Update: 04.03.2015

The High Commissioner on National Minorities

The High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) is the key OSCE institution regarding the protection of minorities. The function was created during the CSCE Follow-up Meeting in Helsinki in 1992. The first High Commissioner elected by the OSCE Ministerial Council was the Dutch Foreign Minister Max van der Stoel, who held the office between 1993 and 2001. He was succeeded by the Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekéus who executed the role of HCNM between 2001 and 2007. Former Norwegian Foreign Minister and diplomat Knut Vollebaek followed as HCNM in 2007. On 20 August 2013 the office was assumed by Astrid Thors.

What the High Commissioner is not

The term High Commissioner on National Minorities leaves the impression that his function is that of a kind of ombudsperson for national minorities and that he does accept individual complaints of members of national minorities. But this is not the HCNM's responsibility. In fact, his mandate explicitly excludes the acceptance of individual complaints. He is the High Commissioner on National Minorities and not the High Commissioner for National Minorities.

In addition, the HCNM only interferes in regard to questions relating to national minorities if these issues have a potential impact on the security between states.

The mandate

According to his mandate, the HCNM has to provide early warning and to take immediate action in issues of national minorities that have not yet reached a dangerous level but have the potential to develop into a conflict affecting the stability and relations between the member states (Helsinki decisions, Chapter II, Para. 3).

The HCNM has a twofold mandate: on the one hand he should try to limit and defuse tensions. On the other hand he has to warn the OSCE whenever such tensions threaten to reach a level which he is not capable of containing with the resources at his disposal.

Therefore, the HCNM is primarily an instrument for conflict prevention and early warning and not designed as an instrument for the protection of human rights or minority protection (the so-called human dimension of the OSCE).

The most important working principles of the High Commissioner are confidentiality (or quiet diplomacy) and impartiality. Both principles are meant to help creating and strengthening trust and reliance between the parties and the HCNM.

Limitations of the mandate

The HCNM mandate comprises a number of limitations. The key limitations affect the following issues:

  • The restriction of its mandate to situations which might affect the security between nations leads to the fact that minority problems within a member state cannot be captured. In addition, minorities without titular nation (so-called "kin-states") are not covered by the mandate, especially since in such cases an intergovernmental aspect is lacking. This leads to the HCNM being unable to address address the issue of Roma, because they live in several states but do not have a titular nation, a «motherland». It is thus the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in Warsaw that deals with Sinti and Roma issues.
  • The High Commissioner is not allowed to address minority conflicts which include acts of organised violence. The effect of this is that situations like in Corsica, in the Basque Country or in Northern Ireland cannot be addressed, just as the Kurdish issue.
  • In situations that have already developed past the early warning stage or which are currently dealt with by the Permanent Council (State Secretaries or Political Directors of the OSCE states) the HCNM may only take action after the approval of the Permanent Council.


For the fulfilment of its tasks the HCNM has various instruments at its disposal. These include the gathering and reception of information, visits to member countries, the involvement of experts, reporting and early warnings.

  • The HCNM can access information from various sources: on the one hand from the governments of the Member states in which minorities are living. On the other hand from representatives of organisations, NGOs as well as members of directly affected national minorities. Moreover, the HCNM can collect and receive general information from any source, including the media.
  • The HCNM needs no formal permission of a Member state to visit it. Such travels to Member states provide members of national minorities access to an organisation specialised in minority issues.
  • The HCNM has the possibility to consult persons with specialist expertise for and on his journeys.
  • At the end of an operation the HCNM reports to the Chairman-in-Office in strict confidence on the observations, results and conclusions. Moreover, a recommendation for the respective state government is prepared. In accordance with OSCE principles and although this is not established by the mandate, the reports and recommendations enunciated by the High Commissioner are not binding.
  • The HCNM can issue an early warning if according to his state of knowledge there is a risk of a possible conflict (Para. 13). The Permanent Council then automatically puts this early warning on the agenda of its next meeting. If at this meeting at least one country arrives at the conclusion that the early warning is justified, the non-military crisis or «consensus minus one» procedure (also called Berlin Mechanism) can be initiated.

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