As we mark the 45th anniversary of the 1975 signing of the Helsinki Final Act, the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the ideals of democracy that had been advanced by that pact—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and civil liberties—are under threat. In 1975, Soviet totalitarianism was the great threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms; today, authoritarianism poses a growing threat to human dignity and rights in the region.
Authoritarianism is a fact of life in much of Eurasia, a reflection of the actual worldwide tension between countries defending universal human rights obligations and countries attempting to undermine trust in democratic institutions and promote an authoritarian model. This is true not only in repressive nations like Russia; even among some U.S. partner countries, there are warning signs. Some nations have also taken it upon themselves to block vital leadership roles in international institutions during a global pandemic unlike anything we have seen in a century.
The ultimate outcome of this conflict is up to us. Liberty and human rights will prevail, but only if freedom-loving people everywhere join together to defend and preserve human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.
Many international institutions dedicated to freedom and human rights were founded with U.S. support in the wake of World War II, in which more than a million U.S. citizens were either killed or wounded and trillions of dollars spent on the effort to defeat fascism. Democratic ideals are ingrained in the founding charters that established those organizations. For nearly 75 years, such institutions have consistently served as a bulwark against totalitarianism, communism, terrorism, and other forms of tyranny; limited conflict among nations; helped raise millions out of poverty; and spread democratic values throughout the world.
The OSCE grew out of the Helsinki Final Act, a 1975 political agreement among the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, and other European nations. Signed by both democratic and communist regimes, the Final Act acknowledged openly that respect for human rights within states is crucial to security among states, and that human rights concerns could legitimately be raised among signatories.
Today, the OSCE is the world’s largest regional security organization, encompassing 57 countries in Europe, as well as the United States and Canada. It includes Russia, Ukraine, and many other successors of the former Soviet Union, reaching as far east as Central Asia and Mongolia, and north beyond the Arctic Circle. The phrase “Vancouver to Vladivostok” accurately describes the organization’s reach. With its “comprehensive concept of security,” the OSCE addresses military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and takes steps to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among its members.
The OSCE also supports the democratic development of nations that gained or regained independence in the post-Cold War period and are still finding their footing, often torn between corruption and the promise of a democratic future. Thirteen OSCE field missions operate in member countries seeking assistance in developing their democratic institutions. The OSCE recognizes and supports the important role played by civil society and the media in holding governments to account for blatant human rights violations and abuses of power.
Unprecedented Gap in OSCE Leadership
OSCE institutions—including its assembly of national legislators—foster an essential defense against the spread of authoritarianism. However, despite its comprehensive vision, we are now faced with an unprecedented gap in leadership at the OSCE due to the block on the extension of mandates for four senior leaders, including the Secretary General.
Each week, the OSCE Permanent Council—comprising ambassadors to the OSCE from each participating State—meets in Vienna, Austria. In this forum, the United States seeks to shine a light on contraventions of States’ OSCE tenets and violations of international law.
The OSCE independent institutions, like the field missions, carry those messages forward. In addition to the organization’s other work defending human rights and fundamental freedoms, its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) manages the OSCE’s election observation missions, internationally recognized as the “gold standard” for their methodology. Other independent offices lead the OSCE’s work on Freedom of the Media and rights of national minorities.
Unfortunately, in July, these vital institutions were deprived of strong and consistent leadership by countries—including Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—that seem intent on attempting to weaken the OSCE’s ability to hold countries accountable for their actions and undermining the principles of the Helsinki Final Act.
The executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government are partners in bringing American leadership to support the OSCE’s work. Several times each year, members of Congress—including lawmakers serving on the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which monitors implementation of the Helsinki Accords —gather at meetings of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, where they secure political commitments and build mutually beneficial relationships among legislators from the OSCE’s participating States to help push back against anti-democratic actions by national governments.
Unfortunately, several OSCE participating States—countries that have repeatedly committed to upholding the principles and values enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act— are exhibiting a troubling slide toward authoritarianism. The United States and our democratic allies have criticized efforts to restrict and persecute journalists, human rights defenders, civil society, members of the political opposition, and members of ethnic and religious minorities. We also have jointly criticized efforts to stifle media freedom and limit political pluralism in Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, as well as raised concerns about media consolidation in Hungary, and limitations on freedom of speech and freedom of the press elsewhere.
Russia’s Destabilizing Actions
No OSCE participating State bears more responsibility for fomenting mistrust, insecurity, corruption, and human rights violations and abuses in this region than the Russian Federation. Russia’s destabilizing actions contravene all 10 Helsinki Final Act principles, ranging from respect for human rights to the prohibition of military incursions into neighboring countries. Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including its purported annexation of Crimea. The proxy forces Russia arms, trains, leads, and fights alongside in eastern Ukraine make it dangerous for the unarmed OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine to fulfill its Permanent Council-approved mandate to monitor the conflict.
Russia uses its resources—economic, political, informational, and military—to defeat freedom and democracy. Russia does not rely on military force alone to threaten democratic governance; it also uses hybrid tactics daily, ranging from cyber intrusions to influence campaigns — aimed at undermining democratic elections.
We hope that someday, authoritarian countries like Russia will start behaving again according to the rules of international law. Unfortunately, these countries currently reject the values of democracy, liberty, and human rights. The authoritarian regimes view democracy as an existential threat—hence the actions some of them have taken to restrict the OSCE’s ability to do its work. The struggle today is between those who believe authoritarianism is the right way forward and those of us who still believe that Thomas Jefferson was right in his declaration that the desire for freedom exists within the heart of every human being.
In a hyper-connected modern world in which disinformation becomes an ever more powerful weapon and the divisions within free societies are exploited by malign actors, U.S. membership in organizations like the OSCE emphasizes clearly, openly, and emphatically that America will not cede the field to the authoritarian regimes. We will not allow them to be the ones to dictate what is truth and what is fiction.
Human Rights and Ideals Just as Valid in 2020
Through the OSCE, the United States directly confronts the deceit of Russia and other authoritarian powers. By raising our voices, through our participation and leadership, we reassure our friends that the United States stands with them and supports our shared values against the growing tide of autocracy. By raising our voices, we remind allies and adversaries alike that the United States remains engaged and committed to what is fair, what is right, and what is true.
Together, our U.S. Mission to the OSCE and the U.S. Helsinki Commission remind allies and adversaries alike that America will not ignore regimes that are actively hostile to our values and see our liberty as an existential threat. We will always prioritize respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defend the principles of liberty, and encourage tolerance within societies, because such efforts are vital to the promotion of democracy and to U.S. national security. We reject the authoritarian notion that our fundamental freedoms are a weakness. They are our greatest strength.
The United States and other like-minded countries use the power of the OSCE to show that human rights and ideals are just as valid in 2020 as they were in 1975, when the Helsinki Accords were signed. These rights not only ensure the physical, economic, and mental wellbeing of all our populations, they make the countries’ governments stronger by building legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens.
America’s unwavering support of these values through multilateral organizations like the OSCE remains vital. As noted in the Trump administration’s U.S. National Security Strategy, “Authoritarian actors have long recognized the power of multilateral bodies and have used them to advance their interests and limit the freedom of their own citizens. If the United States cedes leadership of these bodies to adversaries, opportunities to shape developments that are positive for the United States will be lost.”
The OSCE deserves to be recognized by the people of both the United States and our allies and partners as a valuable tool in the fight against autocracy. We must not abandon it by leaving its most important institutions without leadership beyond its 45th anniversary. Instead, through our efforts, and those of our allies and partners in the OSCE, we must continue to defend liberty and human rights in our region and provide a beacon of hope for citizens everywhere who aspire to a free and democratic future.
IMAGE: A car of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) drives past Ukrainian servicemen in the settlement of Odradivka prior to a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels on December 29, 2019. (Photo by GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images)