The OSCE is a co-operative security organisation with a very comprehensive mandate addressing security-related issues including stability, arms control, human and minority rights, democratisation in the broadest sense and economic as well as environmental security. It is the only pan-European security forum in which Russia participates as an equal member. Its distinguishing characteristic is its large number of members, comprising 55 participating states, including all European countries and the USA, Canada, and the Central Asian states. The term co-operative means that the OSCE does not apply coercive measures, but must seek the host country's agreement before becoming active in the event of crisis or conflict.
In the past decade, the OSCE has become a major instrument for conflict prevention and non-military crisis management (recent activities include the monitoring mission at the border between Georgia and Chechnya, and the organisation of elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as multi-ethnic police training in South Serbia and Macedonia). Moreover, the OSCE constitutes an important forum for arms control and disarmament in the field of conventional arms.
Regions in which the OSCE maintains field missions:
- Western Balkans
- Eastern Europe
- Central Asia
- OSCE Instruments
The OSCE chair is assumed at regular intervals by one member state which then plays an important role in managing the organization’s work and in its external representation. The foreign minister of the country holding the chair holds the office of Chairman-in-Office (CiO). The fact that decision-making within the OSCE requires a consensus among all 55 participating states represents a particular diplomatic challenge for the chair, which is currently held by the Netherlands. In 2000, Austria was OSCE's chair country.
The OSCE Secretariat, under the direction of the Secretary General (currently Ján Kubis) is the organisational backbone and provides support for the Chair's activities. It is based in Vienna, assisted by an office in Prague.
Besides, the OSCE is equipped with a number of instruments for the fulfilment of its tasks. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), headed by the Austrian diplomat Christian Strohal since 1 March 2003, is located in Warsaw and seeks to promote democratic elections, particularly by election monitoring, and provides practical support aimed at strengthening democratic institutions under the rule of law and fostering civil society structures. The office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities, held by the Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekéus, is located in The Hague and seeks to identify and resolve ethnic tensions at the earliest possible stage. The office of OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, based in Vienna and currently held by Freimuth Duve, a former Member of the German Bundestag, was established to monitor compliance with this important fundamental right.
As central instruments for conflict prevention, civil crisis management and consolidation of peace are the Long Term Missions. The OSCE has established 18 such field activities, involving approximately 1,300 international participants and 3,000 local staff members in the Balkans and the CIS (inter alia in the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia). The Chairman-in-Office may appoint Personal Representatives who use their political weight to assist in conflict management in the event of an imminent crisis (as did former Austrian Federal Chancellor, Franz Vranitzky, for Albania in 1998 under the Polish Chairmanship).