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Human Rights

Rights concerns mar Ukraine's OSCE presidency

Ukraine is set to take over the presidency of the OSCE in January 2013. The country has said it wants to strengthen human rights during its term - while facing criticism for its own democratic credentials.

Young activists of Freedom of the Press civil initiative wear t-shirts with their logo as they give out leaflets in front of Ukraine's Secret Service building in Kiev.
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty

Ukraine Demonstration gegen Zensur und für Meinungsfreiheit in Kiew

Walburga Habsburg Douglas was outraged after authorities denied her a meeting with former Ukrainian Prime Minster Yulia Tymoshenko, who is being treated for back problems at a hospital in Kharkiv in the eastern part of the country.

This, according to Douglas, Special Coordinatior for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), "is a violation of human rights."

Opposition leader Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in a trial that drew wide international criticism. As a result, she was unable to take part in parliamentary elections in late October, which the OSCE observer mission declared to be unfair and a "step backwards."

Supporters of the United Opposition bloc hold a placard, displaying an image of jailed former Prime Minister Tymoshenko
REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Opposition leader Tymoshenko was barred from taking part in recent elections which observers said were not fair

Allegations of human rights violations

In early 2013, Ukraine is set to take over the presidency of the OSCE. The Kiev newspaper "Dserkalo tyschnja" wrote that allegations of a politically motivated judiciary and doubts about the fairness of parliamentary elections were the worst possible backdrop the the Ukrainian OSCE presidency.

Many experts share the newspaper's opinion. "The presidency is implicitly loaded," Wolfgang Zellner, head of the Center for OSCE Research (CORE) at the University of Hamburg, told DW. Susan Stewart at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) also believes that Ukraine's reputation has suffered in recent years because of human rights violations and backpedalling on democracy. "That's why I think it will be difficult for Ukraine to exercise strong leadership," Stewart said.

Ukraine is the second former Soviet republic to assume the OSCE presidency after Kazakhstan in 2010, which paved the way. But Kazakhstan was also criticized for human rights violations.

'Anxiety behind the scenes'

"Until a few years ago, it was customary in the OSCE to only choose those countries to take over the presidency that met a minimum set of human rights requirements," Zellner said. But that tradition, he adds, is now over. Zellner admits that Ukraine is causing some "anxiety behind the scenes."

Susan Steward, Osteuropa-Expertin in der Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik in Berlin; Copyright: Marc Darchinger***Pressebild nur für die aktuelle, themengebundene Berichterstattung

Susan Steward doesn't expect a strong presidency

The OSCE could use strong leadership. The organization, which began life in the 1970s as the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), is battling a loss of significance.

The OSCE was created during the Cold War to serve as a forum for dialogue between the warring blocs in the East and West. Today, the Vienna-based organization unites 57 nations from Europe, Central Asia and North America. It fights terrorism, seeks to resolve conflicts and helps protect the environment. Observing human rights and fundamental freedoms is a key part of OSCE's security concept.

Divisions paralyse OECD

But the organization hasn't been overly successful, critics say. And old divisions threaten to paralyze its work altogether. Zellner views the "divergence in different directions" as the largest problem. "On the one side, you have the United States and the Western nations, barricaded behind human rights requirements, and on the other, Russia, which makes it difficult to know where cooperation is desired," he said. Russia and other former Soviet republics accuse the OSCE of meddling in their internal affairs because of the organization's criticism of their elections.

Wolfgang Zellner, Leiter OSZE Forschungsinstitut in Hamburg
Copyright: Wolfgang Zellner

Wolfgang Zellner thinks Ukraine's presidency is causing some 'anxiety'

The Kiev government is trying to keep expectations low. Key priorities during its presidency include the protection of fundamental rights, securing energy and resolving conflicts, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said without providing any details.

'Too weak to achieve much'

Transnistria is one area where those ambitions could be put to the test. The conflict in Moldova's breakaway province has been simmering for 20 years. The self-proclaimed republic declared its independence in 1992. As a neighbor, Ukraine has been involved in international talks on a solution.

Zellner doesn't expect a breakthrough, though, "Even if Ukraine wanted to, its position is too weak to achieve anything alone," he said, adding that he doubts "Russia is prepared to give Ukraine this success."

Some observers in Kiev believe the Ukrainian presidency could sink into the diplomatic routine. The presidency is mostly about maintaining relationships, organizing meetings or appointing heads of field missions such as the one in Kosovo, according to Zellner. And it has "nothing to do" with observing elections, he added.

Zellner is nevertheless optimistic about the Ukrainian presidency, pointing to Kazakhstan as an example. The country, he admits, may not be a democracy like those in the West but during the unrest in Kyrgyzstan, it was able to contribute to resolving the conflict.

"It's all up to Ukraine," Zellner said.

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