OSCE: a modern approach to security in Europe

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Born in Lucerne, Switzerland, Thomas Greminger holds a PhD in history from the University of Zurich and the rank of Lieutenant Colonel (General Staff) in the Swiss Armed Forces.

He joined the diplomatic service in 1990 and has held a number of senior positions during his career including being Deputy Director General of the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation, overseeing an annual budget of USD 730 million and 900 staff in Bern and abroad.

From 2010-2015, Greminger served as Switzerland’s permanent representative to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), serving as Chair of the Permanent Council in 2014.

He was appointed OSCE Secretary-General for a three-year period starting in July 2017. Diplomacy Magazine interviewed him in Copenhagen in May.

Could you tell me a bit more about the OSCE’s work and priorities?
OSCE is the world’s largest regional security organisation, with 57 participating states. We cover North America, Europe and the entire ex-Soviet Union, including Central Asia.

We have a comprehensive approach to security encompassing hard issues like political and military questions but also counter-terrorism, extremism, cyber security, and trafficking of all sorts – particularly trafficking in human beings.

We also deal with economic and environmental issues linked with security. Finally, there’s what the OSCE calls the human dimension. This is democratic institutions, human rights and the rule of law.

In addition to the Secretariat, we have three independent institutions: Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in Warsaw, the High Commission on National Minorities in The Hague, and the Representative on the Freedom of the Media in Vienna.

We also have 16 field operations, of which the best-known is the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. That’s our largest field operation where we have our activities related to the conflict cycle: conflict prevention, management, and resolution. The Conflict Prevention Center in the Secretariat supports the different mediation formats that we have and also the field missions.

Top of our agenda is the crisis in and around Ukraine. We have the Trilateral Contact Group that meets on a bi-weekly basis in Minsk with all the five signatories of the Minsk agreements sitting around the table. There is a special representative of the OSCE mediating the format and the Secretariat supports the process.

We have similar formats for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Transdniestrian settlement process, and for dealing with the consequences of the Russia-Georgia war in 2008.

What does your role as Secretary General entail?
On the one hand the Secretary General is the chief administrative officer for the entire OSCE, including all the institutions and all the field operations, but I’m also the deputy of the Chair-in-Office. Chair-in-Office is the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the chairing country. Right now, that is Miroslav Lajčák from the Slovak Republic.

In practice, it’s very much a division of labour between us, so formally speaking, you could say I’m the deputy chief diplomat of the OSCE.

What major challenges do you face?
The key challenge is operating in a very polarised political environment, such as the absolute low trust and confidence among the key stakeholders of Euratlantic and Eurasian security.

I alluded to the crisis in and around Ukraine. That is also one of the key contributors to this low trust among key stakeholders, and that effect dominates what we do.

On the plus side, we have everybody sitting around the same table. So our comparative advantage is to be an inclusive platform for dialogue. But of course, we are a consensus-based organisation. This also makes achieving consensus very difficult.

What brings you to Copenhagen?
I’m here because I wanted to visit the Secretariat of the Parliamentary Assembly and I thought we should combine it with the meeting of the Bureau of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

By chance, President Meta of Albania was also attending the same meeting. Albania is going to chair this organisation next year, so is not only a participating state but also a member of the OSCE Troika right now, and a crucial interlocutor. This afternoon I will meet with the Danish State Secretary.

During your time as Secretary General OSCE has acted in various crises. Has this changed your vision?
I’m more convinced than ever that we need this organisation. Perhaps because we’re in such a polarised world, it makes it very hard on a daily basis to find consensus on things like a budget. We’ve struggled to get the budget of our flagship operation in Ukraine approved at the last moment.

But at the same time, it is where you have the key stakeholders at the table. We are trying to take advantage of this and also try to invite participating states to use this platform. At the end of the day, you can have the best tool box for addressing conflict, for preventing conflict, but you need enlightened stakeholders to make use of these tools.

What are the current security challenges facing Europe?
You have conflicts, protracted conflicts and military risks again, which is something we thought was in the past. But against the backdrop of these more conventional military threats, you have cyber security issues. Here, the OSCE plays a crucial role because we are the first regional organisation that has come up with two sets of confidence building measures. We’re working hard trying to devise a system that allows us to prevent miscalculations or misinterpretations regarding inter-state cyber incidents.

There’s also trafficking – not just in human beings, but also in drugs and arms. Terrorism – preventing violent extremism and the radicalisation that leads to terrorism, that is an issue particularly in Central Asia but also in the Western Balkans and very relevant for the OSCE. But then I would also refer to the nexus between climate change and security and climate change and migration. New issues on the horizon are artificial intelligence and its repercussions on security.

What are the long – and short – term goals of managing migration and the fight against human trafficking?
OSCE started seriously dealing with migration policy issues close to four years ago. The OSCE platform was used to advocate a co-operative approach to migration management. But the particular angle of the comparative advantage of the OSCE clearly lies in the nexus between migration and security. For instance, crime along migration routes. And here of course, combating the trafficking of human beings particularly comes to mind.

I think we have developed niches where we clearly have comparative advantages in supporting participating states in dealing with these issues. We have also embarked on a strong co-operation with our Mediterranean partners in combating the trafficking of human beings along migration routes. We also offer integration policy advice. In another area ODIHR is strong when it comes to the human rights of migrants.

What are OSCE’s thoughts on gender equality, particularly on integrating women and the youth in peace and security efforts?
Both gender mainstreaming as well as youth mainstreaming are crucial pillars of the Fit for Purpose agenda that I launched eighteen months ago.

Youth and security is a relatively young issue. We really started dealing with this about five years ago and in a relatively short period I think we’ve made quite some progress in consolidating the issue on the OSCE agenda. Of course, we are still far from really integrating young perspectives in security policies. But we have been developing a number of interesting tools and policies to advance this agenda, and there is relatively broad support. I would argue that we are also important contributors in implementing the UN Youth Agenda in the OSCE area.

There is a gender plan of action dating back to 2004. Here, more has happened. We have also progressed quite a bit, but we still have huge challenges. We are in the final stages of launching a gender parity strategy. Gender parity is particularly challenging when it comes to the more hard security areas of our work. But of course gender mainstreaming is also an issue when it comes to our programmatic work. Here, we have made quite some progress but there is still lots of work to do, particularly when it comes to really making sure that gender is systematically mainstreamed into our major projects and programs.

What have been OSCE’s main achievements recently?
One of the biggest and ongoing achievement is holding states accountable to respect the principles and commitments of the OSCE. Despite all the challenges and difficulties we’ve seen to this rule-based security order, we have managed to uphold principles and commitments and to hold states accountable.

And then I would of course point to the crisis in and around Ukraine where we’ve been successful in preventing further escalation of the conflict. We’ve been a good crisis manager. Not so successful in moving the conflict towards a resolution. But there I would admit that this is also to a large extent dependent on the political will of the parties to the conflict.

Perhaps there’s a third element when it comes to preventing conflict. We’ve been consistently supporting participating states in strengthening their democratic institutions and in helping them strengthen their rule of law. And in that sense, this is a structural prevention. And I think that I would also outline that as a major achievement.

What do you hope to see in 2019?
I hope we have progress in resolving the crisis in and around Ukraine. Hopefully we also progress when it comes to other protracted conflicts. I think there have been encouraging signs in the Transdniestrian settlement process and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Generally I would like participating states and political leaders to use the OSCE more systematically to rebuild trust and confidence, in particular between Russia and the West, primarily in addressing the issues of military risk that we are currently facing. But I would also hope that we can make progress in tackling some of the relatively new security challenges. I refer to the climate change and security nexus. I mentioned it also in talking to the parliamentarians on artificial intelligence.

We are soon holding a security day. OSCE’s contribution to implementing the 2030 UN agenda for sustainable development. So how can the OSCE contribute to implement the SDGs. That’s also an area where I would hope to see progress by the end of this year.