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Participants at the Belgrade seminar included: Top (left to right): OSCE PA Secretary General Spencer Oliver, President Ilkka Kanerva, Serbian Delegation Head Dijana Vukomanovic, BFPE President Sonja Licht Bottom (left to right): Serbian Ambassador Dejan Sahovic, OSCE PA human rights committee Rapporteur Gordana Comic

The OSCE needs a strengthened presence on the ground, closer co-operation with civil society and a rededication to human rights commitments to help realize its goal of achieving comprehensive security, said participants in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Helsinki +40 seminar today in Belgrade. (PHOTOS available here.)

OSCE PA President Ilkka Kanerva (MP, Finland) joined other leading parliamentarians, representatives of the Serbian OSCE Chairmanship, think-tank experts, civil society actors and academics for the two-day event, which was hosted by the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia in co-operation with the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence (BFPE).

The seminar followed events in Moscow, Washington, Stockholm and Copenhagen as part of the OSCE PA’s Helsinki +40 Project, which aims to evaluate the OSCE’s past and inspire reform on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of its founding document, the Helsinki Final Act of 1975.

“People from the 57 participating States [of the OSCE] are expecting us to deliver our promises that peace has no alternative,” said Dijana Vukomanovic, the Head of Serbia’s Delegation to the PA, in her opening remarks on 27 May.

“The road ahead of us will not be easy… [We] should help each other to shape public opinion and mobilize political, legislative, human, logistical and financial resources in order to give [OSCE] issues due attention in our respective countries,” she added.

Participants agreed that OSCE field missions and presences on the ground often provide the primary avenue for implementing the Organization’s goals and achieving a measurable impact, as well as providing early warning of conflict. The OSCE and its participating States must reverse their recent course and put more resources and political will — not less — into these presences, they said.

“The OSCE PA has always been supportive of the OSCE’s work in the field and has been critical when missions were downgraded or shut down. So let us develop together a roadmap for strengthening OSCE fieldwork in the next decade,” President Kanerva said.

“With the situation between Ukraine and Russia, in particular, there is a need to discuss the capabilities on the ground of the OSCE,” he added.

In recent years, the OSCE’s Advisory and Monitoring Group in Belarus and the OSCE Mission to Georgia were closed and missions in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan have been downgraded in their mandates.

Gordana Comic, the Deputy Speaker of the Serbian Parliament and the Rapporteur of the OSCE PA’s Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions, argued that the downgrading of mandates, often due to host government insistence, is an indicator of negative trends taking place within the country.

Ambassador Peter Burkhard, the Head of the OSCE Mission to Serbia, noted that a consensus vote within the Organization is currently needed to extend the mandates of missions, meaning that decisions often hinge on the political climate.

Seminar participants also emphasized the need for better integration of civil society into the work of the OSCE, from informing the development of projects, partnering with the Organization on their implementation and providing feedback on challenges and successes in their respective countries.

BFPE President Sonja Licht noted that the Helsinki Final Act itself had “opened the space” for the involvement of civil society.

“The OSCE platform has an opportunity to change from being purely inter-governmental, into something else — a cross-sectoral exercise and initiative,” she said.

Ambassador Dejan Sahovic, the Head of Serbia’s OSCE Chairmanship Task Force, noted that strengthening the Organization’s co-operation with civil society is one of the Chairmanship’s goals.

“Unlike some of the other international organizations, the OSCE has no available mechanisms for monitoring compliance with OSCE commitments. This could be an area for the participation of civil society organizations, should the next Chairmanships decide to follow in the footsteps of the Serbian and Swiss Chairmanships,” he said.

Several experts from the BFPE recalled the PA’s recommendation for the establishment of an advisory council of NGOs to the OSCE.

Gordana Comic was among several participants who said that realizing the OSCE’s full potential will require placing human rights at the fore of its agenda.

“While much has been achieved in 40 years, too many countries shrug off criticism of their rights records and continue to abuse their citizens — without being held accountable by this Organization. Allowing this to continue means allowing the Final Act to die. The OSCE must decisively raise human rights on its agenda and establish mechanisms for real accountability,” she said.

“The OSCE must also adopt an evolved understanding of what ‘human rights’ means today. Are there ‘newer’ human rights that it is time for us to acknowledge? Various forms of inequality, such as in access to healthcare, for example, continue to plague many societies within the OSCE, and should we not consider this one of our central human rights challenges, too?” Comic asked.

On 28 May, Helsinki +40 Project Chair Joao Soares (MP, Portugal), PA Secretary General Spencer Oliver and others led a session on the outcomes of the entire Helsinki +40 Project.

The results will be presented as a final report during the OSCE PA’s 24th Annual Session in the Finnish capital on 6 July.

Following the seminar, participants representing the OSCE PA, the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office and the OSCE Mission to Serbia joined academics and youth for a debate at Belgrade University on the theme “The future of the OSCE: lessons learned from the OSCE’s engagement in Ukraine.”

The topic has been central to several Helsinki +40 seminars.

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