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This article reviews the rights accorded to minority groups by the commitments of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) 1 and examines the various measures that have been put in place to enforce those commitments. The structure of the OSCE and the provisions relating to minorities’ protection have evolved gradually over the last twenty-five years, slowly at first, then much more dramatically following the recent fall of communism in the East. The breakup of the former Eastern bloc and the ensuing rise of interethnic conflict have provoked concerns regarding the minority question in a way that scarcely could have been envisaged at the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. 2 Consequently, the issue of minorities has come to the forefront of the OSCE agenda, making an examination of minority rights and related OSCE machinery timely.

Particular attention is devoted to the work of the High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) whose mandate was established at the Helsinki Summit Meeting in 1992. 3 Although part of the conflict prevention machinery, [End Page 190] the work of the HCNM has encompassed the human rights of minority populations, emphasizing the holistic approach to minority rights taken by the OSCE. Indeed, the work of the HCNM reflects the pervasive contrast between policy as set out in OSCE documentation and the practice of OSCE organs generally.

I. Background to the Formation of the OSCE

The formation of the OSCE and the consequential recognition and protection of minority rights came about as the result of a remarkable political and pragmatic compromise on the part of the principal players in world politics whose aims, while at times convergent, were by no means identical. The first calls for a pan-European security system came from the former Soviet Union in the 1950s, prompted by a desire to secure the exclusion of the Federal Republic of Germany from the Western military alliance. This initiative, which failed to elicit a positive response from Western states, resulted in the conclusion of the Warsaw Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance. 4

A fresh attempt was made by the Soviet Union in the 1960s to promote peace and security in Europe. The Warsaw Pact Organisation issued the Declaration of Bucharest in 1966 which gave birth to what has been described as “a protracted ‘ communique dialogue’ between the NATO and the WPO in which East and West gradually grew towards each other.” 5 The primary interest of the Eastern bloc countries, principally the Soviet Union, in bringing about a peace conference was rooted in the desire for ratification of postwar borders as well as the development of economic cooperation between states. On the other hand, the prime motivation of Western states for taking part in a security conference was dictated by a wish to further security and humanitarian issues. The West recognized that the wishes of the East “could be turned to account by requiring human rights guarantees in exchange.” 6 [End Page 191]

II. The Development of the OSCE Process

It is indisputable that questions of peace, stability, and the effective protection of human rights are inextricably linked. 7 The end of the Cold War has witnessed a resurgence of nationalism in Eastern Europe and brought the “minority question” to the forefront of political and humanitarian thinking. In statistical terms, of the twenty-eight states comprising Central and Eastern Europe, only six have relatively small minority populations (Albania, Armenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia); the remaining states have national minorities that account for over 10 percent of the population. 8 The effective protection of human rights, including the rights of minorities, is one method by which interstate and intrastate conflict might be prevented.

There has been a shift in emphasis in the role of the OSCE since its inception as the CSCE and the start of the Helsinki Process. Born of a Cold War climate, the first steps taken by the then CSCE in the field of human rights protection were directed to standard setting, rather than policing or monitoring the implementation of standards. More recently, attention has focused on methods...

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