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U.S. Department of State

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U.S. Department of State,
November 1999

Bureau of European Affairs

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Background Notes:  OSCE

Official Name: Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is a 55-member pan-European security organization. It is a key instrument for preventing conflict, promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and encouraging open and transparent economies.


The OSCE is the most inclusive of the pan-European organizations (EU, NATO, WEU, PFP, Council of Europe, etc.) Currently, there are 54 actively participating states--the Former Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY--Serbia and Montenegro) was suspended in 1992--from Iceland to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and from Norway to Malta. The United States and Canada also are participating states, as are the smaller European states of Andorra, the Holy See, and San Marino.

The OSCE has two out-of-region groups of partners. Japan and Korea are Partners for Cooperation, and Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia are Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation.


The OSCE, along with its various bodies and institutions, takes a cooperative and consensual approach to a wide range of security-related issues. These issues are generally classified in the following three "dimensions."

Security--preventive diplomacy, arms control, confidence- and security-building measures. In October 1998 the OSCE assumed responsibilities from the UN for police monitoring in the Danube region of Croatia.

Human rights--promotion of respect for basic human rights, inter-ethnic tolerance, democratization and development of civil institutions, election monitoring, freedom of the media, rule of law, and related issues.

Economic--economic and environmental security. A recently created position of Coordinator of Economic and Environmental Activities is expected to broaden and expand activities in this area.

In addition to meeting facilities in Vienna (and other locations), as well as offices in The Hague, Warsaw, and Prague, the OSCE also has a considerable operational presence in the field. There are official "Long-Term Missions" in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Latvia and Estonia, and several New Independent States; an "Assistance Group" covering Chechnya; a "Presence" in Albania; and an "Advisory and Monitoring Group" in Belarus. One such mission recently led to the successful closing of a Russian radar station in Skrunda, Latvia. In October 1998, the OSCE opened its largest field operation--the Kosovo Verification Mission--which at one point had a staff of almost 1,400 persons in the Kosovo region of the FRY. The mission in Kosovo is still the OSCE's largest but is now functioning as part of the UN operations in that province under a new mandate.

OSCE field activities occasionally include mission member assignments for either U.S. Government employees or U.S. contract employees, including retired Foreign Service officers, among others.


Unlike many other international organizations, the OSCE has a relatively small secretariat.

OSCE leadership is exercised through the Chairman-in-Office, a senior official of a participating state--usually the foreign minister--who holds the position on a rotating basis for 1 year. The Chairman, or CiO, has overall responsibility for executive action on behalf of the organization, after close consultation with participating states.

The CiO is assisted by the institution of the "Troika," which includes the previous and succeeding incumbents of the position. The CiO for 1999 is Norway, which was preceded by Poland in 1998 and will be succeeded by Austria in 2000.

The OSCE makes its decisions by consensus. In very rare cases of urgency or in other extreme circumstances, a rule of "consensus minus one" has developed. It was such a decision, for example, that led to the current suspension of the FRY.

Governing Structures

The Permanent Council of representatives of participating states to the OSCE meets on a weekly basis in Vienna to debate issues, hear reports, and forge a consensus for action. It occasionally meets at a more senior level as a Reinforced Permanent Council.

The Ministerial Council of OSCE foreign ministers meets annually (except in summit years) to review major initiatives and provide guidance for future directions. The last meeting of this council was held in Oslo, December 2-3, 1998. Summits of heads of state or government are held on a regular basis. The most recent summits were held in Lisbon (1996), Budapest (1994), Helsinki (1992), and Paris (1990).

The Parliamentary Assembly of legislators, which also meets annually, last met in July 1999 in St. Petersburg. It issues recommendations for the OSCE Permanent Council to consider.

The OSCE also has a number of institutions that are used to follow up on the political decisions agreed to by participating states. Major institutions and their functions include:

U.S. Objectives

The United States advances its interests in the promotion of democracy and human rights in order to achieve peace, stability, and prosperity throughout the OSCE region.

The U.S. ensures that its three Euro-Atlantic relationships--within NATO, the OSCE, and between the U.S. and the European Union (EU)--continue to operate in a nonhierarchical manner, with each having a lead role, as appropriate, as events unfold in specific situations.

While the OSCE has an important role to play within its Security Dimension, its functions will be compementary to those of NATO. Similarly, the OSCE's Economic Dimension will focus primarly on security related issues and will not duplicate the work of major economic, financial, and development assistance insitutions (e.g., the UN/ECE, OECD, and EBRD). Nor will it compete with the role of the EU in defining econmic and trade relationships within Europe. Its Human Dimension activities are also complementary to those of other international organizations.

Under the procedures by which the U.S. originally joined the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Congress has an important role in U.S. participation. The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (also called the Helsinki Commission) exercises considerable oversight responsibilities. Representative Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey is the current Chairman of the Commission, and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell is the co-Chairman. Three members of the executive branch--from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce--also are members of the Commission.

Both the executive and legislative branches aim to strengthen the OSCE to deal more effectively with the problems that lie at the heart of many conflicts in the broader Euro-Atlantic community, which are:

With U.S. leadership and support, the OSCE recently opened additional field offices in the central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, where it had previously not been represented.

With its presence throughout the Euro-Atlantic community, the United States aims to make the OSCE a more effective outreach instrument for strengthened political security, more robust democracy and human rights initiatives, and efforts to promote the development of market economies.

There remain many countries in Europe where these three themes, paralleling the three "dimensions," do not find fertile ground. The United States believes that the broad base of the OSCE provides it with the appropriate influence and legitimacy to help anchor emerging democracies of central and eastern Europe and central Asia firmly within the Euro-Atlantic community of democratic and representative governments. Such systems generally favor free market economies, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and friendly and mutually productive relations with other sovereign states. [end document] Blue Bar

OSCE Background Notes | Bureau of European Affairs Home Page | Department of State

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