To realize its mission, the OSCE must have access to its full toolbox, participants say in discussion of consensus rule

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COPENHAGEN, 10 March 2021 – In a lively debate today, OSCE parliamentarians, representatives of OSCE executive structures and experts discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the consensus-based procedure in the OSCE’s decision-making bodies. Considered part of the “DNA” of the Organization since the 1970s, the consensus principle has long been seen as an important for ensuring equality of States and providing legitimacy to decisions, but is also easily abused leading to an obstructive and even destructive impact on the Organization, participants said.

The discussion took place in the second meeting of the “Call for Action – Helsinki +50 Process,” and was part of a series of meetings focusing on specific challenges facing the OSCE.

More than 100 OSCE officials and parliamentarians participated in the event, featuring remarks by Head of the Office of Legal Affairs of the OSCE Stephen Walsh, several OSCE PA leaders, former PA Presidents and Chairs-in-Office, and representatives of various OSCE institutions. Participants offered a variety of perspectives on the question of the OSCE consensus principle and priorities for possible reform, emphasizing in particular the need for greater political involvement by national governments to build political will to make the Organization more effective.

OSCE PA High-Level Expert Lamberto Zannier moderated the event, sharing his experiences as former OSCE Secretary General and High Commissioner on National Minorities. Zannier noted that the consensus procedure could sometimes lead to micromanaging of the OSCE by national delegations. As Secretary General, he found creative ways to put issues on the agenda without a formal decision but emphasized that there must be a broader process to ensure that the consensus rule is not abused, Zannier said.

In his opening remarks, OSCE PA President Peter Lord Bowness (United Kingdom) noted that the principle of consensus is inextricably linked with the OSCE, enshrining the principle of equality among States. He also highlighted that the successful deployment of the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine demonstrated that major decisions could be taken despite a highly polarized political environment. “But consensus is also a powerful weapon,” President Bowness said. “It has been misused to prevent decisions, close field operations, or obstruct key meetings. This has been detrimental to the overall interests of the OSCE and of its participating States.”

OSCE PA Vice-President Margareta Cederfelt (Sweden) noted the importance of at least requiring the lifting of anonymity in blocking consensus-based decisions, arguing that governments that prevent consensus should be required to explain why they are doing so. At the moment, she said, there is no accountability or responsibility for the damage that blocking consensus can cause to the overall OSCE community or to the functioning of the Organization. This, she said, is an area that should be further explored to ensure responsible behaviour by all participating States.

Dr. Daniel S. Hamilton, Director of the Global Europe Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, concurred with proposals to adjust the consensus rule for procedural matters like budgets and renewing mission mandates, but stressed that bureaucratic tweaks cannot overcome the political difficulties and the lack of governments’ compliance with OSCE commitments. Attention must also be paid to the political difficulties facing the Organization rather than institutional issues, he stressed.

OSCE PA Vice-President Kari Henriksen (Norway) acknowledged that governments participating in the OSCE value the consensus rule as providing a level playing field for all States, but this de facto veto power should be exercised in a responsible way. Challenging the consensus rule may have some consequences with governments, she said, but it is the parliamentarians’ role to provide oversight to their governments and the use of veto power is one area that must be scrutinized.

Also emphasizing the role of parliamentarians, OSCE PA Vice-President Azay Guliyev (Azerbaijan) said that the PA must offer concrete solutions to challenges facing the OSCE to help achieve common goals. He said that debates should be more open and transparent and should also extend to unsettled matters where consensus is absent.

In the discussion, participants agreed that political questions facing the OSCE should be addressed, but said this is very closely linked with the issue of accountability and transparency. The OSCE needs majorities that make decisions rather than minorities that block decisions, it was pointed out. Options like consensus-minus-one and consensus-minus-two procedures should be explored and there is a need to redefine questions that are political and administrative in nature, in which case a different more flexible rule should be in place, it was argued.

Participants said that for the OSCE to succeed it must be empowered to use its entire toolbox, and if the consensus principle stands in the way of this, it should be reconsidered. The decision-making process must be adapted to serve the main purpose of meeting priorities such as resolving conflicts and improving security, but it was also acknowledged that participating States attach great importance to the consensus rule and the principle of equality of States, and therefore would be very reluctant to abandon it.

At the very least, participants said, some consideration should be given to prevent the blocking of procedural decisions, for example by eliminating the never-ending budget cycle. In this regard, OSCE PA Secretary General Roberto Montella called for looking in the direction of practical and feasible changes such as adopting a budget cycle of two years, and urged continued high-level political attention to the OSCE in order to overcome its challenges.

To watch the event on YouTube, please click here.

For more information on the OSCE PA's “Call for Action – Helsinki +50 Process,” please click here.



Nat Parry

Head of Communications and Press

Office: +45 33 37 80 55
Mobile: +45 60 10 81 77
Email: [email protected]

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