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2017 WM Link ISAMichael Georg Link and Ignacio Sanchez Amor, Vienna, 24 February 2017VIENNA, 24 February 2017 – The final session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s 16th Winter Meeting on Friday featured a special debate on protecting human rights in times of crisis. Dozens of interventions by members of parliament from more than 20 OSCE participating States addressed issues related to counter-terrorism, radicalization, protracted conflicts in the OSCE region, and challenges to state authority, emphasizing the importance of upholding fundamental rights during periods of heightened security concerns.

Opening the debate, OSCE PA President Christine Muttonen noted that in the current security environment where threats to stability and public safety are all too real, there is a growing anxiety and expectation among citizens that their governments take action to keep them secure. She stressed, however, that “hyper-securitization of our countries” is not a realistic or effective solution.

Muttonen noted that upholding shared values and OSCE commitments is essential to countering violent extremism and establishing comprehensive security. Rejecting calls from leaders across the OSCE area for restricting rights, Muttonen said that “we must instead find a comprehensive, effective and sustainable way to uphold security.”

The OSCE is well-suited to address this issue because of its comprehensive approach to security, she said. “The strength of our input is the fact that it is multi-dimensional – touching on hard security, economics, environmental challenges, human rights and humanitarian questions,” Muttonen said.

OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Michael Georg Link delivered opening remarks in which he stressed that any assessment of human rights in the OSCE must begin by recognizing that in recent years there has been a decline in democratic freedoms. “As is unfortunately the case in times of crisis, human rights are among the first victims,” Link said. He warned that the system of multilateralism based on democratic ideals is at risk.

Link also pointed out that across the OSCE area there is a trend toward growing executive power, as well as increasing distrust and rising populism. “But no majority government is above the law,” he reminded parliamentarians. Link argued that “in these times our organization needs voices willing to speak out in defence of OSCE commitments,” and noted in this regard the importance of developing close co-operation between Parliamentary Assembly and ODIHR.

OSCE PA human rights committee Chair Ignacio Sanchez Amor (MP, Spain) warned against security being used as an excuse for lack of progress on democratic development, noting that democracy means much more than holding elections.

“Putting a ballot into a box isn’t sufficient in establishing a country as a democracy. Democracy is what happens between elections,” Sanchez Amor said. He urged a high standard for human rights across the OSCE area, stressing that parliamentary systems and presidential systems alike should guard against authoritarian trends. He also argued that multilateral diplomacy must place human rights high on the agenda.

In the debate, parliamentarians discussed a wide range of issues, expressing concerns over restrictions to freedom of speech and freedom of association, as well as the importance of defending equality and developing effective approaches to countering radicalization and violent extremism. Minority and language rights were stressed as important to uphold across the OSCE area, while anti-Semitism was also highlighted as a priority.

Kyriakos Hadjiyianni (MP, Cyprus) argued that to respond to declining human rights it is necessary to strengthen the OSCE’s human rights enforcement mechanisms. Hedy Fry (MP, Canada) stressed the value of the OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security and noted that the OSCE model provides an opportunity to respond to crises in an organized manner, as well as to develop long-term approaches to address trends before they develop into crises.

The situation in Turkey was highlighted as a concern by a number of members, with Soren Sondergaard (MP, Denmark) noting that an alarmingly high number of journalists are imprisoned in the country. Steve King (United States) stressed that recent terrorist attacks have killed many innocent people in Turkey, and noted last July’s attempted coup against the authorities in Ankara, but expressed concern over the response by the Turkish government.

Ismail Karayel (MP, Turkey) responded by emphasizing the high level of the threat in Turkey and said that all individuals detained in Turkey are suspected of serious crimes and that their legal rights are respected. In the weeks following the attempted coup, President Muttonen led a high-level visit to Ankara, and the OSCE PA has addressed the situation in the country in a number of statements.

The refugee and migrant crisis was also raised, with Greek members pointing out that OSCE countries need to share the responsibility for hosting those fleeing violence – as was called for in the OSCE PA’s Tbilisi Declaration – and ensure that terrorists are not able to exploit the crisis.

Artur Gerasymov (MP, Ukraine) said that Ukraine faces a serious human rights challenge due to breaches of its sovereignty by the Russian Federation, and called on the Russian side to fulfill its obligations under the Minsk Agreements. Leonid Slutsky (MP, Russian Federation) responded by noting that the crisis stemmed from the coup in Ukraine in February 2014, and recalled Kyiv’s responsibility to live up to its commitments. The crisis in and around Ukraine has regularly been addressed by the OSCE PA with resolutions adopted in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

The two-day Winter Meeting closed with addresses by the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sebastian Kurz, and OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier, who stressed the need for continued strong co-operation between the OSCE’s governmental and parliamentary sides.

Minister Kurz commended the valuable role of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. “As representatives of the people, you contribute in an impressive manner to defend, protect and implement the values and aspirations of the OSCE. Democratic feedback as well as dialogue through complementary channels of communication are indispensable for our Organization and can contribute to building trust and confidence,” he said.

“At a time when we face growing mistrust and an increasing number of ever more complex challenges, it is important that we make full use of all possibilities to revive co-operative security,” said Zannier. “By engaging in parliamentary diplomacy and in their national capacity, members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly strongly contribute to the Organization’s objectives. As a central forum for dialogue between our 57 participating States, the OSCE PA provides a vital link towards a more secure future.”

Earlier in the day, the OSCE PA’s Committee on Political Affairs and Security, chaired by Sen. Roger Wicker (United States) met to hear addresses by senior OSCE officials and held a debate on “Transnational Security in the OSCE Area: Confronting Terrorism.”

More information on the OSCE PA’s Winter Meeting, including selected speeches, is available here. Photos from the two-day meeting are on the OSCE PA’s Flickr page. Videos are available on YouTube.