Democracy Lab

Can Europe's Security Watchdog Survive the Crisis in Ukraine?

The OSCE was designed to ensure peace in Europe. Now the conflict in Ukraine is confronting it with perhaps the greatest crisis in its history.

Until a few months ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was an obscurity to most Westerners in the post-Cold-War world. Now it's the stuff of headlines and is at the center of high-stakes political deal-making. The reason is Ukraine, where our organization is mustering all of its reserves to help monitor and defuse the situation. In general, I think our efforts have been admirable. We've dispatched a Special Monitoring Mission to the country to establish the facts on the ground and track security developments. We've launched a National Dialogue Project aimed at building confidence among different segments of society, and facilitated a rare meeting of Russian and Ukrainian members of parliament. We're also preparing for a massive monitoring effort during the upcoming Ukrainian election on May 25. (In the photo above, two OSCE officers observe a pro-Ukrainian rally in Lugansk on April 19.)

It certainly sounds good -- good enough for some of my colleagues within the OSCE to argue that we've proven the health of our organization. But there's one problem: If the OSCE were working the way it's supposed to, the Ukraine crisis should never have happened in the first place. The OSCE has now reached a moment of truth: embrace real structural and political reform or be left to pick up the pieces after its failures.

In the first days of March, with Kiev quickly losing control of Crimea, Ukraine invoked a provision of the OSCE's 2011 Vienna Document that allowed for member states to call military observers onto its soil. Simply put, a team of international military personnel was to head into Crimea to cut through the chaos and evaluate the security situation on the ground. Some of these same observers would later find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, held hostage in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slovyansk before they were released amid an international outcry.

In Crimea, however, getting in, not out, was the problem. Several times the monitors attempted to enter the peninsula and each time they were barred by pro-Russian "militia." In the meantime, Moscow continued to "protect its own kind" inside Crimea while outside military observers were kept away. Russia, like all of its fellow OSCE states, had committed itself to upholding the provisions of the Vienna Document, including the provision for military observers to have access to the disputed area. Except for brief, restricted visits by a representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office and the OSCE High Representative on Minorities, we were shut out of the crisis area.

On March 21, after tense negotiations in which Moscow stood in the way, the Organization's 57 participating states belatedly agreed to deploy a Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. The mission would be tasked with gathering information, particularly on the security situation, as well as "reporting facts regarding incidents, including those concerning alleged violations of fundamental OSCE principles and commitments." Those principles are contained in the Organization's founding document, the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, and recognize, inter alia, the inviolability of frontiers; the territorial integrity of states; non-intervention in internal affairs; and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Kiev had officially requested the creation and deployment of the Mission weeks before, but had run into a problem that has long burdened our organization: the consensus rule.

Of course, something else of note also occurred on March 21: That was the day Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the annexation of Crimea into law. The national weather forecast on the evening news in Russia gave highs and lows for Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok -- and Sevastopol. Essentially, Russia had allowed the OSCE to assemble a monitoring mission to Ukraine only after it ripped a chunk of the country away. To be sure, the mission has done excellent and valuable work across non-Crimean Ukraine in the weeks since. Its creation was perhaps only possible due to concerted international pressure on Moscow to give in, which it did, only after a farcical "referendum" supposedly asked for Russian annexation.

So what is to be done? To mark the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act next year, the Parliamentary Assembly is organizing a series of events with prestigious international think tanks in Moscow, Washington, Stockholm, and Helsinki to consider the future of the OSCE. The policy experts and academics will have their say, but when I consider that question, I again think back to March. Addressing the governmental side of the OSCE, the Parliamentary Assembly's human rights chair, Portuguese member of parliament Isabel Santos, asked officials to consider the implications of Russia's behavior for the OSCE itself: "I wonder if Russia's de facto invasion of Ukraine means its de facto withdrawal from our organization," she said. To be sure, many parliamentarians in our Assembly argue that keeping Russia -- and other violators of OSCE commitments -- in the dialogue is the only way we can aspire to be the East-West bridge we were meant to be. Nevertheless, Santos's question poses an existential challenge for the OSCE that cannot be avoided.

First, there simply must be consequences for the kind of thrashing of OSCE commitments that we've seen during the Ukraine crisis. The Helsinki Final Act is not an international treaty backed by law and efforts to turn it into one have gone nowhere. But what we can at least do is not pull any punches, publicly denouncing at the highest levels the unacceptable actions in Ukraine and insisting that the provisions that all participating States agreed to be observed. When the smoke clears in Ukraine, the OSCE chairman-in-office could call an organization-wide summit on the existential gravity of this moment. The result could be a mechanism, or at least the initiation of a process, that the organization could invoke to consider egregious violations of its tenets -- a mechanism for holding member states publicly accountable for their transgressions. Such a mechanism could help us make soft power a little bit harder.

More than ever before, the situation in Ukraine -- and within the OSCE during this crisis -- prove that we must finally adjust the consensus-based decision-making which prevents collective action against blatant violations of OSCE commitments. The OSCE as an organization must resolve that it will not be taken hostage by any one state to remain silent and helpless while human suffering and brutal aggression continue. OSCE parliamentarians have long called on the governmental side to consider new rules -- perhaps consensus minus one or two, or two-thirds-majority or some procedure that prevents a single country veto by a transgressor. Achieving this change will no doubt be a diplomatic battle royale, but this current episode has demonstrated just how much we need to take it on. What if Russia had not held up the formation and deployment of a monitoring mission to Ukraine? Official reporting from Crimea during the early stages of the unrest there could have made a real impact on Russia's calculations, not to mention those of Ukraine, its neighbors, and the international community. If the monitoring mission was created to investigate alleged violations of OSCE principles, how, indeed, can the OSCE rationalize its inability to act?

Will our organization, even with clearly needed reforms, be able to head off all conflicts between member states? Of course not. Will it have a better chance of doing so? I don't doubt it. Will the OSCE be truer to its ideals? Certainly. Make no mistake -- on the ground in Ukraine, the OSCE has given its all in trying to respond to the crisis. But if this is not to be the final act for the Helsinki Final Act, it will have to be just as vigorous in tackling the tough questions of self-reform.

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Why Burma's Top General Is Playing Peacemaker

The leader of Burma's military is leveraging peace talks to position himself for next year's epochal presidential election.

It's election season in Burma. The 2015 general election, which promises to be the first more or less free vote of its type in more than half a century, is already looming large. The leader of the military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is already giving glimpses of his strategy for victory: a breakthrough in peace talks with the ethnic rebels who are still at odds with the central government.

Burma's liberalization process has generated high expectations within the international community. What outsiders often tend to miss is that the 60-year-old civil war between the central government and ethnic minorities continues today -- despite all the positive talk about peace from the country's leaders. This is the most daunting hurdle that Burma has to cross before it can establish a stable, open democracy. Min Aung Hlaing has decided to take on this challenge, and has spent the last few months making the rounds among ethnic armies. He has met with some success: In early April, he managed to bring the leaders of all major groups to the table for peace talks in Rangoon -- the largest meeting of its kind since Burma achieved independence in 1948. The talks have so far been a success: After the four-day-long peace negotiations, the attendees approved a draft of a national ceasefire agreement. Under Min Aung Hlaing's leadership, the military has put ethnic reconciliation squarely at the center of its agenda.

The reason for this is clear. Success at the peace talks could be a game-changer for Min Aung Hlaing, who is rumored to have his eye on the presidency. With presidential elections just around the corner, substantive progress in talks with the ethnic armies can bolster the commander-in-chief's chances in two key ways: First, it will help him develop a political platform and a clear image, both crucial to making the shift into electoral politics. Second, it will help him win votes in parliament. As member of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team (NCCT) commented, the army chief's priority, as he has told senior military officials, is to obtain not just an end to the fighting, but a durable peace that will last for a long time to come.

Needless to say, such a result won't come easy. Just a few days after the first meeting, in mid-April, there were signs that not everything was going well. When General Gun Maw, the leader of an ethnic army in the conflict-ridden Kachin state, visited the United States recently, he revealed that continuing fighting between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has been getting in the way of substantive dialogue, and implored the United States to take part in the talks. Gun Maw's message shows that the government has yet to earn the trust of the country's ethnic armies. And earning that trust -- a vital prerequisite for the success of the talks -- depends on Min Aung Hlaing.

For more than six decades since the last British forces pulled out, Burma has been ravaged by civil war between the central government and the ethnic armed groups. In 1947, independence hero General Aung San reached a deal, called the Panglong Agreement, that guaranteed ethnic minority groups broad rights and full administrative autonomy for frontier regions. Unfortunately, Aung San -- who is also the father of dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- was assassinated a few months later. Later governments, which were dominated by ethnic Burmans, failed to live up to the spirit of the Panglong Agreeement. That prompted many ethnic groups, including the KIA, to take up arms to push for greater autonomy and ethnic rights. (In the photo above, a KIA rebel overlooks the Mung Lai river near the militia's headquarters in Kachin state.)

The ethnic armies, then, have good reason to mistrust the government. Yet today the ethnic groups have shown that they're willing to give the peace process a try. Last year the Thein Sein government stepped up its efforts to conduct political dialogue with all ethnic rebels based on a ceasefire that was accepted by many of them.

It's important to note that the military has often used ceasefire agreements as part of a broader strategy for containing the rebellions on the country's periphery. The military concluded temporary ceasefires with certain groups while using the respites thus granted to intensify pressure on others. There were 14 ceasefire agreements between the military junta and the ethnic armed groups from 1989 to 2004 (including one with the KIA that only broke down in June 2011). This containment strategy did reduce clashes to some extent, but was unable to produce any lasting solutions because there was no genuine political dialogue between the ethnic groups and the junta. The recent draft ceasefire agreement suggests that the sides are making progress, and could indeed sign a long-term peace agreement by the declared deadline of August 1.

If Min Aung Hlaing can bring the negotiations to a successful end by the end of 2014, it would be an enormous boost to his prestige. A deal would mark a major breakthrough for the country, which has suffered from an intractable civil war for more than six decades. It's a high return wager for his potential presidential bid.

It would also offer some very practical advantages. Burma's parliament, as it presently exists, is divided up according to a quota system that gives a certain number of seats to various interest groups. Support from the ethnic groups represented in parliament could help give his candidacy a crucial boost. As it stands, the military bloc within Burma's parliament would be enough to make him one of the country's three vice presidents -- but the military holds just 25 percent of seats, not enough to make him president. A peace deal, and the ensuing support from Burma's ethnic minorities, would give him an edge on his competitors both inside parliament and in the country's ethnic regions.

So far, however, Min Aung Hlaing's peace deal efforts are far from perfect. One of the major issues is that the deal hinges on the military's list of six conditions, including the controversial demand that the groups respect the military-drafted 2008 constitution. Ethnic armed groups find half of these conditions unacceptable, stalling the talks. But as the army chief's retirement looms, the military has shown a willingness to tackle any remaining obstacles within the next few months. General Gun Maw, the Kachin leader, predicts that the military will compromise on the six points, stating that President Thein Sein and Gen Min Aung Hlaing will change policy if that was what they had to do to reach a peace agreement. If this is the case, it could mean a true conclusion of the world's longest civil war.

With a ceasefire in hand, there would be enough room for Min Aung Hlaing to maneuver for the presidency to outstrip his potential rivalries: Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still barred from running under an obscure article in the 2008 constitution, and the leaders of the ruling party, who have little or no public support. Meanwhile, escalating social unrest caused by the heated sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims, continuing conflicts over land ownership, and a general lack of rule of law continue to destabilize domestic politics. Ultimately, the military chief's success will depend on how shrewdly he manages the peace agreement and whether he can present himself as a strong, effective leader in the country's fragile transition.

A genuinely peaceful and federal Burma remains an ambitious and elusive goal. If Min Aung Hlaing can show decisive progress toward that end, he'll have a realistic chance of winning the presidency. But as things stand now the senior general still has a lot of work ahead of him.

Patrick BODENHAM/AFP/GettyImages