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HCNM mandate and approach

The OSCE HCNM is the principal mechanism in the OSCE engaged in the protection and promotion of minority rights. Created as part of the conceptual and operational development of the OSCEs notion of ‘comprehensive security’ which recognizes the fundamental link between security and, inter alia, respect for human rights, the HCNM is an ‘instrument of conflict prevention at the earliest possible stage’.[1] [2] His or her role is to focus on disputes involving national minorities that have an international character and have the potential to cause interstate tension or to erupt into international armed conflict. The HCNM is above all a political instrument and is not intended to supervise states’ compliance with their OSCE commitments or international obligations. The title is significant: as a High Commissioner on not for national minorities, she or he does not act as an advocate or recourse for individuals belonging to national minorities. The choice to become engaged in a specific situation hinges primarily on the threat posed to international peace and security by the situation in question, not in response to individual or collective complaints or even on the nature or extent of rights violations of minorities per se. In this sense, the HCNM is not a very accessible recourse mechanism since it depends on there being a situation of a certain character which the HCNM in his or her own judgment recognizes and acts upon. Of course, in situations where the rights of minorities are not respected (or this is perceived to be the case) resentments and a sense of historical injustice may be generated and fester, leading to internal tensions. An external dimension is added where the minority has a ‘kin- state’ poised to protect the interests of ‘their’ minorities. With this well-established and historically demonstrated understanding, adequate protection of the rights of persons belonging to minorities contributes towards minimizing ethnic tensions that might otherwise threaten to create wider conflict. The HCNM therefore pays careful attention to issues of human rights, especially freedom from discrimination and issues of (in)equality, along with respect for minority rights. As former HCNM Knut Vollebaek observed at a conference to mark the twentieth anniversary of the HCNM, with regard to the HCNM’s unique mandate and role:

Internationally, there are many institutions established to uphold the observance of human rights, but very few have been given the mandate to advise governments on how to achieve the balance between human, including minority, rights and political realities on the ground. With 20 years of efforts in this area to reflect upon, we can say that the HCNM has acted to advance minority rights. However, the key to success has always involved working to strike the right balance between the interests of minorities and majorities in order to minimize inter-ethnic tensions. 19

  • [1] Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, Helsinki Document 1992, 9—10 July 1992,II. CSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Mandate, Art. 2.
  • [2] ‘HCNM at 20: The Challenges of Change—Continued’, address by Knut Vollebaek, OSCE HighCommissioner on National Minorities, to the Conference ‘HCNM 20 Years On’ held at the EuropeanCentre for Minority Issues, Flensburg, 6 July 2012, .
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