What are field operations


Martin Schuster

Martin Schuster is Policy Support Officer at the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center in Vienna. Before that he worked as a Political Officer, then as Senior Field Representative of the Head of the OSCE Center in Bishkek / Kyrgyzstan. Before he came to the OSCE, he was Policy Officer for Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia worked for a European association of humanitarian and development non-governmental organizations in Brussels.

Avoidance, processing and follow-up of crises and conflicts in times of political and military confrontation

Martin Schuster, Policy Support Officer at the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center in Vienna, believes that the dispute over the foundations of the European security order also affects the OSCE as a forum for political dialogue and action. However, the common interest in security and stability in the deployment and expansion of the OSCE's political instruments remains visible and resilient.

OSCE Council of Ministers in Hamburg / Germany, 08-09 December 2016: The flags of the participating countries (& copy picture-alliance)

With its contribution to reforms and its role in the avoidance, processing and follow-up of conflicts, the OSCE retains functions that go beyond political dialogue in times of political and military confrontation. If this set of political instruments is to be preserved and developed, the strengths and weaknesses of the OSCE field operations, but also of the OSCE's involvement in dealing with protracted conflicts, for example in the South Caucasus, must be given greater focus.

The OSCE field operations

With 17 field operations [1] in Southeastern Europe, Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia, the OSCE is primarily an organization with local roots. [2] The field operations are used as service providers in situations of crisis, transformation and the development of state structures. Their core tasks usually include observation, advice and political reporting, but also short-term and long-term project activities to promote reform efforts in the host country.

Its activities in the OSCE are spread across three dimensions of security: the politico-military, the economic and ecological, and the human dimension, i.e. those related to human rights, democratization and the rule of law. In doing so, they work closely with the institutions and structures of the OSCE. The Conflict Prevention Center in Vienna, for example, is addressed when it comes to combating the destabilizing proliferation of small arms or destroying ammunition and rocket fuel. We cooperate with the office of the coordinator for economic and ecological activities in Vienna when expertise on cross-border water management or the fight against corruption is required. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw is involved when working on the implementation of international standards in elections or the observance of human rights, including in military service, to name just a few examples.

The inclusion of specialist knowledge is one of the strengths of field operations. In addition, they have extensive regional expertise. This is fed by the generally good contacts with the governments and civil society in the host countries. On average, two out of three positions are filled with local staff. The host country must invite and accept the field operation. As a rule, three conditions must be met for a field operation to be deployed: (i) The Permanent Council, the decision-making body made up of representatives of the 57 OSCE participating States, must decide by consensus to deploy a field operation, and one of them Give the mandate, (ii) it must approve the budget annually by consensus, and (iii) the host country must agree the modalities of the field operation with the OSCE, which gives it a legal basis in the country.

After all, one of the strengths of field operations is that they can react quickly to changes because most of them are relatively small and work both unbureaucratically and flexibly. But this is also where its weaknesses lie. The planning and implementation capacities are just as limited as their financial sustainability. If a host country so wishes, it can arrange for a field operation to be closed within a month, as was last done in Azerbaijan in 2015. For several years now, there has been a trend towards changing the mandates of field operations so that they are only allowed to carry out project activities and largely forego political reporting, including early warning when conflicts arise.

This trend prompted the OSCE to think about new forms of field operations. For example, the establishment of field operations not only "east" but also "west of Vienna" was discussed, for example on migration in the Mediterranean region or on building networks against the radicalization of young people. The possibility of further status-neutral field operations [3], including the territories of de facto regimes, was also discussed. The status-neutral field operation in Kosovo shows that the OSCE can remain capable of acting across political contradictions if the participating states so wish, even if fundamental questions, such as the status of a territory, have not yet been clarified.

Overall, the OSCE has made no progress in recent years on the future of field operations. The crisis in Ukraine has largely tied the OSCE's attention and strengths. At the same time, the field operations in other regions are coming under further pressure, as the recent budget and mandate negotiations, for example with regard to the field operations in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have shown. The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the field operation in the Armenian capital Yerevan also escalated so much that neither the annual mandate extensions for five field operations, which are otherwise treated as routine, nor the annual budget of the entire organization, even before the deadline of December 31, 2016, were in consensus could be adopted.

At the center of this dispute was the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, one of the protracted conflicts in the South Caucasus, which not only requires significantly more political commitment from the OSCE participating states, but also a critical appreciation and strengthening of the OSCE instruments used there.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

The OSCE's political commitment to resolving the conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over Nagorno-Karabakh dates back more than twenty years. In March 1992, the OSCE's predecessor, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, decided to convene a conference in Minsk to look for ways to resolve the conflict. This conference never met, but gave the name of the peace process and the group of states that would define the framework for a peace agreement. [4] France, Russia and the United States provide the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group and negotiate on their behalf. The OSCE thus offers the only negotiating format that is accepted by the conflicting parties.

The Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group and the parties to the conflict are assisted by a Personal Representative of the OSCE Chair. Its tasks include developing confidence-building measures, but so far the conflicting parties have only been able to agree on one permanent measure: the observation of the ceasefire negotiated in 1994. The Personal Representative and his team visit the front lines an average of two times a month. This is intended to allow the conflicting parties to address issues of common interest on the spot that they would otherwise not be able to address. They also ensure a relatively constant flow of information from the military and civilians living close to the front lines to the OSCE Chairperson and the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group.

The ceasefire has been broken continuously since 1994, with a clearly negative trend, especially in recent years. The number of injuries and deaths has grown faster and faster. In April 2016, the spiral of violence reached a climax in several days of fighting. From April 2, 2016, the first day of escalating fighting, the OSCE Chair, Minsk Group Co-Chairs and others issued statements calling for restraint and an end to the violence. On April 5, the German OSCE Chairmanship convened the Permanent Council in Vienna for a special meeting. On the same day, the chiefs of the general staffs of Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed in Moscow, with the mediation of Russia, to end the fighting.

While the governments used high-level diplomatic channels to work towards an end to the acts of violence, the Personal Representative of the Chair kept his long-standing contacts on the ground to brief the OSCE Chair and the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group. At the request of the conflicting parties, he and his team visited the front lines a total of eight times in order to carry out humanitarian operations to search for and return those who had died. The procedures that had been developed for his observation missions were used to ensure the safety of the search parties on both sides and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

As a result of the fighting, the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed, with the mediation of the Co-Chairs and their Foreign Ministers, to develop an OSCE mechanism to investigate violations of the ceasefire with the aim of reducing the risk of further use of force. They also agreed to expand the Personal Representative's office. The Chairmanship, the Personal Representative and the Conflict Prevention Center worked hard to implement these decisions quickly. However, the implementation has so far failed due to different interpretations of the agreements by the conflicting parties; the co-chairs of the Minsk group spoke in October 2016 of "operational details".

The OSCE and the Minsk Group were unable to prevent the escalation in April 2016. A political solution is still not in sight. However, the determined reaction of the OSCE and its Chairman, his Personal Representative and the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group, especially Russia, contributed to a relatively quick end to the fighting, creating momentum for political negotiations. In other words, the OSCE did more than just help to limit the damage and stabilize the situation. It also created political space and provided capacities when a step towards resolving the conflict seemed possible; and it made possible the recovery of the dead.

Conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia

The International Geneva Talks are another example of the OSCE's commitment to dealing with protracted conflicts. It is based on the last point of the so-called six-point plan of August 12, 2008, which provided for the start of international talks on modalities for security and stability in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [5] The EU, the United Nations and the OSCE, represented by the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson for the South Caucasus, each provide one of the moderators. The talks are the only forum in which the participants from Moscow, Tbilisi and Washington as well as from Sukhumi (Abkhazia) and Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) can meet to discuss the situation in two working groups. They meet as "independent experts", which allows them to bypass contentious issues of status and representation. The first working group deals with security issues, such as the security situation along the administrative borders between the areas controlled by the conflicting parties, the second working group with humanitarian issues.

Although the participants in the talks met for the 38th time in December 2016, fundamental questions remain unanswered. In particular, there is disagreement about the form and content of a joint declaration on renouncing the use of force and on dealing with internally displaced persons and refugees. Behind the deadlocked positions are contrasting narratives with regard to the Caucasus War in 2008. The developments in the regional political context are also not conducive to an early conflict resolution. While Georgia seeks to deepen its ties with the EU and NATO, Sukhumi in 2014 and Tskhinvali formed a strategic alliance with Moscow in 2015.

Nevertheless, there is a constructive exchange on humanitarian issues, such as the preservation of cultural heritage, cooperation in archiving or dealing with environmental threats. The IPRMs (Incident Prevention and Response Mechanisms) are also a major achievement of the Geneva Talks. These are mechanisms to prevent and deal with incidents at the administrative borders with South Ossetia, in Ergneti, and with Abkhazia, in Gali. [6] In Ergneti, the OSCE, together with the EUMM (EU Monitoring Mission) stationed in Georgia, supported 73 meetings by the end of January 2017. In a specially set up tent at the administrative border, the OSCE and the EUMM moderate meetings of Georgians, South Ossetians and Russians with the aim of strengthening security on the ground. Very specific questions relating to people on both sides of the administrative border are often discussed. For example, a hotline was set up that is actively used by the participants to quickly clear up incidents. Agreements have been reached to deal with unauthorized crossings of administrative boundaries, to exchange information about planned military exercises or to clean up irrigation canals that benefit both sides. An expert appointed by the OSCE has worked successfully since 2015 to advance the investigation and clarification of the fate of three South Ossetians who have been missing since October 2008.


The OSCE's range of political instruments is multifaceted and the above examples are not exhaustively described. It is also and especially used in times of political and military confrontation. The discussions about the mandates of the field operations show, however, that they must be continuously developed in order to guarantee their use for more security and stability. Nor does the OSCE's engagement in protracted conflicts have to be limited to damage limitation or the stabilization of unresolved conflicts. It can definitely make substantial contributions to constructive conflict management from which people benefit in a very concrete way.

The OSCE has the ability to respond quickly and effectively to escalating crises where the common interest in security and stability is paramount. Proposals for expanding their capacities, for example in the area of ‚Äč‚Äčanalysis and planning for crisis avoidance or crisis response, were submitted to the Council of Ministers in Hamburg, but there was no political consensus there. However, there is always room for maneuver to expand the range of political instruments. How they are used depends not least on the political leadership of the organization. Austria, which took over the OSCE Chairmanship for 2017, wants to face this challenge. Among other things, it formulated the strengthening of the structures, institutions and in particular the field operations of the organization as a goal.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the OSCE or any other organization.