Update: 26.09.2012

Human rights activities of the OSCE: the Swiss contribution

Swiss citizens are not very familiar with their government’s activities within the framework of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). This is unfortunate, because the Swiss delegation headed by Thomas Greminger is very active in the Human Dimension Committee of the OSCE Permanent Council and other institutions, panels, missions and offices of the OSCE. Additionally the Swiss delegation will chair the OSCE state conference for the second time in 2014. Already today the Swiss delegation is setting trends in the Human Dimension Committee of the OSCE in Vienna, which provides a venue for the 56 member states to discuss human rights topics.

Since 2011, Ambassador Thomas Greminger has been holding the Chair of the Human Dimension Committee of the OSCE Permanent Council and is also doing preparatory work for the Swiss OSCE Chairmanship. In a written interview with humanrights.ch, he describes how Switzerland acts as a facilitator and what challenges the Swiss delegation faces in this capacity. The interview with Mr. Greminger sheds a light on the manifold human rights issues addressed by the OSCE and shows the willingness of the organization to engage the civil society of its member states.

Mediation in a highly political environment

Humanrights.ch: Mr Ambassador, Switzerland has been chairing the Human Dimension Committee of the OSCE Permanent Council since 2011. Which were the most pressing topics this body had to deal with over the past months?

Thomas Greminger: We have dealt with practically all relevant topics, the so-called Commitments, which are enshrined in the OSCE acquis: freedom of the press and of expression, freedom of assembly and association, tolerance and non-discrimination, fight against torture, the death penalty, human rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), but also economic, social and cultural rights as well as human trafficking. In the coming months the program of the Committee will focus on human rights and national minorities, Roma and Sinti, as well as on democratic elections and election monitoring.

Humanrights.ch: To be more specific: If, for example, the Committee is dealing with human trafficking, what are the effects of this within the OSCE and its member states?

Thomas Greminger: Essentially, our concern is to continue the dialogue on the observance of politically adopted commitments and their further development. If, for example, we are discussing the fight against human trafficking, we address both the activities of the OSCE institutions and the situation in the individual member states. This approach aims  to reveal specific grievances and to contribute to the exchange of best practices. In addition, the Committee drafts resolutions or statements for the OSCE Permanent Council (body that is convening weekly on an ambassador level) and the OSCE Ministerial Council, which meets once a year. This has allowed the regular adoption of resolutions and declarations on human trafficking by the Ministerial Council, most recently at the 2011 Ministerial Council in Vilnius. But in my view it is of utmost importance to create the necessary diplomatic and political support for the work of the excellent OSCE institutions. In this field it is Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, the OSCE Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings. The Human Dimension Committee of the OSCE Permanent Council, the High Commissioner on National Minorities, or the Representative on Freedom of the Media are other crucial institutions or actors in the OSCE area.

Humanrights.ch: In your opinion, what are the most important functions of the Committee?

Thomas Greminger: The key function is the dialogue among experts. To lead a constructive dialogue on human rights issues in a highly political environment that is still influenced by fundamental differences between the East and the West is a very challenging endeavor. The main objective is to build confidence by incorporating issue areas which are important to both sides. While the Western states prioritize basic rights, the states to the East of Vienna focus their attention on tolerance and non-discrimination, the free movement of persons or on the fight against extremism and nationalism.

Swiss achievements and its reputation within the OSCE

Humanrights.ch: How do you assess the influence of Switzerland on the OSCE Permanent Council?

Thomas Greminger: Switzerland plays quite an important role in this Committee. Repeatedly it manages to position itself as a credible mediator between the deadlocked positions of the “key players” (USA, Russian Federation, EU).For example, last year it initiated the discussion on the process of the reform of the OSCE human dimension activities, which represent essential monitoring instruments of the OSCE. The chosen approach strives to be balanced and to consider as much as possible the interests of the most important (governmental and non-governmental) players. The actual negotiations on the reform of these activities are starting these days. They will lead to more focused discussions and result in a goal-oriented process, thereby making them more attractive to government and NGO representatives.

Humanrights.ch: As a small state in the OSCE, Switzerland is facing a great number of more influential countries, a large number of which are members of the European Union. How does our country deal with its position?

Thomas Greminger: It is, of course, true that in the OSCE, too, we take similar positions as the USA and the EU in most factual issues. But the fact that we are not an EU member state is of great value in the consensus-driven environment of the OSCE. We consciously profit from this advantage by positioning ourselves as bridge builder and facilitator. If we want to give a position a particular importance, we succeed by voicing our opinion regularly and commonly together with the so-called Likeminded Group (Norway, Canada, Iceland, Principality of Liechtenstein, Switzerland).

Humanrights.ch: How is the work of Switzerland perceived by other states and stakeholders within the OSCE?

Thomas Greminger: We receive a lot of positive feedback, both from states to the East and to the West of Vienna. The fact that we have succeeded in turning the still young Committee (the boards were only created in 2006) into a relevant OSCE instrument on the human dimension under our presidency during the last two years is highly appreciated. Whereas before the Committee served only as a venue to negotiate on the topics and agendas of OSCE activities, it has now turned into an important platform for dialogue with an innovative and standardized agenda. We have introduced the reporting, albeit still of a voluntary nature, of member states on their implementation of recommendations by OSCE institutions (e.g. on the topic of elections). The upcoming Swiss Chairmanship of the organization in 2014 can generally be seen as a clear acknowledgment of our efforts.

Challenges during the Swiss Chairmanship in 2014

Humanrights.ch: What influence does the Swiss engagement in the Human Dimension Committee have on the upcoming Chairmanship in 2014?

Thomas Greminger: Our efforts in the Committee serve as an ideal preparation for the Chairman-ship in several respects. On the one hand, we can position Switzerland as a strong advocate of the human dimension and as an active facilitator. On the other hand, as Head of the Committee I gain valuable experience during the sometimes rather controversial debates, which will certainly help me as a Chairman of the Permanent Council in 2014.

Humanrights.ch: What will Switzerland have to expect when taking over the Chairmanship in 2014?

Thomas Greminger: There is certainly a lot of hard work in a challenging environment coming our way. The need for consensus, the low level of trust between the East and the West, the effects of gridlocked conflicts that can be felt everywhere, competition between international organizations, economic difficulties and budgetary pressure in most member states are but a few cues. In addition, we have to be prepared to react to unforeseen developments as there are still some very fragile regions in the OSCE area (parts of the Western Balkans, Northern and Southern Caucasus, Central Asia). Nevertheless I am confident that Swiss foreign policy will successfully master this challenge.

Humanrights.ch: Are there certain topics that you, personally, would like to further on an OSCE level?

Thomas Greminger: Although the competent management of the daily business of the OSCE will absorb the greater part of our attention and energy, we aim to place particular emphasis on a num-ber of issues. These include an innovative work schedule elaborated in cooperation with Serbia (Chairmanship in 2015) with a medium-term perspective. At present, we are in the process of preparing a number of diplomatic initiatives. These concern on the one hand the human dimension, on the other hand we are developing some interesting approaches in the first dimension (disarmament, confidence and security-building measures), which we soon plan to test with some important stakeholders.

An annual exchange with the civil society

Humanrights.ch: The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) will take place in Warsaw from 24.09. to 05.10.2012. It is regarded as the most influential human rights forum in Europe, with government officials, NGOs and international organizations from 56 member states participating. What do you personally expect from this meeting?

Thomas Greminger: The HDIM is designed to put the implementation of the OSCE commitments to the test on an annual basis. The chosen approach is the thematically structured discussion between government representatives, representatives of international organizations and members of the civil society, who have absolutely free access to the meeting. Although the HDIM is in need of re-forms, it remains a key event in the OSCE region. The topics in focus this year will be the restrictions on the freedom of association, the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press and possibly issues on the Roma and Sinti. The geographical focus will continue to lie on the Central Asian states and on Belarus, but also Russia and next year’s Chairman Ukraine will be the center of attention for various reasons. As ancillary events of the conference, there will be intense debates on the HDIM reform and discussions on the decisions by the Ministerial Conference under Irish presidency in the fields of freedom of the media and non-discrimination.

Humanrights.ch: Do you assume that the HDIM might also to be of interest to Swiss civil society? What may be expected by participating NGOs?

Thomas Greminger: As you already said, the HDIM is the biggest European human rights forum and provides all NGOs with free access and free speech. In the thematically structured working sessions the NGOs hold discussions with government representatives on an equal footing. At the same time the event allows state representatives, NGOs and members of international organizations to estab-lish and maintain contacts with each other, especially during the numerous side-events, which fre-quently constitute a very welcome addition to the formal working sessions.

«Nobody’s perfect, not even Switzerland»

Humanrights.ch: Humanrights.ch and the Swiss civil society are no doubt also interested in your view of the human rights situation in Switzerland. From your position in Vienna, how do you assess Swiss actions on particular human rights issues, for example human trafficking?

Thomas Greminger: It is evident that a trustworthy actor in international human rights policy also has to be prepared to incessantly and critically revise its own human rights situation and to work on its deficits. Just like other countries, Switzerland is not perfect and therefore Switzerland is criticized by other states or international organizations. Examples thereof are the ban on minarets or restrictions of the right of assembly (new law in the Canton of Geneva).


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