The CSS Blog Network

In Switzerland’s Shadow: Summing up Serbia’s 2015 OSCE Chairmanship

OSCE Minsterial Council in session, Basel 2014. Image: Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres/Flickr

This article was originally published by the Security and Human Rights Blog (The Hague) on 11 December, 2015.

The OSCE Ministerial Council meeting, held in Belgrade from 3 to 4 December 2015, was the final highlight of the Serbian OSCE Chairmanship of 2015. With the fading Serbian OSCE presidency, the direct co-responsibility of Swiss diplomacy for the OSCE ends as well. It needs to be recalled that in the fall of 2011, Switzerland and Serbia had teamed up and successfully campaigned for a “double chairmanship” of the OSCE for the years 2014 (Switzerland) and 2015 (Serbia).

Yet, at that time, more than four years ago, Switzerland and Serbia could not have imagined that under their tandem chairmanship, the OSCE would play a central role in the biggest geopolitical crisis in Europe since 1990. In the Ukraine Crisis, the OSCE suddenly played a leading role after having almost lapsed into irrelevance in the years before. » More

Summing Up Switzerland’s 2014 Chairmanship of the OSCE

The OSCE Ministerial Council in session in Basel, December 2014. Image: Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres/Flickr

The Swiss presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was dominated by the escalating Ukraine Crisis. Dealing with one of the worst crises in the Euro-Atlantic area since the end of the Cold War was a huge challenge for Swiss diplomacy. Switzerland emerged as an innovative, impartial, and effective crisis manager, but the Ukraine Crisis also clearly demonstrated the limits of the consensus rule within the OSCE. In the end, it led to a serious erosion of trust in the security architecture designed in 1975 and fully implemented after 1990.

With the conclusion of the 21st Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – held in Basel on 4-5 December – Switzerland’s 2014 Chairmanship of the organization can now be assessed. As Swiss Ambassador to the OSCE Thomas Greminger has argued since April of this year, the Ukraine Crisis has been both a curse and an opportunity for the OSCE. » More

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The OSCE after the Kyiv Ministerial

OSCE Ministerial Council meeting on 5 December in Kyiv

OSCE Ministerial Council meeting on 5 December, 2013, in Kyiv. Photo: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly/flickr.

“Today, the OSCE is not the organization over which foreign ministers are racking their brains when they wake up early in the morning.” This was how Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore characterized the state of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at the end of Ireland’s presidency in 2012.  A year later, however, the OSCE for once finds itself in the headlines. Just a few days before a routine meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Kyiv, the Ukrainian government – which holds the 2013 OSCE presidency – decided to move the country closer to Russia by breaking off trade negotiations with the European Union. In the run-up to the meeting, police violence against peaceful protesters and the biggest street demonstrations since the 2004 “Orange Revolution” dominated the scene in Kyiv.

US Boycott

In response to Ukraine’s actions, only half of the 57 OSCE members sent their top personnel to Kyiv. US Secretary of State John Kerry deliberately boycotted the event, and Britain and France sent deputies in lieu of their foreign ministers. Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, decided to meet with Serbian and Kosovar leaders in Brussels instead. By not attending this year’s ministerial meeting, Kerry and others did the OSCE a disservice. For 40 years the organization has been a powerful symbol of dialogue and the search for consensus and compromise between East and West. Boycotts and deliberate snubs may be useful for alliance-building and zero-sum games, but they are not in keeping with the “spirit of Helsinki” or the principles of cooperative security. » More

Oversight and Intelligence Services: the Case of Switzerland

Antennas in Loèche, part of Switzerland's Onyx data gathering system

Antennas in Loèche, part of Switzerland’s Onyx data gathering system. Photo: Rama/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1989, a Swiss parliamentary committee revealed that the country’s Federal Police and Federal Prosecutor’s Office had spent decades recording the activities of 10% of the Swiss population. It seems that during the Cold War, being a member of a left-wing organization, or even contacting it, raised the eyebrows of these agencies. But they weren’t alone. In time, the Swiss postal service and even private individuals began to perform this type of surveillance.

When they were finally informed about these activities, the Swiss public was predictably shocked by the scope and scale of the “Secret Files Scandal”.  What concerned them then is what concerns everyone now – i.e., the often absent legal justifications for such activities and the inadequate democratic oversight exercised over those who perform them.

The “Insurmountable Tension”

The Swiss case, along with the recent revelations about the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) activities, points to what many analysts and practitioners have long argued is an indissoluble problem. Yes, secrecy is necessary to prevent ‘legitimate’ surveillance targets from knowing they are under scrutiny, and thereby changing their modus operandi.  At the same time, this necessary feature of intelligence work inevitably breeds a lack of transparency and needed oversight. » More

What do the Swiss Really Think of Their International Neutrality?

Bundeshaus in Bern

The Swiss ‘Bundeshaus’ in Berne. Photo: Lorenz Ammon/flickr.

Every year the Center for Security Studies and the Military Academy at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (ETH) conduct a survey to determine the Swiss electorate’s attitudes toward a variety of Swiss-specific foreign, security and defense policy issues. This year, 1,200 people were surveyed and the results are now available here. Those who are familiar with these types of surveys might wonder whether the Sicherheit 2013 is as potentially dry as other statistics-laden reports. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since Swiss democracy is a uniquely direct and fully consensual form of political self-organization, what the survey actually contains is high drama – i.e., the drama of a people struggling to define their beliefs, values and very identity over time. And although some of these intangibles may wax and wane in importance, others remain at the core of what it means to be a citizen and what obligations citizens owe their country and beyond. In the case of the Swiss, their attitudes toward neutrality, hard power and conscription are indeed at the center of their ‘Swissness’.  In today’s blog, we’d like to provide a thumbnail sketch of how the people of this small multi-lingual country have viewed one of these three areas over time. » More

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