Press Briefing at OSCE Review Conference
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
MODERATOR: Thank you for coming today. My name is Steve Labensky. I am the Public Affairs Officer for the United States Mission to the OSCE. It is a pleasure to welcome you to our first press briefing and it is my honor to introduce you to Thomas O. Melia. Mr. Melia is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and is the head of the United States delegation to the Astana portion of the review conference being held in the run-up to the summit. Mr. Melia will speak briefly about his activities and experiences as the head of delegation and will then take questions. I ask each of you to identify yourself when you ask your question, giving both your name and your media affiliation. This press event will be in English and Russian.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY MELIA: Thanks Steve, and thanks to all of you for coming out this afternoon. I am going to give you a few observations about the review conference that just concluded and I will then be glad to take your questions.
Following on the input we received on Friday morning from the NGOs who are gathered for the purpose of advising the government delegations, we spent three lengthy sessions discussing and examining issues of media freedom in the OSCE region, the problem of trafficking in persons, and the issue of intolerance of migrants and minorities in the countries of the OSCE. All three are big and growing as problems in our region and greater cooperation is vital. In particular, the pressures on independent media are of concern because restrictions on freedom of expression impede our efforts to solve all other problems. Dunja Mijatovic of Bosnia, who is the Representative on Freedom of Media for the OSCE, noted in her report to the review conference that freedom of expression is not measured simply by the number of publications in a country but by the degree of editorial independence they enjoy.
I will also note that, in my address to the closing plenary earlier today, I emphasized the important role played by civil society in the OSCE framework. This organization is unique in the world in the prominence that it gives to civil society in its official deliberations. It is one of the strengths of the OSCE. Accordingly, I went this morning to observe the opening session of the Parallel Civil Society Summit that is being organized by CIVICUS and a number of other well-known international NGOs. At the opening session this morning, I saw the group addressed electronically by two of the world’s most famous and well-respected human rights defenders. Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group spoke directly to the conference participants and also Yevgeniy Zhovtis spoke from his prison cell to the group, and I should say that both of these highly regarded and well-known activists were warmly received by the more than 100 delegates who were participating in that conference.
The other point I would make about civil society and its importance to the OSCE and to the United States government is that our Secretary of State will be meeting with civil society upon her arrival on Tuesday afternoon in a town hall kind of event at Eurasian National University as she does everywhere she travels in the world. Underscoring an initiative that she launched in a speech in Krakow last July, the United States government is extending its support – both political and moral as well as material – to independent civil society around the world. We think that the problems that we all face as nations can only be solved with appropriate input from independent experts and NGOs and human rights groups.
So, it has been a very successful review conference. We are prepared for the summit when the more senior heads of delegation will be arriving from all the participating States, and so I think we are in a good position going into the summit.
With that, I would be glad to take questions and respond to your inquiries.
QUESTION (Tselina newspaper): Could you please tell us what Yevgeniy Zhovtis said and what conclusions did you reach after listening to his speech? Unfortunately, his speech was not available to us.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY MELIA: Well, I do know that his remarks are being distributed at the conference and will be posted on the website, so I am sure you can get the exact text of what he said. But, that said, he welcomed the meeting of activists here in Kazakhstan and wished them well in the conference that they were just beginning. I think it was an important connection that was drawn between the international and national groups that were there and one of Kazakhstan’s most famous individuals.
QUESTION (Novoye Pokolenie newspaper): How do you assess the development of civil society in the post-Soviet states, and in particular, in Kazakhstan?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY MELIA: Well, that is a good question, and I think, like any civil society gathering, we heard a variety of views. That is how you can tell when you have a genuine meeting where people are free to express their opinions because they will present alternate points of view and sometimes disagree about what reality really is. So, that is a good sign. I think that spoke well to the gathering on Friday morning.
I think we all know, and this is reflected not only in the reports that our State Department issues every year, the Human Rights Reports, on every country but also in the reports by independent think tanks and NGOs, that there are a variety of constraints on freedom of association and the work of civil society in many of the countries of the former Soviet Union. This is one of our challenges. This was one of the topics of discussion at the OSCE in the review conference and will certainly be part of the summit discussions.
The reason that Secretary Clinton launched her Civil Society Support Initiative in July was precisely because the threats to independent civil society are growing in the world these days. So, as we talked about modernizing all our countries, there are some ways in which we are becoming more modern and more successful, and there are other aspects of our societies in which we are moving backwards. I think in too many countries there are new laws being put in place that restrict the operation of NGOs making it more difficult for them to receive funding, setting the basis for more frequent and intrusive investigations by tax authorities or police, etc. This is a problem in Kazakhstan but it is not unique to Kazakhstan, and I think, for the OSCE to fulfill the commitments that all of our governments have made at Helsinki and in Paris and in Moscow and on so many occasions over the years, it is important that real practical steps be taken within each country to enact the proper democratically-based legislation and then to realize that these different views from civil society can actually strengthen a society and help solve problems, the other problems that we talk about, whether that is trafficking or toleration or other issues.
So, this is a real problem in Kazakhstan as elsewhere, and the degrees to which countries want to be identified with the founding principles of the Helsinki Final Act and the OSCE itself they will move forward to modify legislation and change the climate for the operation of civil society.
QUESTION (Tselina newspaper): We have a perception here that if an NGO is funded by the United States, it can undermine the foundations of the state. What do you think about this?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY MELIA: Well, I come from a country where many of the successful businessmen and women have put aside money that supports charitable and independent activities by NGOs. Sometimes, this private philanthropy is not enough to support independent civil society and some governments in Europe and elsewhere, like the United States, also make grants available to support the work of civil society. I have been involved in these kinds of grant programs myself personally for many years, and I know that the success of any of these NGOs depends on their connections to society and the countries in which they work. I would not judge organizations so much on the basis of where their funding comes from as on the work that they do, and, if civil society groups that depend on grants from outside the country, whether private or government, I think the important thing is what are they doing with that money? What kind of educational activities are they undertaking? What kind of policies or reforms are they advocating? That will tell you the value of those organizations and the work they do. Not every grant recipient is an angel or is effective, but I think many are, and so I think I would judge each organization based on its own record of accomplishment.
QUESTION (Lyudmila Piskorskaya): What is your opinion about the level of democratic development in Kazakhstan? How fast is Kazakhstan moving towards democracy? How would you assess the role of Kazakhstan as Chairman of the OSCE?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY MELIA: Well, as I said, there are a lot of independent assessments by scholars and think tanks about the political situation in every country, and I think not all experts will agree. I think Kazakhstan, and I think Kazakhstani officials as well as NGOs here, would agree that there is a lot of development to do in Kazakhstan’s democracy. The government has said so. It has developed a “National Human Rights Action Plan” as part of a partnership between civil society and the government, and I think that there is an acknowledgement by all parties that there is a lot of work to be done here, and I think we would encourage Kazakhstan to move forward with implementing the “National Human Rights Action Plan” that was developed with outside government officials and independent NGOs, like Yevgeniy Zhovtis was part of that process, one of the leading drafters of that plan. I think that reflects a consensus among Kazakhstani people that there are improvements to be made in a kind of a path forward.
You asked about role of this in the chairmanship. The awarding of the decision to have Kazakhstan take a turn as Chairman-in-Office does not necessarily represent a kind of democratic standard of achievement. It represents a taking of a turn as the chair – as other participating States have done – in order to chair the meetings in which we discuss how all of our states move forward. Ultimately, the success of the Kazakh chairmanship will be assessed by historians based on what happens next, based on the steps that Kazakhstan takes to modernize and democratize its legislation and create the space necessary for independent journalists and civil society to contribute to the life of the nation. So, I think the success of this chairmanship will be measured by the accomplishments to come, and I hope they come soon, and I hope they are significant.
QUESTION (Strana I Mir newspaper): According to the United States, what are the OSCE goals? In some U.S. reports we see the expression “OSCE effectiveness.” What does this mean? The United States is not even a member of the OSCE; it is not European. Why is it concerned?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY MELIA: : Well, first of all, yes, the United States is a member of the OSCE. The United States participated at Helsinki in the adoption of the Final Act that has set us on this road, and so we are fully participating along with, now, the 55 other states.
The discussions that are underway and the conclusions that will be presented and the documents agreed at the summit I think will clarify the way forward on strengthening the institutions of the OSCE. In particular, we are looking for a reaffirmation and renewed support for the important work done by ODIHR, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, that has played such an important role in monitoring elections and strengthening civil society and enabling independent voices to be heard, so that would be an important sign of strengthening the OSCE overall as an organization.
There are other things that my colleagues are working more directly on that relate to security measures and cooperation on economic and technical matters. So, there are a number of things that are being discussed in various subgroups, but there are clearly some important opportunities to strengthen the institutions of the OSCE so that it will be even more successful going forward.
QUESTION (Kazakhstan TV): I would like you to evaluate the activities of Kazakhstan as Chair of the OSCE and share your expectations about the upcoming summit. Some pundits also say that the baskets of work of the OSCE could be somewhat altered or expanded to include, besides the three main baskets, scientific or research work. What do you think about that?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY MELIA: The Kazaskhstan government as Chairman-in-Office for this last year has done a credible job in organizing the meetings and in facilitating all of our work, and we are grateful to them for their hospitality this week and on previous occasions. As I said, the ultimate measurement of the success of this chairmanship will be on, as for all the other countries, how Kazakhstan moves forward to implement the fundamental commitments that are contained in the Helsinki Final Act and in all of the subsequent documents. As Kazakhstan strengthens the independence of the media and the autonomy of civil society and the openness of the political competition, it will be fulfilling the promises made in the third basket of OSCE process.
I do not have a view on the research proposal, and I know there are discussions about other functions for the OSCE, but, in our discussions in the last couple days in this review conference, we really concentrated on how well each of our countries are doing in living up to the promises we have already made and the commitments we have undertaken to strengthen the human dimension of our societies, that important aspect of our overall security.
QUESTION (Karavan newspaper): Mr. Melia, I would like to ask you about the first basket of OSCE. Usually there are many discussions in regards to the third and second baskets. Very little is usually said about CFE [Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe] and that after the Istanbul summit many countries have not yet signed off on that document. Will there be any movement on this particular issue here at the Astana summit?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY MELIA: My colleagues, especially our Ambassador to Vienna to the OSCE, Ambassador Ian Kelly, is very intensively involved in these very discussions. So, I would defer that question to him. I know that this is one of the issues going into the summit. So, I will have to defer to Ambassador Kelly on that.
MODERATOR: We will have several officials from the United States government here who will be able to address that issue. I hope in the next few days to arrange a briefing with one or more of them.
QUESTION (Tengri News): The Russian Federation insists on the necessity of broadening OSCE membership and reforming the organization. Don’t you think that the OSCE should become a Eurasian organization rather than an European one?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY MELIA: Again, there are a number of discussions underway and lots of ideas being put forward by different governments, and I think I would again defer to my colleague, Ambassador Kelly, on the larger questions about proposals to revamp the organization. Again, in this review conference that we have just concluded, we were really focusing on how well we are doing on implementing the things we have already agreed to implement, and that means not only celebrating the fact that the OSCE has come to Central Asia but it also means examining how well the OSCE values are being implemented in Central Asia. So, I think that is enough for us to do in this part of the conference, and I will defer that to other colleagues.
Is there a final question?
QUESTION (Tselina newspaper): I have not a question but a suggestion: to organize more exchange programs for the journalists and invite more journalism speakers to Kazakhstan.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY MELIA: I agree that we should have more exchanges between Kazakhstan’s journalists and American journalists and all those kinds of things; I am sure my colleague Steve Labensky agrees as well. He is involved in precisely this area of our work, so we can talk about that more after the meeting. But, that is an excellent idea for building cooperation between our two countries.
MODERATOR: That is also an idea that you should raise with the U.S. Embassy here in Astana.
Well, if there are no further questions, I would like to thank you for your attendance at today’s briefing. As I said earlier, I am hoping that during the next week I will have other principals from the United States Department of State and other agencies who will be able to brief you on issues relating to the summit. Thank you very much for coming.