Despite all efforts, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, just as other international organizations, proved unable to react properly to the Russian hybrid war, unleashed against Ukraine in 2014, and then to prevent a full-blown military invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
OSCE Secretary-General Helga Schmid is sure that her organization is not to blame as it is a single member, the Russian Federation, that decided to act in breach of its obligations and norms of international law. According to Schmid, various options were offered to continue the dialogue but Russia chose the path of violence.
In an interview with Ukrinform, the OSCE chief told how she met the first report on a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, what she thinks about reforming the organization and the consensus principle, and whether the decision to move all SMM personnel out of Ukraine was right, as well as if she is planning to visit Kyiv.
Russia’s military attack on Ukraine is absolutely appalling
Madam Secretary-General, could you please recall your impressions of the first reports about the Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February? Did you consider it probable that Russian President Vladimir Putin would dare to start a new war on the European continent, the largest since World War II?
Like millions around the world, I was shocked. Russia’s military attack on Ukraine is absolutely appalling. The consequences for the people of Ukraine are severe. And the suffering induced by this unprovoked violence is profound.
I said it back on February 24 and can repeat it now: it did not have to be like this. There were so many working to support dialogue. There were efforts led by the US, by NATO, by the EU. And the OSCE participating States offered to put aside all differences to offer a comprehensive dialogue. On the 8th of February, the OSCE Chairman-in-Office launched the Renewed OSCE European Security Dialogue, which was meant to help build trust, transparency, and co-operation.
Russia had options. Russia chose force. So today we are living through a war that seemed unthinkable in Europe in the 21st century, with drastic consequences for Ukraine, as well as for the rest of the OSCE region and beyond.
Consensus-based decision making today is not working the way it should
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which was called upon to prevent wars in the region, has demonstrated its inability to stop Putin’s long-running hybrid war in the Donbas or prevent a large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. What added value to European and global security can the OSCE bring in its current form? Can the OSCE be an effective organization as long as the aggressor state Russia and its accomplice Belarus sit in it, and all key decisions of the Organization are made by consensus? Isn’t it time for a radical reform of the OSCE, and in particular the veto principle?
As I said, there were options for continued dialogue – including through the OSCE. Russia chose violence instead. This isn’t a failure of any international organization but a clear choice by one country to act against its commitments and obligations and in violation of international law. As a result, we are facing challenges that were unimaginable just a few months ago. This is a challenge not just for the OSCE but also the wider multilateral system.
And while it’s difficult to talk about open dialogue, there will have to be engagement in the future across the OSCE area. But this cannot happen unless it’s undertaken in good faith and based on respect for basic principles and commitments. This is essential to start rebuilding trust and co-operation. The OSCE has an important role to play here. It remains the only platform for security dialogue in this region that includes both Russia and Ukraine. We have unique experience and expertise that can support a peaceful, sustainable way forward.
This is important in the context of Ukraine as well as in other parts of the OSCE region. Our participating States face a range of challenges, difficulties and tensions, both old and new, and the OSCE plays an important role in addressing these, from countering terrorism and preventing cyberattacks to fighting corruption and combatting human trafficking, just to name a few. We need more co-operation, not less.
On consensus, this has never been easy – and these days it is especially challenging. Important work can be stalled or derailed altogether by one participating State when there are 57 around the table. To say this is frustrating would be an understatement. But we have a consensus rule because the idea of this organization was, from the start, to bring together states that didn’t see eye-to-eye on many issues but still saw an opportunity to build more stability and security by coming together. Consensus-based decision making was meant to help build trust. Today it’s not working the way it should.
As for reforms, there are many proposals for how to improve the work of the OSCE, and much of that is for our participating States to decide. Personally, I am doing what I can within my own mandate to lead changes that will make the OSCE Secretariat more efficient and effective, more transparent and accountable, more inclusive, and more collaborative.
The SMM evacuation was only ever intended to be temporary but due to Russia’s position the mission stopped its work
In the third month of the full-scale war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, it is already possible to more carefully analyse the decisions and steps in the first days. For example, how justified was the complete evacuation of the SMM from Ukraine? Wasn’t it more appropriate to move the mission to safer areas and continue remote monitoring of the conflict zone? How does the organization see its further activities in Ukraine?
The Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine was used to operating in very difficult situations, as it did for eight years. However, the SMM was an unarmed civilian mission. We had mission members from more than 40 countries, and some of those countries had opted to bring their people home even before the Chair and I had to make the overall decision to evacuate our international staff and facilitate the relocation of our national staff. The decision wasn’t easy for anyone, but it was necessary given the dire security situation on the ground. In those unprecedented and highly unpredictable circumstances, our duty of care to our Mission members took priority. And I continue to remain engaged in support of our national mission members in Ukraine through multiple channels.
I am so grateful to all the women and men who served in the SMM. They were the international community’s impartial eyes and ears on the ground over the past eight years. On numerous occasions, their work was challenged, their freedom of movement was impeded, and they were sometimes harassed or even threatened. But they continued to work tirelessly to provide objective information and ease the effects of the conflict on the civilian population.
I also want to recall that the evacuation or relocation was only ever intended to be temporary. Our teams were ready to resume our work in the country as soon as it was safe to do so. But this opportunity never came. Because the mandate for the mission needed to be renewed by the 31st of March, and this required consensus of all 57 participating States. While there was broad support for the SMM continuing, there was no consensus. So all mandated activities had to stop, and we are now in the process of closing that mission altogether.
Of course the closure of the SMM does not mean that the OSCE is leaving Ukraine. The Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine and his team continue to work on the ground in the country, as they have for over 20 years, and we’re doing a great deal more to support Ukraine across all our areas of work.
The OSCE will continue to work every day for the release of detained local staffers of the SMM
The Russian military has detained SMM national mission members in the occupied territories, which is a dangerous precedent also for the security of local personnel of other OSCE’s field missions. What is the OSCE doing to release those detained and what measures are being taken to prevent further detentions and guarantees of non-repetition? Does the recent announcement of the closure of the SMM mean that these detained people in Ukraine will lose their status as members of the SMM and that the OSCE will no longer play any role in their release from illegal detention?
First let me clarify that four of our SMM national mission members are detained by the so-called “authorities” in Donetsk and Luhansk and not by the Russian military. Their detention is absolutely unacceptable. Minister Rau and I have called for their immediate release and condemned in the strongest terms the deplorable acts of intimidation, harassment, and hostile public rhetoric against the SMM and its staff in non-government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. We continue to work every day for their release.
I also want to make clear that the OSCE’s duty of care towards these colleagues does not end with the closure of the SMM. Functional immunity related to acts performed by SMM mission members in their official capacity during their employment with the SMM should, as a matter of international law, continue to be respected even after the mission closes. And there is no question that we will continue to work for the urgent release of our colleagues.
After the beginning of the Russian full-scale war, 12 diplomats of Russia’s mission to the UN were expelled for engaging in espionage activities. There is no secret that the Russians are actively infiltrating their intelligence services’ agents into international organizations, and I think the OSCE is no exception. Are there any steps planned to address this issue? Do you see the OSCE employment system protected from such Russian personnel?
The OSCE has a rigorous hiring process in place for each of our institutions and field operations. All our staff members are bound by the OSCE Code of Conduct as part of their conditions of employment and are held to its high standards throughout their employment.
This includes a commitment to serve as an international civil servant and uphold all the values of the OSCE in their professional work. They may not represent the interests of their respective countries, and are expected to maintain the highest levels of objectivity, impartiality and professionalism.
I do hope to be back in Kyiv very soon
The Secretaries-General of the Council of Europe and the United Nations have already visited Kyiv. At the same time, the OSCE leadership have not visited the Ukrainian capital since the start of the war, although it would seem that the OSCE should be the first to visit Ukraine, given the Organization’s 8-year history of involvement in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Do you or the leadership of the OSCE institutions plan to pay a visit to Ukraine?
Every day we’re working to support Ukraine – from inside the country, from here in Vienna, and across all our institutions and structures. This has been and remains a top priority. I am in very regular touch with the government, and I do hope to be back in Kyiv very soon. And other colleagues have travelled to meet with Ukrainian authorities. This will continue. But make no mistake, whether or not there are pictures in the press, the OSCE is working around the clock and will continue to do so to support Ukraine and its people.
The OSCE Project Co-ordinator, which has been supporting Ukraine in its reform efforts for nearly 25 years, returned to the country in early April. The team has helped support people affected by conflict and crisis, helped to combat human trafficking, and supported the country in its humanitarian demining efforts, as well as with environmental protection and media freedom.
And this is not all the OSCE does in support of the women, men, and institutions of Ukraine. We support relief efforts for the millions of Ukrainians affected by this senseless war. We support Ukraine’s democratic institutions – including by working with the Constitutional Court to ensure they can operate during conflict. We help to address the environmental consequences of the war – including by providing rapid risk assessments in vulnerable areas like the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
I could go on, as there is so much more that we do, but the point is that the OSCE remains present, committed and engaged with Ukraine and we will continue to use our experience and expertise to support Ukraine today and into the future.
Wasyl Kurz, Vienna
Photos by: Bartosz Peterman / MSZ, European Union Office in Kosovo, OSCE/Micky Kroell