Turkey and allies undermine OSCE by blocking key reappointments

Disagreement last month among the member states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have left the world’s largest regional security organisation without formal leadership. The decisions by Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan to deny consensus on the reappointments of essential OSCE officials is a clear attack on the organisation’s promotion of human rights and media freedom as integral facets of international security.

“The OSCE is the first organisation ever to basically say that human rights and democracy are fundamental to security. The reason that’s significant is that it allows your neighbour to comment and care about human rights and democracy in your country,” Marc Behrendt, the director of Europe and Eurasia programs at Freedom House, told Ahval.

The organisation functioned for decades because there has been a real consensus among member states that the OSCE is important, according to Behrendt.

“Authoritarians do care about security, but they don’t want the human dimension involved. However, if the human dimension was no longer there, the OSCE would just be a relatively weak consensus-based organisation,” he said.

And the human dimension is exactly what the Turkish government now takes issue with.

“Turkey sees the OSCE primarily as an institution of security and peace cooperation,” Sibel Oktay, an associate professor at University of Illinois-Springfield, told Ahval. “Challenging the OSCE by stalling its decision-making is really a low-cost behaviour for Turkey to signal its discontent with the organisation, particularly its activities regarding human rights and election monitoring.”

The diplomatic breakdown in July began when Turkey and Tajikistan vetoed the reappointment of Iceland’s Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir as the director of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Tajikistan was also joined by Turkey’s close ally Azerbaijan in blocking the reappointment of France’s Harlem Désir as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFOM). Ankara has chafed at the conduct of both officials during their tenures.

In response, France, Canada, Norway, Iceland, and Armenia refused to reappoint Secretary-General Thomas Greminger and High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) Lamberto Zannier because the four officials had been appointed in a political package deal in 2017.

Creating a crisis will not prevent future formal criticism from OSCE officials of any Turkish violations of human rights and media freedom, but it may pay dividends for other Turkish foreign policy interests.

Oktay said Russia’s hat-tip to Turkey, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan for stalling the appointments is significant. “Turkey can package this as one of those easy gestures to cool off tensions with Russia elsewhere, most urgently in Libya and Syria,” she said.

Within OSCE politics, Turkey may also be looking to strengthen its hand in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh territory disputed by Azerbaijan and Armenia. “Turkey is partial to Azerbaijan’s claims on Nagorno-Karabakh and right now the two countries are working together to derail these appointments. They could possibly use their intransigence here to reap concessions in the Minsk Group,” Oktay said, referring to the OSCE group working to achieve a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The effort by a minority of the OSCE’s 57 member states to block the normally routine reappointments of Gísladóttir and Désir to new three-year terms was roundly criticised by human rights and media freedom groups. In a statement, the European Union said the action by Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan, “undermines the effectiveness of the organisation and weakens the much-needed multilateral approach to security in Europe that the OSCE embodies”.

“There is no RFOM or HCNM without a head,” Behrendt explained. Until new appointments are made “they do not have a mandate and cannot function”. The next opportunity to confirm new leadership is at the Ministerial Council meeting in December. The secretariat and ODIHR, however, do have staff that can continue their work in the interim.

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry reportedly said it opposed Désir’s reappointment due to his “excessive criticism” of the situation regarding the freedom of media in Azerbaijan. Although Turkey was likely pleased that Désir expressed concern in April when the United States forced Turkish public broadcaster TRT to register in the United States as a foreign agent of the Turkish government, Ankara would likely concur with Azerbaijan’s complaint of “excessive criticism” from Désir during his tenure.

In early 2018, the French diplomat criticised the Turkish government’s decision to block access to Ahval News and opposed Turkish legislation that he warned would be used to restrict internet freedom - a warning that has proved accurate since the law passed.

Désir has also been a staunch defender of persecuted Turkish journalists like Ahmet Altan. In July 2019, the French diplomat expressed alarm at the jailing of columnist Yavuz Selim Demirağ on charges of “insulting the president”, which is a crime according to Article 299 of the Turkish penal code. In talks with the authorities in Ankara, Désir has argued for the repeal of Article 299, which has been used to target thousands of critics since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected Turkey’s president in 2014.

Ankara was no more pleased with Gísladóttir’s work as the director of ODIHR. In an explanation of their vetoes of an extension for the Icelandic diplomat, Turkey and Tajikistan stated that the ODIHR had permitted the “representatives of criminal groups and people who committed terrorist acts” to attend the OSCE's annual Human Dimension Implementation Meetings (HDIM).

The Turkish delegation walked out of the human dimension conference in 2017 and boycotted the 2018 edition in protest against the participation of groups Ankara claims are terrorist organisations linked with the allegedly putschist Gülen movement. Turkey then prolonged negotiations on the timing and agenda for the 2019 conference in an attempt to secure the willingness of other member states to veto the participation of such groups.

“Earlier Turkey boycotts were parochial opposition to the participation of Kurdish and Gülenist groups in the HDIM,” Behrendt said. “They can’t hide behind this explanation anymore. This is now a full assault on the organisation.”

In an outgoing address to OSCE staff, Secretary-General Greminger lamented that, “It is a sign of the times, perhaps, with the decline in trust in multilateral organisations and polarised national positions that it had to come to this. Paradoxically, given the security challenges we face right now, this is when strong multilateral international organisations are needed the most.”

“The way to address this is to remind people of the importance of the organisation and its principles,” Behrendt suggested. “We don’t want to lose the principle that human security is fundamental to security. That principle is fundamentally relevant even to states that don’t normally focus on improving human rights, because good governance is crucial to security.”

He said he is confident that “behind the scenes the diplomats of participating states are working hard to respond to the crisis. The problem is that the organisation needs support from governments and ultimately the wider public, because the OSCE is ultimately a security organisation and its failure would constitute a security risk to everyone.”