Experts: High Commissioner on National Minorities should stay the course

High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebæk @ FlensborghusThe OSCE HCNM has been a successful and “living institution” in its first 20 years. Last Friday’s conference in Flensburg suggests the office to “continue living” as before.

Nothing should be changed in the mandate of the OSCE HCNM, according to last Friday’s expert meeting in Flensburg. Experts were gathered for the conference HCNM 20 Years On to take stock of the first 20 years of the HCNM mandate. They were also there to reflect on the future challenges that the office of the HCNM will be called to address.

The mandate is well composed and all three commissioners of the Office’s first 20 years have used it well, was the general opinion of the experts.

However, some experts questioned the confidentiality condition of the Commissioner’s work, that doesn’t reflect modern transparency demands. More experts seemed to agree that the confidentiality condition was a sine qua non.

Knut Vollebæk’s key messages

12 international experts with knowledge of the mandate plus the High Commissioner Knut Vollebæk himself attended the conference on 6 July. The Schleswig-Holstein’s minority commissioner, Renate Schnack, also attended the conference.

In his key address to the conference, Knut Vollebæk stated as the first:
“The HCNM is going to remain an important player.”
Vollebæk also aired that the Office could “… work with practitioners, both academia and civil society.”

The conference was organized by ECMI in cooperation with the journal European Security.

Read also: Conference: “HCNM 20 Years On” takes place on 6 July at Flensborghus
Read also: Knut Vollebæk to visit European Centre for Minority Issues

Facts: Europe’s Minority Commissioners

There are few Offices in Europe mandated to be the liaison between national minorities and their governments.

The Hague hosts the senior diplomat and former Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebæk. He is appointed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). He operates under the title of High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM). The Office was established in 1992, and Ambassador Vollebæk is the third in a series of commissioners. The High Commissioner has more than 30 employees to assist in carrying out the mandate.

Schleswig-Holstein’s Commissioner for Minorities, the highly respected Renate Schnack, is appointed by the Schleswig-Holstein Minister-President Torsten Albig. It is the second time that Mrs. Schnack holds the position. It was established in 1988. The Commissioner reports directly to Minister-President. In spite of the high level, the position is based primarily on voluntary efforts and supported only on an ad hoc basis by employees in the State Chancellery in Kiel.

In 2002, the good example from Schleswig-Holstein was partly copied by the German Federal Government, which created a mandate for a Commissioner for Repatriation and National Minorities. This position is occupied by a parliamentary state secretary in the federal Interior Ministry, currently Dr. Christoph Bergner. He does not necessarily have higher status than the Schleswig-Holstein Commissioner, as he reports to a cabinet minister, while the Schleswig-Holstein Commissioner reports to Schleswig-Holstein’s Minister-President.

In countries which do not appoint commissioners, there are often other forums. They enable national minorities to meet with the public authorities designated to handle cases involving minorities. Standing liaisons and interethnic commissions as well as less formal forums exist in several countries. These include the Scandinavian countries, Poland, Romania, and Croatia.

2012 is 20 years of the international High Commissioner work.

The High Commissioner must sound the alarm early, meaning he would draw the international community’s attention to potential conflicts concerning national minorities, and secondly he must take action with intensive diplomatic negotiations between the parties if necessary. His mandate is confidential. This is to ensure that all parties will willingly cooperate. And, unlike his counterparts in Germany, he has complete independence from his principals, the member countries of the OSCE as long as he shall report once a year. Only one fact makes his mandate weak – he cannot operate in certain Western European countries.

Through the years, the High Commissioner has brokered first in the Baltics and the Balkans – in the second half of the 1990s. In the Baltics, it was especially Estonia and Latvia, which was the cause of international attention in dealing with the Russian speaking minority. In the Balkans it was particularly the conflict in Bosnia. After 2000 the High Commissioner has been heavily involved in Kosovo in independence talks and the Caucasus in the conflict between Georgia and Russia. Language conflicts also have the High Commissioner’s attention. Recently, he mediated between Slovakia and Hungary on Slovakia’s controversial language law of 2009.

Bibliography on OSCE HCNM:

Brenninkmeijer, Olivier A.J., The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities: Negotiating the 1992 Conflict Prevention Mandate. Geneva: The Graduate Institute of International Studies, 2005.

Drzewicki, Krzysztof, “The enlargement of the European Union and the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities”, in:  Weller, Marc, Denika Blacklock and Katherine Nobbs (eds.), The Protection of Minorities in the wider Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, 154-170.

Drzewicki, Krzysztof, and Vincent de Graaf, “The Activities of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities: January 2009 to December 2009”, in: EURAC/ECMI (eds.), European Yearbook of Minority Issues, Vol. 8, 2009. Leiden: Brill, 2011, 617-641.

Estébanez, M.A. Martín, “The High Commissioner on National Minorities, Development of the Mandate”, in : M. Bothe, N. Ronzitti and A. Rosas (eds.), The OSCE in the Maintenance of Peace and Security. The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 1997, 123-166.

Horváth, István,”Facilitating Conflict Transformation. Implementation of the Recommendations of the OSCE High Commissioner to Romania, 1993-2001”. CORE Working Paper 8. Hamburg: Centre for OSCE Research (CORE), Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, 2002.

International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, Vol. 12, No. 2-3, 2005. Special Issue on The Lund Recommendatons on the Effective Participation of National Minorities in Public Life.

Kemp, Walter A. (ed.), Quiet Diplomacy in Action: The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2001.

Packer, John, “The Role of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities in the Former Yugoslavia”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1999, 169-184.

Zaagman, Rob, Conflict Prevention in the Baltic States: The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. ECMI Monograph #1. Flensburg: European Centre for Minority Issues, 1999. Download

Zellner, Wolfgang, The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities – His Work, Effectiveness, and Recommendations to Strengthen the HCNM as an Institution, in: Heinz Gärtner, Adrian Hyde-Price and Erich Reiter (eds.), Europe’s New Security Challenges. Boulder, Co. 2001,  265-295.

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