apparently does not have a copy. Can the Minister tell us how the UK delegation and indeed Parliament are to be informed about such matters? Will he please look into that problem and in due course advise how the information may be obtained?

In its 2012 declaration, the Parliamentary Assembly requested that at the end of every chairmanship in office, the OSCE should submit to the Parliamentary Assembly and its national delegations a concise report of the work of the organisation in time for debate at the winter meeting in Vienna in February. This seemed a fairly modest and reasonable proposal, if only because it was included as the result of an amendment submitted by me. I ask the Minister whether the Ministerial Council expressed a view and whether it is going to happen. What is the United Kingdom view? Lastly, I am grateful to the Minister and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Bach, on behalf of the Front Bench, for tolerating, listening to and having to respond to my monologue. I am sorry there is no one else to add to it.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, certainly does not have to apologise to me or, I suspect, the Minister. Indeed, we ought to congratulate him on securing this debate. He is right—it deserves a wider turnout because this is an important subject and I am delighted that he has persisted with the debate. Whether it is a small or large number of speakers, the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, has done the subject justice in his impressive and knowledgeable speech. I am delighted that the Minister is responding, because I understand that he has a deep knowledge of international relations, particularly the sort of organisation we are speaking of today.

The only problem with the noble Lord’s speech is that it does not leave me very much to say, let alone disagree with. The case for Helsinki +40 is good and it is clear-cut, as was the case for OSCE and its predecessors by name some four decades ago. My party has supported OSCE whether in government or in opposition, both as a forum for high-level political dialogue on security issues and as a platform for practical—and that is an important word—work to improve lives and communities. We believe as OSCE does, that the three dimensions of security, namely politico-military, economic and environmental and, thirdly, human, differences can be bridged and trust can be built through co-operation. From the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 to today is not only a long period in history, but it is obviously a time that has seen fundamental changes to Europe. The creation of CSCE served an important role, as I understand it, during the Cold War, and in 1994 it became OSCE. Now, nearly 20 years later, we believe it continues to play a significant role in today’s very different but still very difficult world.

I am delighted the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, mentioned the figures. It is impressive that of the roughly 2,700 staff, 2,100 or more are actually involved in field operations in south-east Europe, eastern Europe, the south Caucasus and central Asia. I would argue that it is this practical, on-the-ground work that is so crucial, whether it be observing elections, which is important in itself; restoring trust among communities post-conflict; or initiatives to support law enforcement and the rule of law, whether minority rights or legislative reform; or dealing with those protracted conflicts that the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, talked about a few minutes ago. All of it helps in building trust and working towards, in the words of the framework document,

“a free, democratic, common and indivisible Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian security community”.

We are a little way from that, I must confess, even in my most optimistic moments. We must not hide our eyes from the obvious tensions and disagreements, even disagreements about the role of the OSCE itself. It is hardly surprising in a body with 57 participating nations, all of which have their self-interest as well as a common interest. Looking at some of the comments made by Foreign Ministers at the Dublin ministerial, one gets a sense of that. Foreign Minister Lavrov complained about three-quarters of the activity concentrating on the human dimension and the emphasis, as he saw it, of all operations and projects in the Balkans and the territories of the former Soviet Union.

However, it is important to listen to the words of our colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, in her role as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who wrote on the same occasion:

“The OSCE should continue to play an important role in Europe’s security architecture based on its comprehensive security concept and the principles and commitments enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris. It should continue making best use of its field operations and autonomous institutions, which provide support to the participating States in putting their commitments into practice. These are valuable assets which no other security Organization possesses … After almost 40 years as an Organization, it would be worth looking at how to further enhance the efficiency of the OSCE, including its budgetary processes”.

We agree. That seems to be the real rationale for Helsinki +40, and we continue to support it.

I have two questions for the Minister. When we were in government, the UK provided up to 10% of observers to all OSCE election observation missions on an ad hoc basis. Is that still happening under the present Government; is their policy still to provide up to 10%? The second question comes back to something that the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, talked about. It is about parliamentarians, and Afghanistan in particular. The Lithuanian rapporteur’s report prepared for the OSCE Parliamentary Association’s annual session in June and July this year for the General Committee on Political Affairs and Security included a section on challenges facing the organisation in the wake of the ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan next year. What is Her Majesty’s Government’s view of the role that the OSCE, particularly parliamentarians, might play in the next two years in Afghanistan where, as the Committee knows, elections are due in both 2014 and 2015? What role might the OSCE itself play in wider security issues? I would be grateful if the noble Lord could answer, if not today, in due course. I look forward to his reply.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, very much for his insistence on having this debate. Like him, I am very disappointed that we have so few participants in it. The OSCE is an important organisation with an interesting history and which links the countries of the European Union, the United States and Canada to all the countries of the former Soviet Union. As such, it provides an opportunity for dialogue among Members of Parliament and Governments in those various countries across a range of issues, which we value.

We are all old enough to have been in at the beginning. I remember the negotiations in Helsinki in 1972 to 1974, which led to the final act of what became the conference on security and co-operation in Europe. The co-operation baskets which were negotiated were in effect a trade-off between an emphasis on security and arms control, confidence-building measures and the economic co-operation which the Soviet Union, as it then was, very much hoped for, including in particular a degree of technological transfer, and the human rights basket which the West wanted in return.

As a lot of us well remember, that led to the establishment of Helsinki groups in a number of eastern European countries. In the 1980s, when I was the British secretary of the UK-Soviet round table it certainly led to some very interesting conversations, in which our Soviet counterparts recognised that if they wanted to be accepted as a European country there were European standards, as expressed in the Helsinki Final Act, to which they had to pay some attention. That is still there in the background of what has become the post-Cold War OSCE. All the countries which emerged from the Soviet Union are of course members of the OSCE, some more enthusiastic than others.

With my London School of Economics hat on, the last time I was involved in the OSCE was in helping to train Kazakh officials in 2008-09 to become part of the presidency of the OSCE. I must say that they started off with slightly overambitious thoughts about how important the OSCE would be as an international organisation. However, we all recognise that it remains a useful organisation, although a very difficult one to work within, because it operates by consensus. That means that we move at the pace of the slowest or most awkward partner, and I think we all understand who the most awkward partner can very often be.

The agenda contains different emphases, including economic co-operation, which also now includes environmental and energy co-operation. These are not easy subjects when we are dealing with one of the world’s largest oil and gas exporters as a member of the OSCE. The whole question of conventional arms reduction across the area covered, which has proved more and more difficult, includes confidence-building measures, in which we are supposed to observe each other’s manoeuvres and inform each other in advance of major troop movements. Then of course there is the human rights dimension, with the OSCE special representative for the media, and that extremely valuable agency of the OSCE, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

We value those and we value the field missions that the OSCE has had and continues to have in a number of countries. We may regret that the office in Georgia— which I once visited—was closed in 2008, and that the Belarusians insisted on the office in Minsk being closed in 2011. We also regret that the conflicts with which the OSCE is institutionally engaged in Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are stuck and so little progress has been made. The Minsk Group continues to meet over Nagorno-Karabakh in particular. In some ways it is the most potentially dangerous of these three conflicts, with the possibility of active conflict breaking out again. Not enough progress is being made.

We continue to support the OSCE, and it is an organisation in which a certain amount of plain speaking can continue. I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, also feels that the Parliamentary Assembly is an organisation in which a good deal of plain speaking can take place. In that organisation we involve parliamentarians from a number of countries that have not had very much contact with European perceptions of how democratic political systems should operate. That in itself, although no doubt sometimes rather painful and occasionally rather unproductive, is nevertheless a useful activity. As I was explaining to a group of students some time ago, a great deal of diplomacy does not lead to a definite result. Nevertheless, in many ways the conversations are productive and much of what the OSCE does outside its extremely valuable election monitoring is of that character rather than, unfortunately, producing the results that we would like to see.

The noble Lord asked a number of questions about the attitude of the British Government towards further enlargement, in particular with regard to Afghanistan. I have to admit that I am not briefed on that and I shall have to write to the noble Lord. It is an interesting question. After all, this is an organisation that has the word “Europe” in its name; it is the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The great expansion was to bring in the countries of the south Caucuses and central Asia when the Soviet Union broke up, which has been very valuable. Mongolia has come in on top of that. As the new countries of central Asia have developed—some of them rather more democratic than others, or perhaps I should say some rather less democratic than others—we have been able to engage at more levels than we would otherwise have been able to. That is not an easy thing to do but we have the standing to be able to do so. The OSCE continues to do that and in many ways it is a worthwhile activity to have Kazakhstan as chair; it did help to bring the Kazakh Government and a number of officials and parliamentarians into a wider view of their place in the world.

The noble Lord asked what role we have in mind for the Parliamentary Assembly. All international parliamentary assemblies are unavoidably talking shops but they help to exchange a large number of messages. I still treasure my memory of a bilateral meeting when a delegation from the British Parliament went to Moscow and we had a stand-up row with the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Parliament. I certainly felt that we were exchanging fairly vigorous messages on both sides on that occasion. All of these exchanges help, at the margin, to shift attitudes. The work that members of the Parliamentary Assembly at the OSCE and the Council of Europe do on election monitoring is extremely valuable and we support its continuation.

The noble Lord asked about the Guantanamo Bay visit and what had happened to the reports on that. Let me discover the answer and write to him. Similarly, on the question of what happened to the proposal that there should be a report from the chair at the end of the chairmanship, which sounds like a constructive proposal, I will investigate. I do not know the proportion of personnel in these various things that is provided by the British Government. I will check and perhaps write collectively to all others who have participated in this debate, so to speak.

The potential role in Afghanistan is an interesting question, which perhaps we all need to explore further as Afghanistan comes out from under the ISAF influence.

I hope that has answered many of the questions. Of course, Russia is the most important partner that we have within the OSCE, but the central Asian countries and the countries between Russia and the European Union remain of considerable importance. At present, we are struggling with the issue of whether Ukraine will sign an association agreement with the European Union at Vilnius at the end of this month. The Russian Government are extremely unhappy with the proposal that Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova should sign an association agreement with the European Union. That is very high on our current foreign policy agenda. We are struggling with the enormous problem of how to relate to Belarus, a country where an authoritarian regime has survived on playing off Russia and its western neighbours and hoping to be subsidised by both sides. We struggle to cope with the problems of the south Caucasus and to contribute to development there. We have an active interest in Azerbaijan, which, as we all know, is not one of the world’s most open or democratic countries. Indeed, the IHR concluded that the recent elections were not entirely fair, but we have substantial economic interests in that country. We also have interests in Georgia. I visited Georgia and Armenia just before the summer and got a very good impression of the semi-democratic dimensions in both countries. In Tbilisi I had lunch with opposition and government MPs and they had an extremely vigorous argument in front of me, which I thought was a good sign of how they are moving towards development. I could cover the other central Asian countries but I think we all understand the many difficulties there.

I end by saying that Her Majesty’s Government continue to value the role of the OSCE. We accept that it will continue to be limited because it is a consensus-based organisation. We recognise that the Parliamentary Assembly plays a valuable role in that and that the agencies, in particular the ODIHR, play a very valuable role. We regret that the security and conflict prevention dimension is stuck in so many ways and we wish to reinsert progress into the frozen conflicts which are so much part of the problem, but we continue to be committed. We are sorry that we have not raised more interest for this debate. We are extremely grateful for those Members of the British Parliament who participate in the Parliamentary Assembly and we look forward to further reports from them and further questions and calls for debates to keep us all interested.

Sitting suspended.