Keynote address by Yuri Dzhibladze at the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting

Dear colleagues, let me start by expressing my appreciation of the Maltese Chairpersonship and ODIHR for choosing these very important subjects as a theme of the first SHDM this year. Members of the OSCE-wide NGO coalition, the Civic Solidarity Platform, which I have honour to represent, know very well, through their daily work, how important and at the same time very difficult it is today to document violations of international law during conflicts, to fight for accountability of the perpetrators, to assist displaced people and communities affected by wars and humanitarian crises, and at the same time withstand diminishing resources, lack of meaningful cooperation on the part of states and intergovernmental organisations, and in many instances to resist pressure from governments, persecution, and repression.

It has been 13 years since the Civic Solidarity Platform was established as a coalition of NGOs working to promote Helsinki principles and bring them to life. The Platform brings together several dozen NGOs from across the OSCE region, working in human rights, democracy, election observation, gender equality, conflict resolution, comprehensive security, climate justice, and other areas. By joining efforts, the Platform members are able to learn from each other, share expertise and resources, and support colleagues under pressure through solidarity actions. Together, we interact with OSCE bodies and participating States, assist them, and hold them to account on the implementation of their OSCE commitments. We believe in the Helsinki concept of comprehensive security, the indivisibility of the three OSCE dimensions, and the value of multilateralism.

At the same time we are strongly disappointed by the betrayal by a number of states of the Helsinki values and principles and the resulting failure of the OSCE to fulfil the central purpose of its existence – ensuring security and preventing conflicts. The OSCE and all 57 states together have not been able to prevent the full-scale war on our continent and effectively respond to the growing pushback against fundamental rights and the backsliding of democracy in the OSCE region. We are angry and often feel enraged by what is going on but we are not giving up. We believe that a serious reflection and deliberation process about the future of the OSCE is needed. We are talking about the need to “reinvent the OSCE” to make it fit for the new challenging times. The approaching 50th anniversary of the signing of the Helsinki Final Act next year provides an excellent opportunity for this, and the Civic Solidarity Platform is launching now a Helsinki+50 reflection process that will bring together civil society and academic experts to develop recommendations for change. We count on support of all those who believe in the Helsinki principles and are willing to work together to get us out of the current catastrophic situation.

In the recent years, many of our member organisations and our partners have been under attack by their states through legal means, smear campaigns, or physical attacks. Many have been officially labelled “foreign agents”, “undesirable organisations”, “extremists”, or even “supporters of terrorism”. The recent adoption of a “foreign agents” law in Kyrgyzstan and similar efforts undertaken now by the Georgian authorities are absolutely disgraceful. They follow the dangerous line of the Russian leadership, aimed at the complete elimination of independent civil society and civilian oversight of the government. It goes contrary to the OSCE commitments on freedom of association. In some countries, such as Belarus, Azerbaijan, Türkiye, and Turkmenistan, governments actively use various trumped-up criminal charges to supress and destroy independent civil society, without adopting “foreign agents” legislation. 

While space for civil society has been shrinking across the OSCE region for a long time even in peaceful circumstances, pressure is truly systematic in countries involved in conflicts. NGOs and activists involved in conflict prevention, documentation of human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law in conflict zones and in the post-conflict transformation work, are often labelled “traitors” and “enemies”. Their ability to work is undermined by the adoption of discriminatory laws and policies in conflict zones restricting fundamental freedoms and blocking access to conflict zones. Monitoring of human rights violations in the occupied and unrecognised territories is extremely difficult due to highly insecure conditions for local activists. The OSCE and participating States should work to prevent weakening and marginalisation of civil society in conflict and post-conflict areas and protect civil society groups and activists from accusations of treason, smear campaigns, criminal persecution, and attacks by non-state actors. 

As a result of the war against civil society led by many governments, inside and outside of conflict situations, thousands of NGOs have lost their registration, offices, equipment, and funding. This has happened in Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Türkiye, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and other countries. Many have had to relocate to other countries as a result of persecution, and face many challenges of legal recognition in the new place as well as transborder repression by authorities of their countries of origin, involving abuse of the Interpol system for extradition under false charges, digital threats, and physical attacks by government proxies and hired criminals, and pressure on relatives in the home country.

A number of our colleagues who actively participated in the Platform’s work and took part in OSCE events, are currently imprisoned on fabricated charges, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Belarus Ales Bialiatsky and his colleagues Valentin Stefanovich, Vladimir Labkovich and Andrei Alexandrov, all convicted to very long sentences and held in torturous conditions. The same applies to Russian activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, sentenced to unbelievable 25 years, who, like another wellknown person in the OSCE, leading Russian election observation expert Grigory Melkoniants, is in jail on charges of working with an “undesirable organisation”. Persecution for protesting against the Russian aggression and spreading information about war crimes committed by the Russian troops in Ukraine has been going on a massive scale, especially in Russia but also in Belarus, as documented in a recent report and resolution by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly. One of the most respected Russian human rights defenders Oleg Orlov, co-chair of Human Rights Centre “Memorial”, another Nobel Peace Prize recipient, who for three decades had worked on documentation of violations and international crimes in conflict zones, including North Caucasus and Donbas, was convicted a month ago to two and a half years of imprisonment for repeatedly expressing his condemnation of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Another dear colleague of ours, Ukrainian human rights defender Maxim Butkevich is held in the Russian custody in the occupied Donbass, convicted to 13 years by an illegitimate court on fabricated charges. These are just a few names among many colleagues who have been harassed, attacked, and prosecuted. This is a tragic price we are paying for the disintegration of the Helsinki process.

Our Ukrainian colleagues who have been playing a leading role in the Platform from the first days of its existence, have been preoccupied for the last two years with the struggle to defend independence and survival of their country. They assist victims of the aggression, document war crimes, work towards accountability, and inform the world about the consequences of the war. Some of those who just recently led seminars, wrote books, spoke at conferences, have taken arms to protect our common freedom and shared values. Courage and dedication of our colleagues working at high risk is an inspiration for all of us. The tragic reality of the last years has affected all of us in many ways, including the Civic Solidarity Platform, which carries on, despite all odds. 

We all know that doing public education work, protecting rights, helping victims and fighting impunity is central to civil society’s work. But there is much more to it. I do not have to convince you that the role of civil society organisations in providing the international community, including here in the OSCE, with documentation and analysis on violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law and recommendations regarding ways to address and prevent these violations is essential, ever more so in the times of the large-scale war and humanitarian crises of different kind. Without civil society documentation, analysis, and recommendations, states and IGOs wouldn’t be able to do much. But we do not need just the words of appreciation. Symbolic prizes and joint statements are important, but they cannot replace real action to address the issues we raise. What I would like you to hear is the following: we need much more from you to support, assist and protect NGOs and human rights defenders who are doing this essential work, on the one hand, and we need much more from you to use their documentation, analysis and recommendations, translating your words into actions. In many cases, we see too little concrete action by OSCE bodies and participating States in response to information and suggestions from civil society. This has been repeatedly called “the untapped potential of civil society in the OSCE” but in essence it is a lack of action, a lack of political will. 

Let me give you a few examples where, in response to civil society information and recommendations, actions by States and OSCE bodies are needed to address human rights violations and international crimes during violent conflicts, and to protect rights in situations of humanitarian crises caused by conflicts and other reasons, when thousands of people flee from the impact of climate crisis and environmental degradation, hunger, and last but not least, mass repression. 

First, to better support crucial work of Ukrainian NGOs and their partners, we call on OSCE bodies to provide civil society actors who go on field missions to de-occupied territories with security training, psychological support, trainings on communication with survivors of war crimes, on documentation according to international standards and on carrying out basic recording of physical damage caused to survivors as a result of Russian aggression; and support civil society’s capacity to make proper referral of their complaints of documented human rights violations and war crimes to international judicial mechanisms. When it comes to OSCE participating States, they should keep invoking the Moscow Mechanism as a critically important instrument of providing unbiased and verified information on human rights violations and international crimes committed in the territory of Ukraine as a result of the Russian invasion which can be used as evidence for further prosecution, and cooperate with civil society in evidence collection. States should support activists in the occupied territories and in exile; financially assist civil society efforts to support victims on the ground in Ukraine; provide civil society actors who go on field missions to de-occupied territories with the necessary security equipment; make statements about civil society representatives deprived of liberty as a result of Russian aggression, to speak up their names, make requests about their whereabouts and health conditions, call for their release, and visit court hearings in Russia on their cases; and support their families.

One outstanding issue where much more needs to be done is holding perpetrators accountable. We all know that ending impunity is of vital importance not only to ensure justice for victims but to prevent new crimes and new wars. Civil society has documented numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine and against Ukrainians, including massive violations of the rights of people living in the occupied territories and of thousands of Ukrainian hostages in Russian custody, held without charges and often in secret detention. However, there has been very little progress in taking decisions to develop much needed international justice mechanisms such as an ad hoc tribunal. The problem of accountability gap persists. 

Likewise, we see a lack of effective action to ensure accountability for mass repression in Belarus. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled to other countries from systematic and large scale persecution of civilian population, which is a part of the state policy. It is not only a humanitarian crisis but constitutes a crime against humanity, as recognised in the latest report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. To stop this, we need a special tribunal, urgent referrals by states to the ICC, and effective application of the universal jurisdiction principle by law enforcement bodies of states where victims have fled to. We have been calling for this and making very concrete proposals but there is no progress. Only urgent and strong actions to bring perpetrators to account may get thousands of political prisoners out of jail where they are tortured, many being held incommunicado, and a few have already died. 

Civil society has provided a lot of documentation and concrete suggestions in the OSCE framework in respect of the situation in another country, whose government has been practicing enforced disappearance of several hundreds of its critics for more than 20 years, Turkmenistan. After a strong letter in 2018 to Turkmen authorities by 14 Ambassadors to the OSCE where they claimed that if no tangible progress happens in a matter of weeks, they will take action, nothing has happened. Even the Moscow Mechanism has not been invoked in respect of this horrendous situation – despite the fact that in 2020 fighting incommunicado detention became an important part of the OSCE commitment on prevention and eradication of torture. We are very disappointed by this lack of political will, giving way to economic and geopolitical interests.

Speaking of prevention of torture and incommunicado detention, we have provided regular monitoring of the deteriorating situation in the OSCE region in this field and have made a number of concrete recommendations on the implementation of the excellent MC Decision 7/20 but there is no OSCE road map or an action plan for its implementation, no guidelines for states, not even a civil society advisory board on torture prevention at ODIHR. 

The situation of mass exodus of displaced persons from the occupied territories of Georgia and refugees from Nagorno Karabakh both in Armenia and earlier in Azerbaijan requires much more sustained and effective actions by the OSCE – as, of course, the situation of millions of Ukrainians, mostly women and children, who fled Russian bombs and destruction. States and societies have done a lot to support them but as the war continues, more support is needed.

On a larger issue of migration, the development of the European asylum law and anti-migrants practices of states are very worrying, especially given the situation of many refugees fleeing wars, hunger, and climate crisis, with many women being alone, often exploited, and under threat of violence on the move. Increasingly harsh migration policies go contrary to human rights values and are endangering peace and security through illegalisation of refugees, creating difficulties in obtaining asylum, push backs, forced deportation, militarisation of border management, and discrimination. This problem needs common commitment of EU member states and political responsibility of decision makers, not giving in to populist demands. Attacks against NGOs and activists protecting migrants in many states, including EU member states all around Vienna, East, West, and South, are shameful and must be stopped. 

The role of civil society is especially crucial today where historical prejudice, enemy images, and xenophobic narratives are again on the rise in many countries due to the surge of nationalistic and populist forces who manipulate public opinion and increase tensions. Civil society could play a stronger role in mobilising members of the pubic against hate speech, divisive narratives and nationalistic sentiments propagated by political leaders in their power interests. We call on the OSCE, especially the Representative on Freedom of the Media, to more actively address the abuse of media freedom for propaganda, hate speech, incitement to war, and even genocidal language, and utilise civil society expertise in this field. 

Climate crisis adds new dimension of humanitarian crisis related to forced migration. For example, our colleagues from Central Asia report on the humanitarian and environmental disasters currently taking shape in the Amu Darya River basin, which may lead to the emergence of up to several million environmental refugees from the region. We call on the OSCE as a whole, and especially the OSCE second dimension bodies, to begin active interaction with NGOs, including with members of the Civic Solidarity Platform, to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the making. 

Concluding my remarks, I would like to reiterate our key recommendations on engagement with civil society in the OSCE framework. On the conceptual level, democratic states, intergovernmental organisations, and donors should treat CSOs as agents of change, not merely as objects of solidarity, and move from the strategy of enabling civil society survival to scaling up assistance so that civil society groups can play a leading role in overcoming the crisis. This requires a proactive strategy of institutional support. The OSCE should enhance civil society engagement in all OSCE activities and across the three dimensions. OSCE actors should utilise civil society contribution, give proper consideration to its information, analysis, and policy recommendations, engage in discussing them, and provide substantive feedback. All OSCE Chairpersonships should include cooperation with civil society and protection of civil society space in their priorities. Concerned States should establish a Group of Friends of Civil Society to develop strategies on reversing the backlash against civil society and expanding civil society space in the OSCE.Chairpersonships and ODIHR should develop a system of prompt reaction to cases of pressure on civil society and persecution of activists. ODIHR should set up an expert panel on freedom of association and security of human rights defenders to assist in the implementation of relevant commitments and guidelines. 

And last but not least, all Chairpersonships should appoint Special Representative on Civil Society, which was pioneered by North Macedonia and continued by Malta by appointing former President of the country, H.E. Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, to this position. This mandate should address the manifold challenges that civil society faces:

  1. mainstream the meaning and role of civil society, in particular along the conflict cycle, within OSCE structures;
  2.  help facilitate systematic communication and cooperation between all OSCE structures and civil society;
  3. raise awareness of and support the fight against shrinking civil society space.

    We look forward to working with you, Your Excellency.