As part of the ongoing OSCE-series, SOCIETY spoke with Neil Bush, the Head of the United Kingdom’s Delegation to the OSCE, about the impact of Brexit on his work as well as the importance of the OSCE for peace making on an international level.
Photo: OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro meeting with Ambassador of United Kingdom Neil Bush, 8 February 2021
Since March 2019, you are Head of the United Kingdom’s Delegation to the OSCE. How would you define the role the UK is taking on within the OSCE? Did Brexit have any impact on it?
The OSCE has become more important to the UK since we left the European Union. The UK has set out a vision to work with other countries to protect human rights and uphold global norms, and to ensure collective security in the Euro-Atlantic region. That is at the core of what the OSCE as an organisation is all about.
We are deeply committed to multilateralism, and highly value our membership of the OSCE. The UK sees the OSCE’s principles and values – including respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-use of force, and human rights and fundamental freedoms – as critical for European and Euro-Atlantic security. Through making national statements, raising vital security issues in the OSCE’s fora, chairing the committee on transnational threats, and supporting and utilising the toolkit of the organisation, we aim to do what we can to uphold those principles.
The OSCE’s role in conflict prevention, mediation and resolution is vital, including the critical function played by military transparency and confidence and security building measures. We also see the OSCE as key organisation for human rights, rule of law and democratic governance.
On a personal level, we are more active than we were pre-Brexit – now expressing national positions across multiple security issues, including military, economic, environmental, cyber security, counter-terrorism, media freedom, democratic elections and human rights. I have seen a step up in UK Ministerial interest in the OSCE, mirrored by participation of UK Ministers in OSCE events.
We remain a European nation and work closely with our European Union neighbours in the OSCE, with which we have constructive and productive relationships, and share a common set of values and principles.
What are currently – in your opinion – the biggest threats to Europe’s security and how can the OSCE counteract them?
The G7 Leaders Summit in the UK from 11-13 June identified a number of pressing global challenges, including for European security. While responding to both the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change were seen as essential, in parallel there was significant discussion on Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the need to defend democracy, strengthen the foundations of open society and promote human rights.
In 2014, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and initiated and fuelled conflict in eastern Ukraine– in violation of its OSCE commitments. Ordinary citizens continue to pay a heavy price. In Belarus, we have witnessed human rights violated and democracy attacked, also in violation of OSCE commitments. The OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism report provides undeniable evidence of systematic human rights abuses and electoral fraud. The report sets out the way out of the crisis. In parallel, in Russia we see a shrinking space for civil society. Across the OSCE area, we also see growing threats from disinformation, election interference and cyber attacks. All of the above creates threats to European security – ones to which we should collectively respond.
The OSCE plays a unique role in resolving conflicts across the region, through early warning, conflict prevention and reconciliation. These efforts can have a huge impact on people’s lives. The OSCE has a suite of confidence and security building instruments, which if implemented, will help reduce military risk in the region. The OSCE, through its institutions and field operations, also can offer crucial support to participating States to help protect fundamental freedoms and human rights. That includes election observation, support for rule of law and for tolerance and non-discrimination. It includes the work of the Representative for Freedom of the Media in challenging states on their compliance with international commitments on freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Ultimately the best way to improve European security is for participating States to return to and implement what has been agreed – to respect other countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, to not use force, and to protect our citizens’ human rights and fundamental freedoms.
In a blog post, you wrote about the vital role the OSCE plays in elections. What are the organizations mechanisms to positively “influence” them?
As I mentioned in my blog, elections are a critical part of our democracy, and there are a range of international commitments and standards to ensure elections are periodic, genuine, free and fair, with universal and equal suffrage and voting undertaken by secret ballot. The OSCE commitments in this space date back to 1990.
Within the OSCE it is the autonomous Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) that is the guardian of all 57 participating States’ commitments on human rights, fundamental freedoms and democracy. This includes an important role in observing elections. When ODIHR arrives in a country to observe elections it starts from a simple premise – that there should be continuous improvement in the holding of democratic elections in all countries. Their recommendations therefore help each country improve its electoral processes in a tailored way and provide a useful starting point for the next election – a “building block” rather than a “one size fits all” approach, and an approach we fully support.
ODIHR monitors the full election period, providing detailed, impartial information. Over time and multiple elections and – based on the tailored approach described above – an assessment is built up on a number of aspects, including: the effectiveness and impartiality of the election administration; the robustness of the legislative framework; the registration process for candidates and political parties; the nature of campaigns (including the media environment); the extent to which there is a level playing field for all participants; and whether citizens’ freedom of expression, assembly, association and movement are being upheld.
COVID-19 has presented a unique challenge to ODIHR’s election observation work, but one to which ODIHR have responded effectively, continuing to observe and assess elections across the OSCE area.
The OSCE traces its origins to the détente phase of the early 1970s. What were its biggest successes so far and how do you personally see the future of the organization?
In 2025 we will mark the 50 year anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act – the genesis of the OSCE. The Helsinki Final Act has proved a success – it came at a crucial moment during the Cold War and was based on trust. It allowed for greater predictability in international affairs, and led to a set of norms and principles that were designed to make our countries and all our citizens safer. These founding agreements were then built upon, including in the 1990s with more detailed commitments on democracy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms and with introducing the “O” to the “OSCE” – creating an organisation for security and cooperation in Europe, rather than just a conference. The OSCE is ultimately created for our citizens – as a way of holding governments to account for its commitments on military matters, human rights, approach to conflicts, transnational threats (like crime and terrorism) and economic and environmental issues.
Every conflict which occurs in the region makes us rightly reflect – the OSCE was primarily designed as a conflict prevention organisation. But when needed, the OSCE has to respond and flex into a conflict mediation and resolution organisation. To achieve this, political will is needed from all sides in a conflict. Where there is such will, agreements can have a huge impact on people’s lives. The OSCE should continue to play a crucial role in early warning, conflict prevention as well as resolution and mediation.
We are seeing debate in the OSCE becoming increasing polarised, as well as attempts to roll back on OSCE commitments in the political-military and human rights spheres. This is the trust that needs to be restored.
But if the OSCE did not exist, it would very likely have to be recreated. It is the world’s largest regional security organisation, an important and regular multilateral forum and one with a cast list spanning from Canada and the US on its western edge to Russia (and Mongolia) on its eastern, and all the way from the Arctic Circle down to the Mediterranean, Turkey, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Its comprehensive approach to security is a strength.
We need to return to the spirit generated in Helsinki nearly 50 years ago, reminding ourselves that respect for all of our commitments makes us and all our citizens safer and more secure.