Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski tweeted on 30 November: “When police assault peaceful demonstrations, Kiev is hardly natural for a meeting of Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe.”
Mr Sikorski is right. Europe’s foreign ministers should boycott the December OSCE meeting (set to take place on Thursday and Friday) to underscore that Ukraine’s government must observe OSCE’s human rights norms, including the right to demonstrate peacefully.
The OSCE flows from the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. Among other things, that document lays out fundamental human rights, including “the effective exercise of civil, political … rights and freedoms”, which signatory states have pledged to uphold. Signatory states normally meet once a year at the level of foreign ministers. As the 2013 OSCE chair-in-office, Ukraine has long planned an end-of-the-year ministerial meeting in Kiev.
This year’s OSCE ministerial comes at a difficult and uncertain time in Ukraine. Protestors took to the streets of Kiev and other cities after President Victor Yanukovych’s government announced on 21 November that it was “suspending” preparations to sign an association agreement with the European Union. On 24 November, about 100,000 gathered in Kiev, the largest demonstration the country has seen since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Smaller protests kept going, including following President Yanukovych’s 29 November meeting with European Union leaders in Vilnius at which he said that he wanted to sign the association agreement but could not do so now.
In the early hours of 30 November, the Berkut – a special Ministry of Interior police unit – attacked demonstrators in downtown Kiev’s Independence Square, forcefully clearing them from the area. Kiev’s police chief later claimed that he ordered the assault, but that strains credulity. Police captains in Ukraine do not take that kind of authority on themselves; the order had to come from much higher.
The Berkut assault generated a large public backlash. Demonstrations continued and grew larger on Sunday – by some accounts reaching 300,000 – in defiance of a hastily-issued court order banning protests in downtown Kiev. Protests carried over to Monday. With Saturday’s attack, the possibility that the authorities might take further action against demonstrations, and rumors of a looming declaration of a state of emergency, Kiev is not the place to hold a meeting of OSCE foreign ministers.
Secretary of State John Kerry will not attend. While he reportedly informed Mr Yanukovych in October that he intended to come, the State Department said on 22 November – the day after Ukraine suspended its association agreement preparations – that he would not go due to a schedule conflict. His schedule likely was not the only reason he chose not to go.
Other European foreign ministers, particularly those of European Union member states, should follow Mr Sikorski’s advice and make clear that they will not attend a ministerial in Kiev. They and Mr Kerry should propose instead that the meeting move to Vienna, home of the OSCE’s permanent council.
Such an action would send a strong signal of disapproval to President Yanukovych over the use of force against anti-government demonstrators. It would reinforce the messages flowing out of Brussels, other European capitals and Washington about the need for the authorities to exercise restraint and permit peaceful demonstrations.
There are risks, moreover, in holding the ministerial in the Ukrainian capital. President Yanukovych’s government undoubtedly would try to exploit the meeting to depict a false sense of normalcy and respect. Foreign ministers might also face a hugely awkward situation: they could be meeting while police clashed with demonstrators just a few blocks away. That would do OSCE’s credibility little good.
If the meeting must be held in Kiev, OSCE states should send their ambassadors to OSCE’s permanent council, without senior-level officials coming from home capitals. The ambassadors should make time on their schedules to meet with representatives of the demonstrators to reinforce the importance that protests remain peaceful and that the government let such demonstrations proceed unmolested.
Not all OSCE foreign ministers will stay away, of course. The Russian, Belarusian and Central Asian ministers would almost certainly attend. But the attendance of foreign ministers from countries in which democracy is under stress, coupled with the absence of ministers from the states that embrace OSCE’s values, would in itself send a powerful message.
Democratic rights in Ukraine face a crucial test. Europe’s foreign ministers should take a stand in favor of democracy and the political right of Ukraine’s citizens to peacefully demonstrate. When it comes to the OSCE meeting in Kiev, they should stay home.