Ambassador Michael G. Kozak represents the United States of America during the opening session of the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference in Warsaw, Sept. 26. Photo by Mahvish S. Khan
By Mahvish S. Khan
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has held the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM)—Europe’s largest annual human rights conference—in Warsaw since 1993. To demonstrate strong U.S. support for human rights, the United States traditionally sends a robust delegation, including contingents from the U.S. Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE) in Vienna, and various bilateral posts; the Bureaus of European and Eurasian Affairs and of South and Central Asian Affairs; the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; the Office of the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom; and the congressionally based bipartisan U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission), among others.
This year, as was the case in 2021, Russia obstructed the HDIM (HDIM was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). In the face of Russia’s continuing obstructionism, the Polish chairperson in office for 2022, with support from the vast majority of OSCE participating States, convened the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference (WHDC), Sept. 26-Oct. 7—the OSCE’s first such large-scale in-person human rights conference since 2019. USOSCE Permanent Representative Dr. Michael Carpenter was a fierce advocate for this principled move, and U.S. delegation head Ambassador Michael G. Kozak highlighted it as such in his opening remarks, Sept. 26.
“Our collective presence here today sends a clear message to Russia and to any other participating State that would undermine the OSCE’s human dimension work: You cannot escape international scrutiny by obstructing the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting or other core OSCE functions,” said Kozak.
The 1975 Helsinki Final Act (also known as the Helsinki accords)—named after the city in which it was adopted—established a decalogue of principles guiding relations among participating States that sought to improve East-West relations during the Cold War. These same principles continue to shape the OSCE’s work today across a vast region stretching from Canada and the United States, across Europe and Eurasia, an expanse often described as stretching “from Vancouver to Vladivostok”—but the long way around.
The politically binding Helsinki Final Act was a pioneering international document in that its guiding principles linked respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms within states to the realization of lasting security prosperity among states. The OSCE thus takes a comprehensive approach recognizing three interconnected dimensions of security: the political-military, the economic-environmental, and the human—hence the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference.
At the signing ceremony in Helsinki, Aug. 1, 1975, President Ford’s words were prophetic: “History will judge this Conference not by what we say here today, but by what we do tomorrow—not by the promises we make, but by the promises we keep.”
Ever since, it has been U.S. policy to emphasize the importance of holding OSCE participating States—the United States included—accountable for implementing the commitments they have made to one another and to their people.
The Warsaw Human Dimension Conference provided a high-profile opportunity to do just that. Hundreds of representatives of non-governmental organizations and frontline human rights defenders—some at significant personal risk—convened from across the OSCE region to present their concerns and ideas, and to network with one another and with government delegations. This year’s gathering was particularly important in light of the far-reaching implications of Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine.
Kozak, a veteran diplomat and former ambassador to Belarus currently serving as senior advisor to the assistant secretary for population, refugees and migration, who had led the U.S. delegation at three previous HDIMs, was the head of the 2022 delegation. In addition to Kozak and Carpenter, notable participants included Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya; Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice Desirée Cormier Smith; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Kara C. McDonald; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Douglas Jones; and Congressman Steve Cohen, who serves as co-chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission as well as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly special representative for political prisoners.
Beyond making strong policy statements at the opening and closing plenary sessions of the WHDC over the two-week conference, American leaders delivered comprehensive interventions in each of the eight thematic working sessions, which began on the second day. The many speakers at the working sessions represented both government delegations and civil society organizations. The U.S. delegation also sponsored nearly a dozen side events, in which participants could engage with civil society and address topics centered on the day’s themes, as well as a reception for civil society representatives and representatives of other delegations.
Day two of the WHDC focused on the theme of democracy, including democratic institutions and elections, equal participation in political and public life, and the role of civil society in the protection of human rights. The U.S. co-sponsored a side-event with the delegations from the U.K., European Union, and Ukraine on “Russia’s Aggression against Ukraine: accountability and the way forward.” The second event the U.S. co-sponsored that day focused on the report of the recent expert mission established under the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism, which is a diplomatic tool that can be invoked by ten or more participating States to look into a particularly serious threat to the fulfillment of the provisions of OSCE’s human dimension of security. The expert mission report documented extensive and intensifying human rights violations and abuses within Russia. Expert mission rapporteurs, Professor Veronika Bílková of the Czech Republic, Professor Laura Guercio of Italy, and Professor Vasilka Sancin of Slovenia, also noted the importance of the two previous Moscow Mechanism reports on Russia’s abuses in Ukraine as key to understanding the situation on the ground and ensuring accountability. Bilkova pointed out that the Moscow Mechanism reports were the first focusing on Russia’s war against Ukraine to have been produced by independent experts from an international organization.
On the second evening, the U.S. delegation hosted a reception for civil society representatives attending the conference. USOSCE staff worked long hours to ensure the success of the reception. At the end of his welcoming remarks, Ambassador Carpenter gave the floor to Ukrainian parliamentarian Oleksii Goncharenko, a member of the permanent delegation of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, who had arrived directly from Odessa.
Goncharenko’s reception remarks set the tone for the first week of the conference. He noted he had woken up that morning in a city under attack. He expressed how nice it was to be in a city that was peaceful, and free from the war.
“We cannot have security and cooperation without freedom,” he said, then unfurled a Ukrainian flag he had picked up in the aftermath of a battle in the city streets. Attendees broke out in applause.
In correspondence with State Magazine, Goncharenko reiterated his appreciation to the United States, saying, “U.S. support today is vital for Ukraine. And Ukrainian victory is vital for [the] free world because we are fighting not only for our independence but also for our common values—democracy, human rights, respect to international law. Thanks to Ambassador Carpenter and the U.S. Congress’ Helsinki Commission’s work, this conference became one more step towards our common victory.”
On the third day, WHDC discussions centered on the topics of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief, freedom of assembly and association, and human rights defenders. For the U.S. delegation, the day began with an event co-sponsored with Canada, Denmark, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland on the Democracy Defenders Initiative. Each year, the initiative chooses an organization or person to honor with its Democracy Defenders Award. The 2022 award winners were “Human Rights Centre ZMINA” (ZMINA) and the Memorial Human Rights Centre. The delegation also participated in a side event on the 2020 Moscow Mechanism Expert Mission report focused on Belarus and ongoing harsh repression there.
Discussions during the fourth day of conference centered on tolerance and non-discrimination. Special Representative Desiree Cormier Smith presented for the United States.
“Together, we must strive to create an OSCE region and a world where all are included, treated justly, and able to realize their potential,” said Cormier. “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s also in our shared security interest … Societies that successfully address deep-rooted disparities tend to be more resilient, stable, and prosperous; instead of posing risks to international security, they contribute to it—and that’s good for us all.”
The last day of the first week, Sept. 30, focused on freedom of opinion and expression, media freedom, and safety of journalists. That day, the U.S. delegation co-sponsored, along with the informal Group of Friends on the Safety of Journalists, a side event on “Safety of Journalists: Dangers of Reporting from the War Zone in Ukraine.” Speakers included: Lina Kushch of the National Union of Journalists; Ukrainian journalist Konstantyn Ryzhenko; and editor of the Paris-based outlet BFMTV, Gregory Philipps. The panel addressed threats to media actors in Ukraine, in particular risks faced by those working and living in areas under Russia’s temporary control. Kushch outlined the union’s efforts to address shortages in protective equipment for journalists, revise safety protocols, offer evacuation support, and establish a journalist support hotline. Ryzhenko provided insight into the experience of journalists trapped in temporarily Russia-controlled Kherson, including coercion, being the subjects of bounties, and the daily risk of capture, torture, and death. Philipps shared how the death of a BFMTV journalist forced his team to briefly reduce their footprint in Ukraine, but also strengthened their resolve to cover the conflict.
The second week of the conference addressed topics such as: tolerance and non-discrimination with regard to national minorities; two sessions on rule of law, at which Representative Cohen and Deputy Secretary McDonald respectively spotlighted the imperatives of eradicating torture and releasing political prisoners; and a session on humanitarian issues.
Undersecretary Zeya addressed the plenary session on the human dimensions of security in the context of conflict, noting that “Russia’s unconscionable violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty has wrought death and destruction, endangered the region and the larger international community, and shredded the key principles on which this body was founded.”
With some 1,500 registered participants, as well as a diverse set of well-attended and compelling side events, this event exceeded expectations. As Carpenter noted, “The strong participation by civil society from across the OSCE region shows how necessary this conference was. Together, all who have participated—governments and civil society representatives alike—have resolutely carried forward the decades-long OSCE tradition of holding all participating States accountable for meeting their human dimension commitments. Together, we sent a strong message to Russia and any others who would undermine OSCE’s human dimension work: You will not succeed. No country escaped scrutiny for its human rights abuses.”
Mahvish S. Khan is the production editor at State Magazine.