Summing Up Switzerland’s 2014 Chairmanship of the OSCE

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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.

A curse and an opportunity

Why a curse? The Russian annexation of Crimea and the subsequent direct military destabilization of Eastern Ukraine amounted to a breach of fundamental OSCE commitments, contradicting the 1975 Helsinki Act as well as subsequent core OSCE principles and norms. Clearly, the erosion of trust between the West and Russia negatively impacted the OSCE in 2014. East-West tensions overshadowed many of the Swiss OSCE activities planned for the 2014 Chairmanship, including institutional reform of the OSCE (“Helsinki+40 process”), conventional arms control in Europe, and confidence-building in the Southern Caucasus.

Why, then, was it also an opportunity for the OSCE and the Swiss Chairmanship? Because the crisis in and around Ukraine has revitalized the OSCE and brought the organization back into the limelight. Under Swiss stewardship, the OSCE played useful roles in the international management of one of the most serious crises in the Euro-Atlantic region since the end of the Cold War. For the first time in over ten years, the OSCE decided to deploy a field mission (on 21 March), reversing the trend in recent years of shutting field missions down or downgrading them. In his capacity as OSCE Chairperson-in-Office (CiO), Swiss President and Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter made more than 60 statements on the Ukraine Crisis and actively mediated between conflict parties – keeping the dialogue open with the Kremlin after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and presenting innovative and practical suggestions for de-escalating the conflict, such as the Swiss ‘Roadmap’ that was published in early May. Switzerland also deployed two of its most experienced diplomats to Ukraine, ambassadors Tim Guldimann and Heidi Tagliavini, to spur national dialogue and to assist in negotiating a (fragile) ceasefire in September.

The OSCE Ministerial Council in Basel on 4-5 December reflected this dual sense of curse and opportunity. On the one hand, the participation of a record number of foreign ministers (53 out of 57) was a clear signal that the OSCE participating states continue to recognize the organization’s value. The Swiss Chairmanship succeeded in having 20 decisions adopted in Basel – another record number compared with 14 in Kyiv (2013), 7 in Dublin (2012), and 14 in Vilnius (2011). Indeed, Switzerland managed to have decisions adopted in all three ‘dimensions’ of the OSCE’s comprehensive view of security, as well as on the important issues of foreign fighters and kidnapping for ransom in the context of OSCE anti-terrorism activities. The Swiss Chairmanship also launched a high-level panel to discuss the impact of the Ukraine Crisis on European security and make suggestions to OSCE states by the end of 2015. On the other hand, heated debates and aggressive rhetoric prevented unity and highlighted key divisions within the OSCE. Russia ended up being rather isolated within the ‘OSCE family’ and used its veto power to prevent a sharply formulated political declaration on the Ukraine Crisis from being adopted. Much to the chagrin of the Swiss Chairmanship, its proposed decision on the Prevention of Torture did not find the necessary consensus – and thus one declared priority of the Swiss Chairmanship ended in disappointment. Moreover, neither the Youth Action Plan formulated by 57 Youth Ambassadors nor the Swiss idea of an Eminent Persons panel were among the decisions adopted.  Although a Declaration on Youth was passed, it did not refer to the Action Plan, as the Swiss had suggested; and although the Decision on the Helsinki+40 process vaguely mentioned that OSCE states “will continue to use the OSCE as a platform for addressing European security,” a more explicit reference to the high-level panel was deleted from the draft decision.

Nevertheless, Didier Burkhalter used his position as CiO creatively to make a statement on the evening of 4 December summarizing the first day of discussions in Basel. This allowed him to present the viewpoints of the vast majority of OSCE states who had tried to use the Ukraine Declaration (which Russia had prevented from being adopted) to “deplore the tragedy of lost lives and human suffering” in Ukraine and the “shock” of the downing of flight MH17. Burkhalter also stressed that despite diverging assessments of the causes of the crisis “many states held the view that the crisis is the result of the pressure from one participating state against another”, i.e., Russian pressure against Ukraine. With this summary statement, Swiss diplomacy found an inventive way to make public the fault lines at Basel that prevented unity behind closed doors. Burkhalter’s summary should therefore be read together with the official speeches of the foreign ministers and the decisions and declarations that were officially adopted.

A success in difficult circumstances

Considering the huge challenge of the unforeseen Ukraine Crisis and the widening gap between Russia and the West, the 2014 Swiss OSCE Chairmanship needs to be characterized as a success. Swiss diplomacy cleverly used the crisis to make the OSCE and its crisis management tools more visible. Under Switzerland’s lead, the OSCE returned to playing a relevant and useful role in European security. Three contributions of Swiss high-level diplomacy in the Ukraine Crisis stand out.   First, in March, Didier Burkhalter convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to consent to the OSCE field mission in Ukraine. At that point, Russia had little faith in the OSCE but trusted the impartial Swiss Chairmanship. Ultimately, the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) that was deployed was not only the first mission authorized in over ten years, it was one of the largest mandated field missions in the history of the organization. Second, on April 17 in Geneva, Switzerland hosted the first bilateral meeting between Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers after the ouster of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, and created the Swiss ‘Roadmap’ detailing the steps necessary to implement the Geneva Agreement mediated by the US and the EU. Third, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, in her capacity as Burkhalter’s personal envoy to Ukraine, not only secured early access of OSCE observers to the crash site of flight MH17 in July but was involved in the ceasefire negotiations between Moscow, Kyiv, and pro-Russian separatists in East Ukraine that led to the Minsk agreements in September.

Beyond the Ukraine Crisis, the Swiss Chairmanship was particularly successful in its contribution to OSCE anti-terrorism activities. In mid-2013, Switzerland had identified the issue of kidnapping for ransom (a common tactic of Jihadist groups in the Sahel and elsewhere) as a top priority. In early 2014, the Swiss Chairmanship added the topic of returning Jihadist foreign fighters as a second priority. At an international conference held in Interlaken in April, these two topics were discussed among OSCE participating states. In the run-up to Basel, it was unclear whether the proposed decision on Foreign Fighters could be adopted – with the use of foreign fighters on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine likely to create political gridlock. Eventually, however, consensus was found for both decisions. Clearly, Switzerland had selected topics that were both novel and relevant to the OSCE’s desire to contribute to the international fight against Jihadist terrorism.

Last but not least, the Swiss Chairmanship succeeded in providing a strong foundation for future chairmanships. In 2011, when Switzerland was approached by countries including the US and Germany to launch a candidacy against fellow OSCE member Serbia for 2014, Bern had proposed a Swiss-Serbian ‘double candidacy’ for 2014-15. In Basel, OSCE states extended this innovative Swiss idea by approving a similar tandem chairmanship between Germany and Austria for 2016-17.  These two-year planning cycles give the OSCE greater continuity than the traditional one-year rotating presidency. For the future of the OSCE, it is also an encouraging sign that EU heavyweight Germany, which will be holding the OSCE presidency for the first time in 2016, has offered to lead the organization at a time of deepening East-West tension.

Dr. Christian Nünlist is the head of the think tank team “Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security” at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich. He is the author of “Building Bridges for Everyone: Switzerland’s Chairmanship of the OSCE in 2014” (April 2014) and co-editor of “Perspectives on the Role of the OSCE in the Ukraine Crisis” (December 2014).

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