In 2017, two of the smaller European nations are chairing Europe’s major organisations. While Malta took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) for the first time in 2017 (Malta became an EU member on 1 May 2004), Austria is chairing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE chairmanship is held for one calendar year by an OSCE participating state. Previously Austria, which has hosted the OSCE Secretariat in Vienna since 1995, had the chairmanship in 2000.

The OSCE originated in 1975 with the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The creation of the CSCE was a breakthrough event during the Cold War, as it was founded to serve as a multilateral forum for dialogue and negotiation between East and West. The organisation adapted itself to the changed geopolitical conditions in 1990 with the Charter of Paris for a new Europe.

This and the following charters and conferences defined the organisation’s comprehensive and cooperative security concept, which covers the so-called three dimensions: the political-military dimension, the economic and environmental dimension, and the human dimension. Thus, the mandate of the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organisation includes issues such as arms control, human rights, conflict prevention and resolution, democratisation, policing strategies, counter-terrorism, and economic and environmental activities.

Austria’s OSCE Priorities

The Austrian chairmanship has set out a list of priorities for its term, which are said to be in response to the current threats and challenges in the OSCE area. The chairmanship states that in addition to military confrontation and border conflicts, the increase in radicalisation and terrorism, a growing loss of trust that gives way to a rising feeling of insecurity and fear has played an important role in defining this year’s key issues, which are as follows:

1) Contributing towards defusing existing conflicts.

2) Joining forces in fighting radicalisation and violent extremism.

3) Re-establishing trust and confidence.

According to the Austrian Foreign Ministry, the current challenges faced by the organisation are conflicts such as those in Syria and Ukraine, and the rise of nationalism, radicalisation, and terrorism. Of further concern is the loss of confidence between participating states and of the confidence that citizens have in state institutions and international organisations that are meant to safeguard peace and common values.

To avoid further conflict, the OSCE chairmanship believes that dialogue and political solutions are needed to solve existing conflicts. Radicalisation and terrorism are European-wide, and indeed world-wide problems that threaten the stability of states, security, and human rights and freedoms. Austria’s chairmanship plans to intensity the fight against violent extremism and radicalisation in society, with a particular focus on young people. With regard to reestablishing trust, there is a need for more transparency, economic co-operation, and connectivity among participating countries, and co-operation in the human dimension.

Dialogue Initiatives

Dialogue has been a tool of diplomats and politicians for many years. In a 1972 letter to UNESCO, Austrian philosopher Hans Köchler suggested the idea of an international conference on the “dialogue between different civilizations”. In 1974, Köchler organised an international conference on the role of intercultural dialogue. Since that time, dialogue initiatives have gained prominence, and 2001 was proclaimed as the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations, with 2013-2022 being named the International Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures. These are just two of many recent initiatives bringing dialogue to the forefront of international politics.

Since the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the surge of conflicts and acts of violence in the last decade, dialogue between civilisations has become the subject of many initiatives due to its ability to bring together people of different cultures and religions, and act as an instrument to lessen and resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner; it is also useful as a way of keeping conflicts from escalating.

As a consequence of ongoing conflicts, Europe recently saw a refugee crisis of unprecedented dimensions, with massive movements of people trying to escape dire circumstances in the Middle East and North Africa. This has led, among other things, to an increase of intolerance and racist discourse, and therefore politicians have further embraced dialogue, which is becoming more and more important. In the course of increasing polarisation and political instrumentalisation, intercultural and interreligious dialogue is becoming more and more difficult, which in turn poses a challenge for dialogue.

In fact, dialogue is one of the key instruments for development and peace, especially in times of crisis. Indeed, dialogue can help prevent and end conflict, as well as promote reconciliation in the aftermath of conflict, transfer knowledge, and introduce moderate voices into very polarised debates. Furthermore, dialogue can provide a basis for capacity-building projects, where it helps improve awareness, management, and administration. Dialogue also offers a platform for parties to interact, share experiences, and further their cooperation.

According to Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, Austria hopes to continue to play a role as a dialogue facilitator and bridge-builder during its OSCE chairmanship. As a neutral country, Austria has for many years played a role in international dialogue and cooperation. In the first few months of the chairmanship, Vienna has already hosted a conference titled Cyber Security for Critical Infrastructure: Strengthening Confidence Building in the OSCE, and a conference on Freedom of the Media in the West Balkans. Other events have included the OSCE Chairmanship Business Conference on “Partnerships and Innovation for Sustainable Economies” and the first Preparatory Meeting of the 25th OSCE Economic and Environmental Forum. Dialogue will evidently be the key element of the Austrian approach to its current chairmanship.

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Diana Orlova
Diana Orlova received her BA (Political Science and International Studies) from Yale University and a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science (European Political Economy). She has worked with the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations” for over ten years, as head of the European Headquarters, which she helped set up in Vienna in 2006. Before joining the World Public Forum she worked at the International Press Institute (Vienna), as Press Freedom Advisor, and as Europe and former-USSR Programs Coordinator. Diana’s research interests include international relations, European integration, and global policies and institutions.