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OSCE/Micky Kroell

‘I want to create informal channels of dialogue’

Stephanie Liechtenstein
Interviews26 October 2021

In an exclusive interview, OSCE Secretary General Helga Schmid tells the Security and Human Rights Monitor about her priorities for her first term in office. Schmid also shares her views about how she interprets the political role of the OSCE Secretary General and how she wants to play this role actively by building bridges, creating trust and establishing informal channels of dialogue, including between Russia and the West.

She also shares her concerns about the lack of visibility of the OSCE, as well as the frequent blocking of the OSCE decision-making process, which she believes is due to “politicization”.

As one of very few women in such a high-level diplomatic post, Schmid also shares her views on skills she sees women bringing to the job, including often being the better negotiators.

Helga Schmid is a German career diplomat and was appointed to the post of OSCE Secretary General in December 2020 for a three-year term. Before that, she was Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) as well as Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs for the EEAS. During this time, she became known to the wider public for her crucial role in successfully negotiating the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal, that former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.

SHR Monitor: You assumed your post at the beginning of the year. What are your goals for your first term in office?

Helga Schmid: My overarching priorities are unchanged from when I started in January: to tackle our shared security challenges, pursue dialogue, and support the Chair and the participating States in implementing the OSCE’s commitments.

We have a unique set-up at the OSCE with the Secretariat in Vienna, the 15 field operations with wide geographic reach, and the institutions all working to build capacities and help participating States implement OSCE commitments. This lets us couple policy with programmatic activity. It means we are not just discussing issues, but we are also delivering practical and tangible benefits to people on the ground.

I want to maximize the potential of this Organization through encouraging a flexible and innovative ‘whole of OSCE’ approach through closer cooperation across the OSCE – from the Secretariat to the Field Operations, Institutions and the Parliamentary Assembly.

I am working to be strategic and proactive in our excellent programmatic work. And not just on conflict prevention and resolution. I really want to showcase what else we do across all three dimensions, from combatting trafficking in human beings to countering transnational threats to addressing economic and environmental affairs.

As I have mentioned, the OSCE is a critical platform for dialogue that keeps States talking, in good times and bad. Whereas other avenues for dialogue close up when times are tough, the OSCE remains ever-present. This is something that must not only be recognized, but safeguarded.

Finally, I want to ensure we provide valued services across the Organization and I will continue to strive for this during my time as Secretary General.

Compared with your previous posts in the European Union—where you had ample political room for maneuver—what was it like switching to the OSCE, where leadership is shared between the Chair-in-Office and the Secretary General?

As you know, the OSCE Secretary General has an administrative and a political function. The administrative side is very similar to my role in the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union in Brussels, prior to the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon.

Here in the OSCE, in my function as Chief Administrative Officer, I am currently working on reforming the management structure, building on some of the reforms my predecessor Thomas Greminger had begun. We are facing many new challenges as a consequence of COVID-19, as well as technological developments that we have to take into account in trying to become more effective.

I also consider the “duty of care” aspect very important. I made sure that all OSCE staff members in OSCE field operations received their COVID-19 vaccination, and I am very grateful that Germany and Poland provided the vaccines for this effort. I am also working hard on achieving gender equality, and I want to ensure a workplace that is free from sexual harassment. On this last point, I am pursuing a zero-tolerance policy.

You have now described the administrative side of your job. But the OSCE Secretary General also has a political function, as you said, which has been interpreted differently by your various predecessors. How do you see it?

I see my role as supporting the Chair-in-Office, currently Sweden, and the 57 participating States.

But I also think that my role includes providing political impetus, for example in the field of arms control. I consider it very important to support our informal dialogue mechanisms in this regard, such as the structured dialogue, which is the only remaining platform where military-to-military contacts between the United States and Russia still exist.

In the last couple of months, we initiated additional dialogue fora for experts to exchange views, for example on the implications of artificial intelligence in warfare. I also recently visited Finland, where I met with Sauli Niinistö, the Finnish President. I want to actively support his initiative to revive the so-called “spirit of Helsinki”.

Do you see a role for yourself in improving channels of dialogue between Russia and the West via the OSCE, particularly now that Russia has shut its mission to NATO?

Absolutely. I think it is the role of the Secretary General to establish trust and build bridges. This has always been my credo as a diplomat, but it probably also comes as a result of my many years of experience as a negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal.

In this endeavor, I am using my contacts with OSCE Ambassadors here in Vienna, but also in foreign ministries in capitals. I am lucky enough to have a large network of contacts due to my previous posts, including foreign ministers.

I want to create informal channels of dialogue and I have recently made use of the convening of the Annual Security Review Conference in Vienna to strengthen these channels. I think this is particularly important, because the pandemic has led to an increase in online meetings, which is not always helpful in diplomacy. While we have done admirably to adapt to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic using digital means, it is always easier to create and establish trust in face-to-face meetings.

The OSCE remains an important platform for dialogue created by the Helsinki Final Act and built upon ever since. No matter how tense relations are, where other formats for dialogue may dry up, the OSCE continues to offer a place for States to talk, week in, week out.

This does not mean all 57 States are like-minded—disagreements do exist—but as we have seen, time and time again, the States can and do reach agreement. And when they do, our decisions become powerful political instruments that allow us to work together to ensure security in our region.

It has been this way for decades, and I will keep doing my part to ensure this continues.

What can you do in your function as Secretary General to improve the visibility of the OSCE among the general public? The Organization is considered obscure by large parts of western media. It is also not on top of the agenda for many foreign ministries.

I think this is a key point.

How do we improve the situation? I strongly believe that it is a joint task between myself and all participating States.

I have begun by distributing reports from our field operations to OSCE Ambassadors here in Vienna to increase awareness of what is going on in the field. This has been very well received. We are also working on improving our social media strategy and our website. In general, I think the OSCE has so many projects and activities that are great, but they are simply not well known enough.

For example, we have a border management project on the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which I know about from my time at the EU. This project is of immense importance because it aims to strengthen the capacity of border services to better detect and respond to illicit activities, including trafficking in drugs and arms. Given the instability in Afghanistan, it has become even more crucial.

Another example is the enormous challenge of trafficking human beings. It has increased sharply in the past months. We believe that traffickers generate annual profits of approximately 150 billion USD per year. It is a tremendous problem that concerns security, human rights and the economy—all three security dimensions of the OSCE. The OSCE is leading in combating this phenomenon. But again, this is not at all known in the general public.

You are the first female OSCE Secretary General. Why do you think that it has taken so long for a woman to lead the OSCE? Why is it still so difficult for women to assume leadership positions?

I am asked this question very often.

When looking back on my career, I have to say that it happened to me very frequently that I was the first woman to assume a certain post. For example, I was the first female Head of Cabinet of the German Foreign Ministry. I was also the first female Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs in the EU, as well as the first woman to become Secretary General of the European External Action Service.

I think one of the reasons may be that in the past, there were not enough women who pursued a career in international diplomacy. When I completed my diplomatic training at the beginning of the 1990s, we were only nine women out of a group of 60 people.

I also think that as a woman it is very important to assert your authority and to always keep your chin up. Unfortunately, it seems that women in leadership positions are afforded fewer chances to make mistakes and are held to a different standard. I have experienced this in many negotiation situations. But if you know your details and are well prepared, others will respect you.

I have said this before but I want to repeat it here: I think that women are often the better negotiators because they are better at putting themselves in the shoes of the other side. They are very good at trying to understand the interests of the other side, which is critical for skillful negotiations.

Let me now turn to a more difficult topic. The OSCE has recently been blocked and paralyzed on many fronts because of the inability of OSCE participating States to reach agreement on key issues. The OSCE budget was only adopted with a considerable delay in August, and there is no Human Dimension Implementation Meeting this year, just to name two examples. Some say that this impasse is due to the consensus rule in OSCE decision-making. What can be done, in your option, to unblock this situation?

For me as OSCE Secretary General it is very difficult if the budget is not adopted on time. It means concretely that the OSCE loses money because we cannot engage in new projects. This may even have an impact on our reputation as a reliable partner.

But I want to stress that I do not think that it is due to the consensus principle. I am an advocate of the consensus principle. I consider it as very important, particularly because we have so many diverse States around the table. The OSCE includes very powerful States as well as microstates. The consensus principle ensures that all States are at the table on equal footing. Furthermore, any decision that has been approved by consensus is more durable and enjoys more legitimacy.

I think the real problem is the politicization of the decision-making process and the inserting of unrelated arguments into the negotiation process. I think this can only be stopped if foreign ministries in OSCE capitals are made more aware of this problem. They have to be mobilized to help break the impasse and they have to begin to understand that the OSCE will be prevented from carrying out its important tasks, if this practice continues.

Is the political price States pay when they block consensus too small?

The question is: Do they pay a price at all?

One of the areas where the OSCE is relatively well known is its role in managing and preventing conflicts. What are your impressions from your first months in office? What can be done to guarantee freedom of movement for your monitors in eastern Ukraine?

The OSCE assumed a key role in Ukraine in 2014 with the deployment of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM). This is relatively well known. But what many in the general public and elsewhere don’t know is how the Mission works to ease the effects of the conflict on the people living on the ground.

It is important to understand that conflicts are not just taking place between States but they have immense consequences for civilians. I was able to witness this impact when I visited eastern Ukraine in May. Many civilians told me that the presence of the SMM creates trust.

Civilians also profit from the so-called windows of silence—local ceasefires—negotiated by our monitors and monitored by them. They are little known, but enable important repair work on critical infrastructure, such as water filtration stations or power plants, which has benefitted over 5 million people in 2021 alone.

Carrying out vital work like this requires the Mission to have unhindered, safe, and secure access throughout Ukraine. This access is also critical for the Mission to be able to keep delivering its reliable, factual, and transparent observations from the ground.

Freedom of movement is not a new stipulation. It is enshrined in the SMM’s mandate as agreed on by all 57 participating States and in the commitments made by the signatories of the Minsk agreements.

Yet, every day, on a nearly non-stop basis, the SMM’s movement and work are restricted and impeded. Stopping this comes down to those involved engaging constructively and upholding their commitments to ensuring effective monitoring and verification by SMM monitors.

We will continue to do our part to facilitate dialogue and co-operation, but, ultimately, it is in the hands of those involved to ensure the SMM’s work continues unimpeded. I welcome the fact that the SMM in Donetsk could resume regular operations, but measurable steps must be taken to remove all restrictions.

I would also like to highlight our role in Georgia, where the so-called Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) was held for the 100th time in Ergneti in June. The Mechanism is particularly close to my heart, because I was involved in its inception back in 2009 when I was still working in the EU.

The IPRM has helped ease the consequences for the conflict-affected population by discussing very concrete challenges such as the water supply or exchange of detainees. The Mechanism is co-facilitated by the EU and the OSCE, and involves Georgian, South Ossetian and Russian participants.

All of this means that the OSCE is involved in furthering small but continuous steps that help lead to an eventual solution of the conflict in question. One of the main issues remains that there is little public recognition of mediation and conflict prevention.

This seems to worry you.

I think we sometimes underestimate what we have achieved in Europe. I always like to cite the example of how the OSCE is perceived in other regions of the world. Whenever I receive a visitor, for example from the Middle East, they ask me whether they can become a member of the OSCE.

A former Australian Foreign Minister once told me: You have no idea what you have achieved with your security architecture in Europe. We have nothing comparable in Asia.

I think we should become more aware of what we have at our disposal and fill our instruments with life. As others have said before: If the OSCE did not exist, we would have to invent it. I fully agree.

The interview was conducted in Vienna by Stephanie Liechtenstein.


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