Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their participation. I am grateful to the Library for its helpful briefing note.
It is important that we are reminded about the OSCE and its functions, for the record. I acknowledge my fellow member of the UK delegation to the parliamentary assembly, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who continues his work and concern for refugees as vice-chair of the assembly’s migration committee. I also acknowledge the tremendous work done by another Member of your Lordships’ House, the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon; she is no longer a member of that delegation, but she carried out a formidable number of election observation missions. I declare my interest as the current president emeritus of the parliamentary assembly.
Arising from the Helsinki agreements entered into at the end of the Cold War, the OSCE now comprises 57 participating states. They are not member states because the OSCE does not enjoy legal personality, which can cause difficulty. The 57 states stretch from Vancouver to Vladivostok. It is the largest regional organisation recognised by the UN. There are three areas of work, or dimensions: the politico military, including arms control and countering terrorism; economic and environmental, including economic growth, good governance and co-operation to avoid disputes, for example over water; and the human dimension, including support for human rights and democracy. There is also cross-dimensional work, touching on cybersecurity, education and combating human trafficking.
Most of the OSCE’s staff are to be found in field missions or programmes in south-eastern Europe, eastern Europe, the south Caucasus and central Asia. There is also the vital special monitoring mission in Ukraine. The work carried out by the field missions is varied, whether it is helping states to establish democratic process, training judges and police, looking after minorities or helping to establish small arms and border controls. That is by no means a complete list.
In the OSCE, there are structures and bodies that support its work, including the High Commissioner on National Minorities; the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which supports democracy and human rights; and the Representative on Freedom of the Media, who ensures that the states’ commitments to freedom of the media are observed. Since 1992, there has also been a new tool: the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. As its name implies, its task is to resolve disputes between participating states. I see that it has not actually heard any cases, but it has been ratified by 30-plus participating states. Can the Minister tell us why, as an example to others if nothing else, the United Kingdom has not signed or ratified the Stockholm Convention, which established that court?
All this work goes on, and the participating states meet weekly in Vienna in a permanent council and other specialised structures. However, for decisions to be taken, consensus is needed. Although this was seen as a strength in the optimistic early days of the OSCE, it now has the ability to create deadlock. The optimism of the early days is behind us. There is no longer a general acceptance by all of the international norms and behaviour. Participating states have flouted the norms and ignored the borders of others. We have the issue of Moldova and the Russian-backed separatists in Transnistria. Georgia has two areas of its territory occupied by Russian puppet regimes recognised by virtually nobody but Russia. The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan flares up despite the best efforts of the Minsk Group, and Ukraine is constantly with us and causing concern.
In the autumn of 2020, agreement could not be reached in the permanent council to reappoint the four executive heads, so the organisation was left with no secretary-general, no director of ODIHR, no High Commissioner on National Minorities and no Representative on Freedom of the Media. Of course, dedicated staff carried on vital work, but the organisation was leaderless. My predecessor as president of the parliamentary assembly, Mr Tsereteli, issued a call for action in the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the OSCE. It was supported by many distinguished players in the OSCE from Governments that had acted as the chair-in-office, not just the parliamentary assembly. The object is to examine ways in which the effectiveness of the OSCE may be improved. It is not to dictate the governmental side, but to endeavour to be helpful.
I am quite certain that the ills of the OSCE will not be cured without the full involvement and attention of the Governments of the participating states, but the OSCE never seems to be very high on their agendas. Perhaps that is because so much good work is done in the field and, indeed, by the permanent representatives in Vienna—including our own ambassador, Mr Neil Bush.
The Minster may tell me that, in the March 2021 integrated review of security and defence, the Government committed to supporting multilateral organisations that uphold national norms on security, including OSCE, and that we are one of the largest contributors to the special monitoring mission in Ukraine. Nevertheless, it is likely that the funding needs of the organisation will grow, not decrease, given the current situation within the region.
However, none of that goes to the working of the organisation, which has to be by consensus. There is provision for decisions by consensus minus one, but that has been used only once, at the time of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Consensus is the weakness and, at the same time, the strength of the organisation, but if it can be misused to hold up the continuation of the mandate of the special monitoring mission in Ukraine, agreement on the budget or the appointment of executive heads, the organisation does not function at its best. Indeed, coupled with the abandonment of the norms of international behaviour towards other states and, in the case of Belarus, norms of treatment of its own citizens, the ability to act effectively is severely curtailed.
The United Kingdom, with our ambitions to adopt a greater global role, should be well placed to raise our game politically within the organisation, put the future of the OSCE clearly on our political agenda and work with our friends on both sides of the Atlantic. I believe that the United States will prove an open door, as Congress has a very strong Helsinki Commission, which is fully involved in OSCE events and has a parliamentary involvement greater than that of any other participating state.
A start would be to ensure that the work of the OSCE was better known. Even in this building, how many people know or are interested? Because we need political leaders to be involved, I suggest taking the time between now and the 50th anniversary to build consensus for a summit. There is an annual ministerial council each year, attended by Foreign Ministers. The OSCE chair-in-office is a Foreign Minister of the relevant participating state. Our Library Note says that heads of state participate in summits, which set the priorities of the organisation. The last summit was in Kazakhstan in 2010; it was attended by the then Deputy Prime Minister, now Sir Nick Clegg, so, given the state of the organisation and the time that has elapsed, perhaps it is high time that we had another summit. I may be told that there are or will be difficulties and dangers in bringing these matters to a summit and giving those not so well affected to OSCE the opportunity to seek different political settlements not to our liking, but there are dangers and difficulties in doing nothing. I am sure that, if the OSCE did not exist, it would have to be invented.
I therefore ask Her Majesty’s Government what their assessment is of the political state of the OSCE. Do they have any ideas or ambitions to change the same, and will they move to bring the OSCE up the political agenda of our Government and that of the participating states, and discuss the possibility of a summit with our friends and allies with a view to this taking place in 2025, the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki accord?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, on securing this debate. He has described the situation in the OSCE so clearly that all I can do in my remarks is supplement some of the things he said, rather than repeat them. I have been a member of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly for some years. It has been a great privilege and opportunity, even if, inevitably, I have some criticisms of the organisation.
Let me say a little more about the noble Lord, Lord Bowness. He is widely respected across the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. He has a superb reputation, and he enhances our reputation as a country because of the key part he plays. If he had wanted to stand for president, he would have been elected pretty well unanimously, but he did not want to. I say to the Minister with all sincerity that, given that the previous lead of our delegation had to stop after he became a government Whip in the Commons, I think the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, would be the best person to resume leadership of our delegation. I am a friend of his, but I think it would be good for this country and our delegation if he were to do that. He is so well-regarded across all members of the OSCE.
Our membership is important because it is yet another way in which we maintain international links, in this case with parliamentarians not just across Europe, but from North America and Asia. There are some positive and negative aspects, one of which is that we from the UK and some other countries are there as parliamentarians, not as messengers from the Government. We are there as independent parliamentarians, who come to our own views. We can be critical of our Government; we seldom are, but we reserve that right. The delegations from some countries see it differently—this is not a criticism of the way it works—and regard their members as being there to speak on behalf of their Governments. It is a sort of government handout, which nullifies the benefit of the parliamentary assembly because it means we are simply getting the party line from some countries, but not all because many members are independent.
Let me give you an example. There was once a resolution to a plenary that was critical of a regime in central Asia. The ambassador from that country came to see me and demanded that I vote against the resolution criticising his Government. First, I said, “I don’t think so”. His Government was accused of human rights breaches. Secondly, I said, “It’s interesting. The only time you want to see people like me is when there is a criticism of your Government. The OSCE is not meant to be the voice of Governments.” Since then, I have been inundated with emails from him, but that is my punishment for having said that. That shows the way in which some countries see it in a way which we do not. Of course, parliamentarians from many countries act independently and reserve the right to differ from their Governments.
I appreciate the helpful Foreign Office briefings we get before plenaries. When we meet in Vienna once a year—the other plenaries tend to be in different countries—our ambassador to the OSCE hosts a helpful working dinner, to which he brings his senior people, so we get a pretty good briefing on all the key issues. I hope the Minister passes on our appreciation for the work that is done, the time put in and how helpful that is.
There are several committees within the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. I am an active member of the migration committee, which is especially effective. It is well-serviced by excellent OSCE staff, and it carries out an overview of migration issues in Europe and beyond. When we visit sensitive areas, which I do not always have the time to do, we get good access to government Ministers and others so it is a useful effort. The migration committee of the OSCE is one of the great successes of the parliamentary assembly, and I am privileged to be a member of it.
The plenary sessions are less useful sometimes, as they tend to get into traditional areas of dispute. Whatever the theoretical topic, of either the full plenary or the human rights committee, which is also large, they tend to get into traditional arguments about Cyprus, Armenia, Ukraine and so on. Whatever the topic, parliamentarians tend to have a go at each other, which is a pity because it does not add much value to the plenary. Within that structure, there is also an opportunity to raise issues of concern. I have been involved in debates on human rights, detention in Guantanamo, freedom of the press and anti-Semitism.
Sometimes there are what we in political parties call fringe meetings as an addition to the plenary which take place in the same venue in the gaps between plenary sessions. An American senator initiated a very useful discussion on anti-Semitism and hate speech generally. We have also had discussions on the Magnitsky sanctions and Bill Browder spoke. In fact, one of the first times I heard of him was when he came to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and we had a plenary. Within it, we had a fringe discussion about what had happened to Bill Browder, the terrible stories of what happened to his friend and his argument that there should be Magnitsky sanctions. These arguments have now been much more widely adopted as a way of punishing countries that are in great breach of human rights.
Another useful activity is election monitoring. Again, there is not as much time to do this as I would like, but I have been on some very interesting election monitoring visits. Although we do not uncover enormous scandals, the fact that we are there keeps the process cleaner than it would otherwise be because they know we are going to go to a polling station. They know which town we are allocated to, but we chose which polling station we go to. We just appear there and have a look at it.
The tricky thing in some countries is that they open the ballot boxes at the start of the counting session, then at the end of the election when the polls close—at 8 pm or whenever it is—the votes are counted in the polling station. So we not only monitor the way in which the ballot papers are checked when they arrive at the polling station before the polls open, as all sorts of things could happen if it was not kept under close control, but also the counting. I have seen counting that has gone very efficiently. It is normally inefficiencies in the process that I have noticed rather than any breaches of the electoral regulations in the country. It is an interesting process. Election monitoring also has a benefit in that one sees parts of the country one is monitoring that one would not normally see in the normal course of events. I have really enjoyed, for example, going to eastern Turkey. I have done monitoring in Serbia and in other countries.
I value my membership. I very much appreciate the privilege of being there and being able to meet parliamentarians from many countries. As the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, has said, I would like to feel that we are not beneath the radar of the Government, and that the Government pay tribute to the important work that goes on in the OSCE and to the importance to the United Kingdom of our activity in the OSCE. It is a useful forum where we can express our views. I think we are pretty well respected by OSCE countries for the contributions we make, so it is up to the Government to respond positively.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, for raising this matter in this short debate. I am particularly pleased to follow him and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who are both the United Kingdom members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE. My interest comes, apart from in other ways, from 17 years as a UK member of the European Parliament and my ongoing interest in UK international involvement post Brexit. I apologise now that some of the things I am going to say will be rather repetitive, but I do not see any harm in underlining the importance of this organisation, so I hope the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, in particular, will forgive me if I am going to repeat some of the facts about it as I go.
Our discussion today is a bit like opening a cupboard for the first time in years and discovering something you have either forgotten about or put out of the way as you had little use for it. Most people, sadly, have no idea that the OSCE even exists, including—I have to say in following my noble friends—quite a number of Members of this House and particularly the one along the Corridor. Nevertheless, to those who do know it, it is sadly also often regarded as fairly irrelevant to the challenges facing the world and the UK in the 21st century. Some regard it as another international talking shop with no power to enforce anything against anybody. I regard it in a very different way, and I urge my noble friend to persuade his colleagues in government not only to expose the issue more to the light of day but seriously to consider ensuring that, as a diplomatic and strategic vehicle, the UK and its new post-Brexit situation can play an even greater role in the organisation.
I am not going to repeat the organisation’s whole history, but it is worth emphasising the main areas of interest: security, conflict resolution, conventional arms control, economic and environmental security and, of course, human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the monitoring of democracy and elections. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to his exercises in looking at elections. I certainly found my experiences in East Germany as an observer in the 1990 elections extremely useful, although that was not under the auspices of the OSCE.
As has been said, 57 states signed up to these functions in the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. These states cover, as the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, mentioned, a geographical area extending from the United States and Canada as far as Russia and Mongolia. Within its ranks are many diverse political systems, social deployments and environmental challenges. It is the world’s largest regional security organisation. Some of its biggest challenges are provided by the actions of its members, such as the issues of the conflicts in Georgia and the Russian occupation of Crimea and its ongoing approach to Ukraine. The response of the OSCE cannot be military, but its special monitoring missions have been doing useful work in Ukraine, with international monitors, including those from the UK, providing dispassionate evidence of activity and warning member states if they are in breach of the agreements they signed up to.
Some will say that this is not enough, but it is a fact that such reporting influences behaviour and acts as a form of restraint without the risks inherent in military threats. After all, the United Nations can pass resolutions, but itself has limits and, apart from peacekeeping missions, it cannot always act decisively in situations where resolutions are ignored. The OSCE, however, can point to successes that are more than merely jaw- jaw.
Conventional arms control in Europe through the Vienna document is one area of importance where restraint and constructive co-operation can be demonstrated. Functions include monitoring of military exercises and deployments. The open skies treaty, which gave greater transparency to military activity and with which I was coincidentally involved for a while when in government in the 1990s, has an important reflection of the right to know between all members. As a result, little can occur—or deployments be made—which is not known to everybody else. The OSCE is also working in the field of cybersecurity, which is a vital area, as we know. It is tackling organised crime in relation to the exchange of data and the vital information obtained is terribly important to all of us.
In the area of the environment—where the UK has COP 26 coming and the Government’s declared aim is to lead in the global fight to net zero—the OSCE could really be utilised more in helping us to remain at the front of that campaign. It also has special competence in the field of energy security, which remains a very big issue in achieving our aims, and as a forum for sharing best practice. That is across the 57 member states and is of course enhanced by the parliamentary assembly, on which the UK has a strong representation from both our Houses, including the noble Lords, Lord Bowness and Lord Dubs.
After all that, noble Lords may wonder why the OSCE has seemingly been neglected for so long. I know that it can work only through consensus, which is clearly missing on a number of occasions when member states do their own thing; however, as we know, influencing conduct by example, or just by airing concerns, can stabilise situations for the benefit of our citizens.
Now that we have left the institutions of the EU—I will not bore noble Lords with any further arguments on that today; “Get over it” is what noble Lords would tell me—it is really important that the UK decides which old alliances are to be enhanced or renewed and what new alliances are to be formed to replace or influence our global affairs. There is of course the Commonwealth, which remains very important; the United Nations, where our permanent membership of the Security Council is very valuable; other new and replicated trade deals that are now being negotiated; NATO, where our military priorities remain, now to be enhanced by other defence alliances further afield; and not forgetting the Council of Europe, which, again, has representatives from the UK.
The Government seem at the moment to be pursuing a bilateral approach to renewing and refreshing our European relations. This may succeed, especially with a few of our closest allies on the continent, such as Germany and France—perhaps I ought to leave France out today. We must acknowledge, of course, that even if they no longer apply to us, those countries that are member states of the EU are subject to the rules and restrictions that apply to that bloc, and always will be.
So, organisations such as the OSCE should be revisited now. As has been referred to by colleagues, we already provide it with funding, personnel and an active delegation. Perhaps the time is right for a ministerial reinnervation of our interest in and commitment to the organisation. I have complimented my noble friend Lord Bowness on a number of occasions in other debates—usually on a remote basis—but I think he is just the right person to reinnervate this organisation. In fact, he is the personification of innervation. If he agrees to this challenge, more power to his elbow; I say the same to all others of a similar disposition.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope.
I spent my time as a graduate student studying a relatively small and understudied parliamentary assembly, as it was originally known. It was the European Parliament, which gradually gained rather more powers. Assemblies can gain powers and become more influential and better known. On the other hand, we need to make sure that, however important these assemblies are, they do not become the focus of opprobrium in their own right. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, in opening this debate, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, about the OSCE’s role and the fact that it is rather understudied and little understood.
It is slightly strange to be standing here in a Question for Short Debate where we have only six speakers. For people looking at Hansard, the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, said that we need to put some things on the record. During the period of the virtual Parliament, it was almost impossible to get one’s name down for a Question for Short Debate, so attractive was it to everybody to speak in one. If you were lucky, you had a minute to speak. Today, we have six speakers in an hour. In preparing my remarks, I wondered whether I had nine minutes of comments to make, because we have relatively few people wishing to contribute.
However, as the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, pointed out at the start of the debate, it is important to put on record why the OSCE mattered in the 1970s and why it still matters in the 2020s. It is one way of bringing states together. The noble Lord pointed out that the technical version is not a member state and is not the same as a member of the European Union, where the role of a formal signatory state is clearly delineated. These are participating states, but they range from the United States all the way to Russia. In many ways, that creates huge advantages and disadvantages. The noble Lord also talked about consensus, which I will come back to in a moment.
Clearly there are real questions about how an organisation of 57 countries, which include Russia, many central Asian countries and Turkey, can have the same values and aspirations. Here, I suspect that there is a strength and a weakness. When the 57 come together, the OSCE talks about human rights. If that is the case, is it not the perfect venue for us to talk to Russia or Turkey about human rights—or, indeed, for us to talk to our erstwhile partners in the European Union about human rights, press freedom and freedom of the media? The Library briefing talks about this; the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, also mentioned it.
Will the Minister tell the Grand Committee how far Her Majesty’s Government think that the OSCE could be a forum in which we begin to explore press freedom? Several countries that are members of the OSCE, even if they are current members of the European Union, are not necessarily countries that are renowned for their freedom of the press. Hungary—I am hoping to catch the eye of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, to confirm that Hungary is a member of the OSCE, and he has. I read through the 57 and did not want to accuse a country of being a member when it was not. Hungary signed up to all the Copenhagen criteria for membership of the European Union, signed up to the Council of Europe and is a member of OSCE—but under Viktor Orbán it is not renowned for its media freedoms. Is the OSCE then a way of having a venue to talk to Hungary about having a more open media framework, not all run by Fidesz?
Similarly, Turkey is a member and a NATO ally, yet it is a country where human rights are perhaps not respected in way that we would want them to be. Again, can the OSCE be an area where the Minister and his colleagues could have bilateral conversations in the margins? If part of the aim is not just to monitor democracy but to look at freedom of the media, these are two examples of where greater activity could be an opportunity.
I said I would come back to the issue of consensus. The Library briefing reminds us that decisions are taken by consensus. The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, pointed out that it might be “consensus minus one”. We know from the European Union that when decisions have to be taken by consensus and two member states perhaps have decided that they are not too bothered about the rule of law and are not necessarily signed up to the values that other countries espouse, they can very quickly and easily block things. I can absolutely see that decision-making by consensus can be a problem, and clearly there is a need for discussion and, one hopes, persuasion. So, in terms of brokering consensus, can the Minister tell us how Her Majesty’s Government view their role in helping broker consensus on issues that matter to the United Kingdom?
I have a word of warning: be careful what you wish for. The OSCE may move away from consensus. The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, mentioned the budget and a set of things where over the years the United Kingdom was so good at stalling activity in the European Community, later the European Union. Well, if you move to qualified majority voting, which is what happened in the European Union, you might be able to expedite decision-making, but that does not necessarily mean that, once taken, the decisions will be implemented. Countries that have been outvoted—we have seen this with the Visegrád countries on refugee issues—might simply say “We didn’t vote for it”, “We abstained” or “We were out of the room”, and they will not necessarily implement decisions. So I suspect that consensus is probably here to stay.
My final question is: “To what extent does the Minister feel that the OSCE offers an opportunity for the United Kingdom to have those side conversations that we used to be able to have within the European Union—our conversations with 27 partners which we no longer have on quite such a regular basis?” It has obviously been a very long time since Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister attended a heads of state—sic. I do not think we would envisage Her Majesty the Queen attending, but even a head of government? Could we envisage such an event by 2025? Would the current Prime Minister wish to lead such a delegation, assuming that the head of state would not? Would the Minister wish to encourage the Prime Minister to do so? Or should we perhaps be thinking that the Minister would be the perfect leader of such an event, perhaps to host the event? At the same time, I reinforce the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, would be fantastic suggestion to be the leader of the parliamentary delegation.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, for initiating this debate. While preparing for it, I took the opportunity to reflect on some things and look back. When world leaders signed the Helsinki accords in 1975, which laid the groundwork for the OSCE, they shared a common ambition to end the divisions in Europe. I think that is still very much what our aspiration should be. I want to take the opportunity to quote Harold Wilson—who, sadly, is not quoted enough, in my opinion. He saw the initiative as a means
“to look towards new and more constructive relationships on the basis of an agreed code of behaviour and undertakings to advance co-operation of all kinds”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/8/75; cols. 230-31.]
That is exactly what that forum should be about. Certainly, half a century later, the OSCE has played its part in facilitating that, but of course it has evolved in a way which I think world leaders then could never have foreseen.
The OSCE acts as a champion for the principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, all of which are a precondition for security and prosperity, while also supporting conflict prevention and monitoring in some of the world’s most difficult environments. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, recognises in the Question for this debate, the organisation must strive to improve, and it is up to the members, particularly the United Kingdom, to facilitate that sort of change.
I also took the opportunity to reflect on our past debates on this subject, initiated by the noble Lord, and, sadly, I realised that I had participated in all of them—so I have to strive to be consistent in case someone looks back in Hansard. In 2012, we had a debate about the role of the OSCE; we had a debate in November 2013 about the hopes and priorities for the Helsinki+40 process; and in March 2017 we had a debate, again initiated by the noble Lord, about the role of the OSCE particularly in addressing the conflict in the east of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. Of course, at that time, a year after the referendum, we were considering the implications for peace, security and co-operation of Brexit, which obviously also dominated the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, reminded us in all those debates that, even in Parliament, there is a lack of awareness of exactly what the OSCE does and how it responds to the very complex and varied issues it has a responsibility to look at.
The noble Lord mentioned his work in the UK delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. I echo all noble Lords: I do hope that his incredible work is maintained and advanced. We would lose someone really important in promoting the UK’s values if we were not to support him in his work. I also acknowledge the work of my noble friend Lord Dubs, particularly on the migration committee, because this is such an important issue in terms of the sort of co-operation and dialogue we need to ensure not only that the human rights of migrants are protected but that we address and promote the root causes of migration.
I mention, in passing, my noble friend Lady Hilton of Eggardon, who did an amazing amount of work on election monitoring. We undervalue the importance of election monitoring and the work of the OSCE, because it is not only what you see when you get there but the fact you are going there can influence behaviour, as it can ensure that people will behave properly knowing that somebody will turn up.
The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, mentioned tensions, particularly last year over appointments to divisions, which is a clear concern that we should seek to de-escalate. We have been a little successful in that, but we need to ensure focus. The noble Lord’s point is that the OSCE’s strengths are also its weaknesses. That it includes the Russian Federation and a lot of eastern European countries, the western powers and the US makes it a forum to de-escalate and to address those incidents that can escalate into situations that we all want to avoid. I hope the Minister can give us a clearer indication of how the United Kingdom, particularly considering the integrated review, sees the importance of this multilateral institution in delivering our overall joined-up strategy, the three “D”s—defence, diplomacy and development. This again addresses migration.
We also have to consider some of the clear challenges ahead. The organisation’s work will not be easy and includes tackling extremism, promoting climate security and responding to emerging conflicts. There is an issue, as the Secretary-General has called for an increased budget for the organisation, so I hope the Minister will clarify the Government’s stance on this. Whatever their stance on the budget, what the OSCE needs most from this Government of all is a clear indication of a political commitment to its work.
I reflected on the debate in 2017, when the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, responded. I did not realise it was nearly five years ago; I always accuse the Minister of having longevity, but on this occasion I may have beaten him. The point is that we need to ensure that that political commitment and the words that the noble Baroness said in 2017, which I have no doubt the Minister will repeat today, have some meaning and purpose behind them and that we put our resources and effort into the organisation. The suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, on the 50th anniversary summit is worthy of consideration. I hope the Minister will respond to it positively.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, in particular my noble friend Lord Bowness for tabling this debate. I join others in paying tribute to his service to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly over many years. We look forward to hosting the assembly in Birmingham in 2022.
Several speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and my noble friend Lord Bowness, talked of the anniversary in 2025 as a possible date for the OSCE summit of political leaders. We will carefully consider the merits of holding a summit. I listened carefully to all the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and join others in paying tribute to his contributions to this important assembly and his wider leadership on the important issue of migration. In the wider assembly of your Lordships’ House, he often keeps me and other Ministers on our toes on the importance of ensuring migration remains high up the Government’s thinking and priority list. I pay tribute to the contributions he makes to the OSCE as well.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, talked about the small number of speakers in this debate, but as is often the case in your Lordships’ House, it is the quality rather than the quantity of contributions or speakers. I am very much taken by the kind comments made by my noble friend Lord Kirkhope about power to my elbow. I feel enhanced and lifted, spiritually and as a Minister, but as I am not Minister for the OSCE I will go no further in case other colleagues are listening with great attentiveness to this debate. The sentiments and practical suggestions that have been made are very valid. I will certainly share them. I hear very clearly the importance of the OSCE and the value that it brings in the context of the multilateral system.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, also mentioned consensus. My right honourable friend the former Prime Minister, Mrs May, said that consensus is at times not a bad word. Sometimes, in an international context, consensus is exactly what is required. As the Minister for the Commonwealth and the United Nations, I assure the noble Baroness that I am quite used to differing opinions in the room, as are others who represent Her Majesty’s Government.
The Government agree with my noble friend Lord Bowness that the OSCE is a vital pillar of the international system. We recognise the crucial role that it has played since its creation and the end of the Cold War, which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to, in reducing the risk of conflict across the Euro-Atlantic area and de-escalating where necessary.
My noble friend Lord Bowness asked what the Stockholm convention is seeking to do. I see no reason why we would not be supportive of it in terms of its principles, but I will certainly take that back to understand better why we have not yet signed it. Perhaps it is because, as my noble friend suggested, it has not yet adjudicated. There are other international fora that provide for such issues of reconciliation and adjudication.
However, the Government believe that, as the international challenges mount, multilateral responses are as important as ever. The OSCE is well known for its election observation work—a point made by all noble Lords—in helping to strengthen the democratic process. Its special monitoring mission continues to play a prominent and vital role in responding to Russia’s aggression, particularly against Ukraine. I was in Ukraine a few weeks ago in commemoration of the Holocaust and the tragic, horrendous situation which prevailed and which many Ukrainians faced at that time, particularly members of the Jewish community. It underlined the importance at a unilateral level of standing in solidarity with Ukraine as it responds to Russian aggression in the Donbas and the continued occupation of the Crimea.
The OSCE does a lot more than just election observation. We value the key role that it plays in regional peace processes. This includes the 5+2 process in Moldova, the Geneva international discussions on the 2008 conflict in Georgia, and the Minsk Group on Nagorno-Karabakh, which my noble friend Lord Bowness referred to. On the wider issues, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, made a practical suggestion on media freedom. This is a key priority for the UK Government. My colleague and honourable friend Minister Morton, who leads on OSCE engagement, met with the representative on freedom of the media, Teresa Ribeiro, just a few weeks ago, on that very point.
The OSCE’s network of field operations in Ukraine, central Asia and the western Balkans all work effectively to support participating states in delivering upon their OSCE commitments. We must not overlook the important work of the parliamentary assembly, which has been mentioned, which brings together representatives of national Parliaments from 57 participating states. As we have heard, those countries are from across Europe and further afield, and have not traditionally been members of the European Union. I assure noble Lords that, as we embark on the vision of global Britain, the OSCE remains an important part of how we strengthen our multilateral work. It provides a valuable forum for dialogue and leads to some very important election observation missions as well.
Therefore, the UK is wholly supportive of the OSCE, both financially and in terms of the principles that it stands for and values in issues of security, and we seek to deploy UK expertise to influence others. I believe that, currently, we have 78 Brits working within the OSCE networks within its institution. In particular, we use the weekly permanent council to hold Russia and other states to account for their actions. A small point, just from my own observations as a Minister, is that, in many multilateral organisations, it is interesting to see the number of countries who might seek to block things or go against the grain yet are very much in the front line when it comes to seeking election to these bodies. It shows perhaps that, if one were to look for a silver lining, a real need is felt by some countries to ensure that they remain part and parcel of discussions and represented around the table.
To look at specific issues, following the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus and brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters, the UK and 16 other states within the OSCE triggered the Moscow mechanism. The resulting recommendations provide a real pathway to a peaceful resolution and free and fair elections. We take every opportunity at the OSCE to urge the Belarusian authorities to implement the report’s recommendations.
Since last year, our ambassador to the OSCE—I will of course take the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the hospitality that he extends to the delegation back to the ambassador and I thank him for his remarks—has chaired the OSCE’s security committee. This means that the UK influences the agenda on work to tackle serious and organised crime, enhance cybersecurity and deliver the priorities set out in the integrated review, which put diplomacy at the centre of international efforts to counter state threats and build international coalitions.
However, the hard fact is that, as noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, have pointed out, discussions within the OSCE have become steadily more polarised over the past 20 years, which has often led to deadlock. As a consensus-based organisation, there are of course limits as to what it can achieve, often because it is exploited by certain countries—notably Russia. It and others seek to reduce the OSCE’s implementation mechanisms, particularly on important issues of human rights and the mandates of field missions.
The political and military aspects of the OSCE’s work have also encountered significant challenges. Three treaties in particular have contributed greatly to peace and security in Europe since the end of the Cold War: the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, which established verifiable limits on specific equipment and personnel; the Vienna Document on confidence and security-building measures; and the Open Skies Treaty, referred to by my noble friend Lord Kirkhope, who talked of his own involvement, which allows unarmed observation flights over members’ territories. It is therefore deeply regrettable that Russia has withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty after its long-standing pattern of non-compliance led the US to do the same last year. We will continue to call on Russia to reconsider its position and to lift its suspension of activities under the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. It should also comply with both the letter and the spirit of its commitments under the Vienna Document.
Let me assure noble Lords that the United Kingdom remains a strong supporter of conventional arms control arrangements and further assure my noble friend Lord Kirkhope that we support all elements under these particular arrangements. We supported Ukraine’s use of the measures within chapter 3 of the Vienna Document to seek clarification from Russia following the troop build-up in the Crimea. We will also continue to press Russia to engage constructively, provide transparency and aid de-escalation by supporting the joint proposal to bring the Vienna Document up to date. We will also ensure, as outlined in the integrated review, that the UK remains a strong supporter of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine and continues to play a vital role in responding to Russia’s ongoing aggression against the country.
The UK is also a strong supporter of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—although I do fear the acronym sounding like “Oh dear” sometimes takes away from its effectiveness as a particularly robust institution. It undertakes vital work in deploying missions to observe elections and we are a regular, reliable and generous contributor. This allows the UK to support democracies around the globe, which remains a vital strategic goal.
There are other wide areas of the OSCE’s work, which I do not have time to go into, from combating trafficking to the women, peace and security agenda, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned, countering terrorism. These all remain vital areas of work. Let me assure noble Lords of this: while this debate may be short and have a limited number of contributions, the Government’s commitment in terms of the strategic support we extend to the OSCE—financially, through our people and through attendance at meetings—remains very strong and we will continue to be there. The OSCE has played a vital role since its creation nearly half a century ago and we believe it plays a vital role today and will continue to do so tomorrow. We call on all participating states to hold firm to its principles and I assure your Lordships’ Committee that the UK’s commitment to those shared goals remains absolutely resolute.