The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization. With 57 participating states in North America, Europe and Asia some refer to the OSCE as “the little UN”.

The beginning of the OSCE traces back to the Helsinki Final Act (1975) and the subsequent series of conferences known as the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). The latter served as an important multilateral forum for dialogue between East and West during the Cold War and responded to new challenges arising in the post-Cold War period with the break-up of former Yugoslavia and the subsequent conflicts. Evolving beyond its original role the CSCE was renamed as the OSCE in 1994.

The OSCE serves as a forum for political dialogue that addresses security issues through (i) the politico-military, (ii) the economic and environmental, and (iii) the human dimensions, on the basis of political commitments among the participating States. The “human dimension” encompasses the advancement of human rights and fundamental freedoms, support for holding transparent and democratic elections, ensuring the rule of law and the protection of national minorities and the promotion of tolerance and non-discrimination.

The central OSCE institution committed to the human dimension is the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The largest annual human rights conference in the OSCE region is the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) hosted by the ODIHR. This conference provides a forum for dialogue between delegations of the 57 member states and representatives of civil society.

The total financial contributions by participating states to the OSCE amounts to 141,107,600 EUR according to the Annual Report 2015. The biggest contributors are the USA (13,0%), Germany (11,0%), France, the United Kingdom and Italy (10,4% each). (The share given by the Russian Federation of 3,9% or 5,8 million EUR is comparably low.)

1.  The HDIM 2016 in Warsaw

FOREF Europe attended working session 12 of this year’s HDIM on Tuesday, 27 September 2016 themed “Fundamental freedoms I, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief”. The session was moderated by Dr. Kishan Manoha, Senior Advisor of the ODIHR Human Rights Department, and opened by two introducers: Prof. Heiner Bielfeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and Ms. Joelle Fiss, researcher and member of the ODIHR Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB).

Explaining the fundamental value of FoRB for maintaining free societies, Ms. Fiss first underlined that FoRB and national security are not incompatible: “It is a dangerous assumption to believe that the higher a religious conviction, the more security measures need to be met,” she said. The OSCE, however, prefers a “holistic approach to security” and regards all dimensions – the human, political, military and economic dimensions – as compatible. Secondly, Ms. Fiss pointed out that “a growing amount of literature confirms that FoRB ensures social cohesion.” This means that religious freedom is in fact good for social order and stability, increases economic progress and serves as an indicator for press freedom and democratic culture. Thirdly, FoRB has a direct impact on gender equality and the prevention of radicalization. After all, women can strengthen radicalization or social cohesion. In summary, the more people are free to practice FoRB, the more stable a society becomes. (FOREF’s position

Prof. Bielefeldt, a philosopher, theologian and historian by profession, continued to elaborate on the relationship between state security and FoRB rights. “Respect for human dignity is the source of all rights and an absolute norm. But respect is also the source of security. Can we provide security without respect for human dignity?”, Prof. Bielefeldt said. A security policy that is based in the rule of law will be far more sustainable than security measures leading to repression, intimidation and a climate of mistrust. Therefore, any “balancing” of FoRB rights through limitation closures requires a clear justification logic and must adhere to the principle of proportionality. In other words, before any limitation is put on FoRB rights through state legislation in the name of security it must be proven that the restriction is suited to solve a problem. There is no connection between a restrictive dress code (“burqa ban”) and terrorism, and thus prohibiting women from wearing the veil does not add to state security at all.

“The first priority is respect of human dignity and human freedom. Then limitations may enter the picture, but the state carries the burden of justification. There is a real danger of selling out the substance of FoRB rights and a tendency to relativize and trivialize fundamental freedoms. We need a paradigm shift away from a balance metaphor of ‘security vs. freedom’ towards a justification logic whenever freedom rights are limited,” Prof. Bielefeldt stated.