Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 03:27 | SYDNEY
Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 03:27 | SYDNEY

CSCE/OSCE: A European model for Asia? (part 2)

15 March 2011 14:30

Dr Daniel Woker, Swiss Ambassador to Australia, was a junior member of the Swiss delegations to the CSCE meetings in Belgrade (1977/78) and Paris (1990). Part one of this post here.

After its in 1975 with the Helsinki Final Act, the proceedings of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) had three important characteristics which might have appeal for the Asia of today.

It was, first of all, as democratic a conference between unequal participants as was institutionally possible. Everybody was there, everybody had the same rights, decisions were reached by consensus, and every country was free to bring its ideas and proposals to the table. 

A veteran diplomat of a great power once called the CSCE 'the great school of democratisation', where big powers learnt to listen to smaller countries and the latter learnt not to overplay their hand, as is so often the case in the UN, where abuse of Chair positions and freelancing by ideologically-minded and/or publicity seeking delegates is altogether too frequent. A famous example was the way Malta destroyed its credibility within CSCE with its stubborn, doomed-to-fail insistence of including the Middle East in the Conference.

The second characteristic would be the primordial role of process. CSCE was always considered a work in progress. The Final Act never had the ambition to become a legally binding treaty but it was signed at the highest level by each participating country and thus carried a moral commitment by each country both towards the outside world and towards its own citizens.

Furthermore, CSCE was arguably the forum where the term 'confidence building measure' (CBM) was first coined. At first exclusively used for military negotiations, it was an elegant admission that some hard security facts could not be negotiated away but could be softened by making them more visible and thus more predictable. Along the way, CBMs were introduced into other areas, not least in the very delicate fields of human rights and humanitarian policy.

A whole range of further peculiarities of the CSCE can be listed under 'process', potentially attractive for an eventual 'CSCA': for instance, with very few exceptions, all CSCE deliberations were confidential. No official or unofficial summary was ever made or published and no official press conference in the name of all participants was ever held. This was necessary but not very satisfying for the media, which was compensated with extensive briefings by individual countries.

The focus on process without preordained structure also allowed CSCE to find its way, over more than two years of painstaking negations, toward what turned out to be its winning internal structure: the three 'baskets' (basket 1: state-to-state relations; basket 2: economic relations; basket 3: state-to-individual relations). The three baskets made possible the inclusion of most (often quite contradictory) proposals by participants, and was the best hedge against both unreasonable demands from within and political shocks from outside.

There were quite a few such shocks during the lifetime of the CSCE, from the outbreak of war in the Middle East in 1973 through to the beginning of the violent implosion of Yugoslavia in the very weeks of the signing of the Paris Charter in 1990. Thanks to a process of follow-up, CSCE survived such shocks, as all involved knew that there was a future meeting, previously agreed to by consensus, where all disagreements (however violent) could be brought up in a universally accepted structure. 

Last but not least, the process-oriented nature of the CSCE allowed for a transformation of its structure once Europe's fundamentals changed after 1990. CSCE became the OSCE, with a consensus-minus-one rule, permanent structures and a headquarters in Vienna; the Helsinki Summit of 1992 declared OSCE to be a regional organisation under Chapter 8 of the UN Charter. 

Again, this is not to suggest that Asian developments might follow a similar path or that the morphing of a temporary Conference into an Organization is inevitable or even desired (there are some who call the present OSCE an organisation in search of a mandate). The argument made here is rather one of pragmatism as to the structures of a multilateral, all-encompassing forum where the problems and challenges of the Asia-Pacific can be debated.

The third and supreme characteristic of the CSCE for Asia would be its ultimate role in empowering people. The CSCE Final Act, and especially its third basket, contained not only solemn language of principles, but a great number of concrete measures (eg. reunification of families, better cross-border travel possibilities, freer circulation of information of all kinds, improved working conditions for journalists).

Individually, they appeared then, and now, as modest. But they were measures the citizens of all participating states could understand and demand to be implemented by their authorities. The Final Act contains an explicit obligation by all signatories to publish the document in full. As we now know, the ensuing citizens initiatives (Solidarity in Poland, Charta 77 in Czechoslovakia) contributed to the big changes in Europe of 1989/90. 

CSCE also enshrined the principle that national borders can be changed by peaceful means and mutual consent. The peaceful and bloodless separation of Czechoslovakia into the Czech and the Slovak Republics might not have so happened without this new principle.

The fact that the dissolution of Yugoslavia was anything but peaceful — with Serb and other nationalisms trampling underfoot the very principles their diplomats had negotiated and their heads of state had just signed — serves as a timely reminder that the CSCE, as indeed any other internationally negotiated document, does not guarantee conflict resolution or peaceful change.

Should Asia choose to adopt any part of the CSCE's measures, it will do so knowing that these are tools, finely crafted instruments from another time and for a different set of circumstances. However, just because they were negotiated and put to often good use in the West is not enough of an argument to disregard or discard them without careful consideration as to their usefulness in Asia here and now. Surely governments owe as much to their people' 

The views expressed in this paper are the author's own and do not have any official status. He gratefully acknowledges the support of his old colleague and friend Dr Hans-Jörg Renk, Member of the Swiss Delegations to the CSCE meetings in Helsinki, Geneva, Belgrade and Madrid (1972–1981). Photo by Flickr user ePublicist.