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New OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities

Walter Kemp
Analysis 18 July 2013

On 11 July 2013, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities – Knut Vollebaek of Norway – made his last statement to the Permanent Council in Vienna. One week later, on 17 July, it was announced that his successor will be Astrid Thors of Finland. Her three year mandate will begin 20 August. What is Vollebaek’s legacy, and what will be on Ms. Thors’ agenda? Knut Vollebaek was no stranger to the OSCE when he became High Commissioner in the spring of 2007. He had been Chairman-in-Office when he was Foreign Minister of Norway in 1999, and led the Panel of Eminent Persons (tasked with making proposals to strengthen the effectiveness of the OSCE) in 2005.

While Vollebaek contributed to reducing inter-ethnic tensions in relatively forgotten corners of the OSCE area (like Southern Serbia and the Gali district of Georgia), his main legacy will be a series of recommendations that promoted inter-ethnic relations in a positive sense rather than focusing solely on preventing conflict. Whereas his predecessors Max van der Stoel and Rolf Ekeus focused on defusing potential conflict situations in the OSCE area, Vollebaek realized that minority rights and integration strategies had become more developed than a decade or two earlier and therefore minority-related issues had become less of a threat to security. Nevertheless, issues related to integration were becoming more complex, not least in Western Europe. He therefore produced The Ljubljana Guidelines on Integration of Diverse Societies in 2012 and focused on issues of citizenship.

Vollebaek will also be remembered for the Bolzano/Bozen Recommendations on National Minorities in Inter-State Relations. These recommendations built on the work of Rolf Ekeus who was deeply engaged in rolling back the Hungarian Status Law (of 2001) that sought to give support to ethnic Hungarians outside of Hungary. While Vollebaek was unsuccessful in making the Bolzano/Bozen Recommendations politically binding, he championed them wherever he went and managed to raise awareness about the dangers of interference by “kin-states”.

However, on his watch two violent inter-ethnic conflicts erupted: violence in Georgia in August 2008, and in Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. As he remarked in his final statement to the PC, “we should ask ourselves if more could have been done to prevent these conflicts. . . After all, preventing conflict is the point of our Organization, and if we are to improve, we have to be willing to learn from our past engagements. When we look at the actions taken – and not taken – by our Organization in response to these situations, I am anything but certain that this reflects favourably on us”. Some have argued, for example, that the High Commissioner’s official “early warning” on the crisis in Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 came too late. In his final statement to the PC, Vollebaek warned that the situation in Kyrgyzstan remains volatile saying “I am concerned that if we fail once more to address the fundamental dynamic of social conflict, history could repeat itself again, with dire consequences for the people and communities concerned”.

Vollebaek – a consummate diplomat – managed to win friends and influence people in parts of the OSCE area where the organization otherwise had difficulties to access, for example in South Ossetia, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. He also managed to maintain the integrity, impartiality and independence of the High Commissioner’s office. Indeed, Vollebaek was the very embodiment of the High Commissioner’s profile as envisioned by the drafters of the mandate: “an eminent international personality (…) from whom an impartial performance of the function may be expected”.

And his successor? Astrid Thors is less well known. She is part of the Swedish minority in Finland, was a member of the European Parliament, and has been a Minister dealing with migration and European affairs.

It is disappointing that while the High Commissioner’s office is one of the best assets of the OSCE and has an outstanding track record spanning twenty years, there were only three candidates for the post – none of which were former foreign ministers (like Vollebaek or Van der Stoel). Are participating States losing interest in minority related issues? In this media-driven age is quiet diplomacy unattractive to senior officials? Or is it a sign of the demise of the OSCE? It is hard to say. But the success of the post depends on the character of the High Commissioner. So all eyes will be on Ms. Thors.

No doubt the new High Commissioner will choose to deal with issues that she regards as priorities, and the office will evolve accordingly- As Vollebaek pointed out in his last statement to the PC, “while the values and principles enshrined in the HCNM mandate are timeless, the Institution will have to keep adapting its working methods to new situations and challenges in order to remain a relevant, effective and valued instrument”. Furthermore, as he said at a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the High Commissioner’s office in the Hague on 7 March this year, “while the achievements of the past are worthy of attention, the Institution’s continued existence can only be justified on its relevance today and potential for the future”.

Many of the issues on the horizon are those that Ms. Thors has experience with. For example, integration and immigration will be high on the agenda. As Vollebaek warned in his concluding remarks, nationalism and political extremism are back in fashion. As he pointed out, “this is a dangerous development. It is too easy to blame this on the economic crisis, as some try to do. But this started long before the financial crisis. All the crisis has done is add fuel to the fire that was already well stoked. This slide towards mainstreaming political radicalism has to be checked, and I believe the international institutions of Europe, the HCNM among them, have an important role to play”. If the new High Commissioner becomes more active in this area, it will be interesting to see how she will relate to the OSCE’s Personal Representatives to promote tolerance and combat racism, xenophobia and discrimination.

Ms. Thors will also have to keep her eyes open for any signs of smoke in the Balkans, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Many fires that appeared to be out could quickly erupt again. Furthermore, High Commissioner Ms. Thors may well have to deal with minority issues between EU Member States. And she will have to consider what role she can play when groups (East and West of Vienna) call for greater autonomy or even independence. Another potential area of concern could be the plight of minority groups – like the Roma or Uighurs – that do not have a “kin-state”. Furthermore, developments in “adjacent areas” like Afghanistan, the Middle East, and North Africa could affect inter-ethnic relations within the OSCE.

As the High Commissioner’s office enters its third decade, it will be interesting to see how a new leader interprets one of the most constructively intrusive mandates devoted to conflict prevention. Fortunately, Ms.Thors has eminent predecessors – like Knut Vollebaek – to look to for inspiration.

  • To read the full statement of Knut Vollebaek, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, click here.