One of the more active international organisations working in Central Asia today is the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The largest regional security organisation in the world today, with 55 participating states from Europe, Central Asia and North America, the OSCE focuses on early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation.
The OSCE approach to security is comprehensive and cooperative: comprehensive in dealing with a wide range of security related issues, including arms control, preventive diplomacy, confidence- and security-building measures, human rights, democratisation, election monitoring and economic and environmental security; cooperative in the sense that all OSCE participating states have equal status, and decisions are based on consensus.
In an exclusive interview, the OSCE head and Netherlands foreign minister, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, shared with IRIN from his office in The Hague, his views on some of the issues affecting Central Asia today.
QUESTION: What role do you see the OSCE having in Central Asia?
ANSWER: The OSCE is the only European security structure that the five Central Asian states participate in. It is important to use this forum to keep the dialogue with these countries going. The more so, since the OSCE is active in three aspects of security, namely the politico-military, the economic-environmental and the human aspect of security.
As the Chairman-in-Office [CiO] of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, I attach great importance to maintaining a balance between these three dimensions. I make this clear in all the discussions that I engage in with the leadership of the countries concerned. This means that we use the OSCE to promote issues of importance to the Netherlands Chairmanship, such as the fight against terrorism and against various forms of trafficking, namely of arms and drugs, but especially of human beings, which is an important priority of our Chairmanship.
Generally, I want to use the OSCE to address domestic, regional and international issues that affect the security and stability inside and between the countries of the region. I should remind you in this respect that the OSCE defines security in a broad manner, and that during our chairmanship, we have placed human security at the centre stage of our attention. We have defined this as a combination of peace and the rule of law - which I think gives us a very good starting point for active engagement in the Central Asian region.
Q: Human rights remains a dominant issue throughout all five former Soviet republics. How involved is the OSCE in this in terms of its mandate, and what specifically is it doing?
A: One of the strong points of the OSCE is its presence in the field. The OSCE has missions in [the Kazakh city of] Almaty, [the Kyrgyz capital] Bishkek, [the Tajik capital] Dushanbe, [the Turkmen capital] Ashgabat and [the Uzbek capital] Tashkent. This means we have people on the ground who are there to help the countries get forward and provide assistance in all areas where the OSCE is active. The specific mandates of the OSCE Missions are tailor-made for each country, but they all share the promotion of OSCE values and principles in the field of democratisation and human rights.
For my part, I can say that as OSCE CiO, I do not shy away from reminding the states that participation in the OSCE of the principles and obligations, they have themselves committed to in the framework of the OSCE, including in the field of human rights. As a matter of fact, I see this as one of the most important tasks of the OSCE if we talk about a comprehensive security approach. I have the impression that many NGOs and representatives from the civil society in these countries appreciate this role of the OSCE.
Q: The EBRD [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development] recently issued a statement of intent to link loans to Uzbekistan with improving human rights. Is this the kind of action needed to actually get states in the region to take human rights seriously?
A: Since I am not the president of the EBRD, I would not comment in their stead. What I can tell you is that I am generally in favour of greater coordination between various international institutions and organisations. By working together on issues of mutual importance, we can strengthen our effectiveness and efficiency. You see that in a number of areas and regions where not only the OSCE is active but the UN as well, or the EU, for instance. I think it is useful to co-ordinate and to let different organisations play the roles that they are best-placed to play.
Once again, since the OSCE is very much present on the ground, we can alert other organisations on the role that is expected of them, such as the UN that have special rapporteurs, or ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] when it comes to conditions in prisons, or the EU and NATO, who through their programmes for association or partnership can contribute to reforms.
Q: The OSCE has been critical and vocal about the erosion of press freedom in countries like Kazakhstan, what more can be done for [the government in the Kazakh capital] Astana to respect press freedom?
A: Clearly, the freedom of the press and the development of professional and objective media is an issue of concern for the OSCE - not only in Kazakhstan by the way. As I already indicated, I think that the OSCE has the proper means to help the authorities of countries like Kazakhstan improve the situation. The media representative in Vienna and the OSCE Centre in Almaty are there to help and assist with expertise advice.
I am pleased to say that we have managed, in the case of the [dissident] journalist Mr [Sergei] Duvanov, to convince the Kazakh authorities to allow an independent expert mission look into the case of Mr Duvanov to establish the facts. This is what I mean when I stress the importance of a continued dialogue: we need to work together to improve things, sometimes slowly, but in any case surely.
Q: How successfully in your view has the OSCE been in bringing about positive change here?
A: I think that the countries in Central Asia are still in an ongoing transition period. The OSCE tries to continuously work together with them, and since 1999 we have presences in all five states. Of course, in some areas change is slow, but this should not discourage us. We should rather look for options of how we can do more. In my view, the OSCE is essential, in particular as we work with the governments and the civil society in these five countries.
Q: Specifically, which countries have made the most progress in terms of democratic reform in your view?
A: I never think it is useful to rate countries or to draw comparisons. The important thing is that, ultimately, they all find themselves on the track of democracy and the necessary economic and political reforms. Our centres on the ground work towards this progress. Just to give you an example, in Tajikistan there was some progress last year when they abolished exit visas and allocated frequencies to independent radio stations for the first time.
Q: In which areas do you see the need for greater work?
A: I think I would not be divulging any secrets if I told you that the process of democratisation and reforms is a long one. We have seen that in other parts of the OSCE area too. Countries have to deal with a difficult political and historical legacy. Perhaps we would like things to move more quickly, but I believe that we are all aware that we cannot change things overnight.
I would like to add, though, that a discussion is currently going on within the OSCE about the role and the structure of OSCE field missions. Countries that have an OSCE mission on their territory often see this as a stain on their record. This is regrettable, because it means that many countries would like to try get rid of the mission as soon as possible.
I would very much like to see this perception changed - and strengthen the concept of the new generation missions, where there is broad agreement between the mission and the host country about the work that needs to be undertaken, preferably together. Take for instance the OSCE missions in Serbia and Montenegro, where activities are carried out in full cooperation between OSCE staff and the host countries' authorities, NGOs and individuals. Also the centres in Bishkek and Tajikistan have very intense cooperation with their respective host governments.
Q: You recently travelled to Turkmenistan. What was the purpose of that visit?
A: My visit to Turkmenistan was the first of a series of visits I intend to pay to all five Central Asian republics, in line with the importance the Netherlands chairmanship attaches to developments in this region and the participation of these countries in the OSCE.
I think it was an important visit in that I have had a chance to discuss with President [Saparmyrat] Niyazov the Netherlands's priorities for its chairmanship, as well as various issues of concern, including human rights concerns. Just like I had the possibility to express criticism, I can say that the Turkmen president adopted an equally critical stance on certain OSCE activities, but what this means, most importantly, is that the door has not been shut on the OSCE and that we will continue our dialogue.
Q: How open are government leaders to suggestions?
A: I have to say that I detected, during my visit to Ashgabat, and especially my meeting with President Niyazov, a clear willingness on the part of the Turkmen authorities to have an open discussion with the OSCE on a number of issues that are an essential part of the relationship between Turkmenistan and the OSCE. I am not saying the discussion was easy, since, after all, the subjects are delicate.
As you know, the so-called Moscow Mechanism was initiated recently. I raised this with President Niyazov, asking him more explicitly for an official reaction to the report of the expert. In the meantime, the Turkmen authorities have reacted. I am not saying we are there yet, nor would I hide the fact that I would like to take our dialogue further, but at the same time, I do think our discussion has been useful, because we addressed many of these sensitive issues, and I think that we have laid the foundation for further cooperation and exchange of information.
Q: In your capacity, how are you going to enhance democratic reforms in Central Asia?
A: I believe I have already given you the main elements of our strategy. It consists of being there, on the spot with OSCE presence and experts, but also of our own direct and constructive engagement, persuading the authorities to work with and within the OSCE, developing and presenting new ideas of cooperation, including through the institution of personal envoys of the chairman.
As you may know, I have recently appointed the former Finnish president, Mr Martti Ahtisaari, as my personal envoy for Central Asia. This is another indication of the importance we attach to the region, and how we want to make sure that we use this year of the Netherlands chairmanship to push things forward.
Q: Precisely about the appointment of President Ahtisaari as your personal envoy for Central Asia: what is his mandate?
A: I have asked President Ahtisaari to have consultations on current OSCE issues at the highest political levels in all countries concerned in order to strengthen the long-term relationship between the OSCE and the Central Asian states. I have also encouraged Mr Ahtisaari to engage in talks not only with governments but also with nongovernmental organisations, independent institutions and civil society. The focus of his attention will be on both domestic and regional issues that affect stability and security inside and between the countries of the region, in which context I hope Mr Ahtisaari will provide recommendations to me as the chairman of the OSCE.
Q: What was the purpose of President Ahtisaari's visit to Tajikistan and what was achieved?
A: I understand that President Ahtisaari has had the opportunity to talk with President (Emomali] Rahmonov about issues such as action on mines, training programmes for border guards, the fight against drugs trafficking and freedom of movement for Tajik citizens abroad. Mr Ahtisaari also raised the issue of a moratorium on the death penalty and its eventual abolition in Tajikistan. Needless to say, the OSCE would welcome such moves.
They also discussed Tajikistan's plans to hold a referendum on amendments to the Constitution, and the need for the Tajik authorities to sign and ratify the UN Convention against torture and other forms of degrading treatment. Like in the case of Turkmenistan, I think it is very important to underline that there was a clear willingness on the Tajik side to continue and broaden the cooperation with the OSCE.
Q: The country is still reeling from the effects of years of civil war. What is the situation now?
As I already mentioned, I think that Tajikistan is striving to overcome these effects, and Mr Ahtisaari's visit also serves to move things forward in this respect. I think it is fair to say that the process of post-conflict rehabilitation has gained momentum, and that stabilisation and normalisation are now under way.
Thanks to the progress made in the last years, the priorities of the OSCE centre have shifted into new domains of activity. This is reflected in the mandate of the OSCE centre which was adopted in October last year. The mandate now includes aspects such as cooperation in the economic and environmental field, but also efforts to implement OSCE decisions regarding police-related activities, border control and anti-trafficking.
For further information on OSCE activities see: www.osce.org
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions