The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organisation. Based in Vienna, the OSCE comprises 57 participating States. Building on a comprehensive catalogue of political commitments and obligations, it focuses on fostering security cooperation and conflict prevention using a range of specific institutions, instruments and field operations. 

Folder: "What is the OSCE?"

Development of the OSCE

Hofburg in Vienna is home to the OSCE Secretariat

The OSCE emerged from the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) established in the détente phase between the East and the West in 1975. The Helsinki Final Act  (1975), the Charter of Paris (1990), the Istanbul Charter for European Security (1999) and the Astana Declaration (2010) are the key agreements the OSCE is based on. These major documents define a steadily grown system of political commitments and obligations based on a concept of comprehensive and cooperative security. This means that the OSCE operates on the principle of unanimity and does not force any decisions on its members. In the event of crisis or conflict, agreement of the affected states therefore needs to be sought.

This comprehensive and cooperative concept of security encompasses the OSCE’s "three dimensions":

  1. the politico-military dimension,
  2. the economic and environmental dimension and 
  3. the human dimension.

Since 1995, the OSCE Secretariat has had its headquarters in Vienna. Since 18 July 2017, the office of Secretary General has been held by the Swiss diplomat Thomas Greminger. Since 1997, the independent Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media has also been based in Vienna and the function is currently held by Harlem Désir from France.

57 Participating States

The OSCE stands out for its comprehensive membership: its 57 participating States cover the northern hemisphere stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok, spanning across all European countries and also comprising the USA, Canada and the Central Asian states including Mongolia. Further Asian and Mediterranean states are involved as Partners for Cooperation.

At the Vienna headquarters, the participating States and their partners engage in ongoing dialogue in the Permanent Council and its subcommittees. Apart from the Forum for Security Co-operation, the OSCE headquarters also hosts meetings of the permanent bodies under the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and the Open Skies Treaty as well as a number of review conferences on compliance with specific obligations.

Austrian Chairmanship 2017

The OSCE chair is assumed at yearly intervals by one member state which then plays a central role in managing the Organization’s work and in its external representation. The foreign minister of the country holding the chair holds the office of Chairman-in-Office (CiO). The fact that decision-making within the OSCE requires a consensus among all 57 participating states represents a particular diplomatic challenge.

At the Ministerial Council in Basel in 2014, Austria was tasked by the participating states to take over the chairmanship in 2017. Austria thereby succeeded German chair in 2016 and after the chairmanship of 2000 took up this responsible and important function the second time. The chairmanship of the OSCE has various responsibilities and is a central political player. In this role as a mediator, Austria built upon the experiences and priorities of its foreign policy for strengthening the security in Europe. The resolution of conflicts, the prevention and combatting of transnational threats for domestic security and the restoration of trust in a common space for 1.2 billion people were amongst the challenges and priorities of the Austrian chairmanship. 

Activities of the OSCE

OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine: OSCE demining expert at work in the Luhansk region

Over the last decade, the OSCE has developed into a major player in the fields of early warning, conflict prevention, civilian crisis management and post-conflict management through activities including border management, border monitoring missions, election observation missions, police training and judicial reform activities. The organisation is an important forum for arms control and disarmament in the conventional arms field. A special focus of attention is the fight against transnational threats such as terrorism, radicalisation, drug trafficking, trafficking in human beings, and the risks associated with information technologies. Other priorities of the OSCE’s work include topical issues related to human rights and non-discrimination as well as cooperation in the economic and environmental spheres.

Through a range of confidence-building measures, it seeks to reach out to and build a broad-based regional security community. The OSCE’s comprehensive and cooperative security approach also covers cooperation in the politico-military, economic and environmental as well as in the human dimensions. As an organisation that is active at the operational level and especially on the ground, the OSCE in cooperation with the participating States seeks to develop comprehensive solutions to political challenges, which have a positive impact and result in positive changes for the affected population.  

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has massively shaken fundamental political confidence in the underlying principles of the European security system. At the same time, however, the OSCE has proven the predestined organisation for crisis management and a driver for political solutions. Especially by dispatching and deploying a monitoring mission involving some 1,000 observers and staff, and by setting up the negotiation format of the Trilateral Contact Group that comprises Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE and may be attended by representatives of the two “people’s republics”, the organisation was able to contribute towards stabilising the conflict. The chair of the Trilateral Contact Group is currently held by the Austrian diplomat and Special Representative of the Chairperson-in-Office in Ukraine Martin Sajdik.

The OSCE furthermore provides active and sustainable support to states in their transformation process by offering help in building and developing their capacities. In addition, the organisation promotes regional and sub-regional cooperation. Activities with partner countries in the Asian and Mediterranean region has also been intensified over the last few years. In 2016, Austria chaired the Contact Group with the Mediterranean Partners. In this context it also hosted the Mediterranean Conference on Youth North and South of the Mediterranean held in Vienna in October 2016, which placed a special focus on the issue of youth radicalisation. 

OSCE Instruments

OSCE Secretariat headquarters in Vienna's historic Palais Palffy-Erdody

The OSCE currently employs a total of some 3,500 staff, the major part of whom are deployed in field missions and operations in Eastern Europe, South Caucasus the Western Balkans and in Central Asia. The organisation has an overall budget of 145 million euros. The Vienna-based Secretariat forms the organisation’s technical and operational backbone and assists each OSCE Chairmanship in its activities. Apart from the Vienna-based office there is also an archive and documentation centre in Prague.  

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is based in Warsaw and has been headed since 18 July 2017 by Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir (from Iceland). The ODIHR promotes democratic election processes by election observation mission – at the invitation of the respective country – and provides practical support to strengthening democratic rule of law institutions and civil society structures.  

Since 18 July 2017, the office of High Commissioner on National Minorities has been held byLamberto Zannier from Italy. Based in The Hague, the High Commissioner seeks to identify and defuse potential for ethnically motivated conflict at the earliest possible. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media is responsible for the monitoring of compliance with this important fundamental right, placing a particular focus on the protection of journalists. Since 18 July 2017 this office has been held by Harlem Désir from France.

Field operations are a key instrument of conflict prevention, civilian crisis management and of peace building. A total of some 3,000 staff are active in the OSCE’s currently 16 field operations. Deployed in Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans and in Central Asia, about two thirds are local staff and one third are international staff. The most recent OSCE field operation is the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. With a presence of up to a thousand observers from 46 countries and its neutral and comprehensive coverage, this mission contributes to stabilising the situation on the ground.

Other OSCE representatives active in the field of conflict prevention and conflict management are the Personal Representatives who are appointed by the Chairperson-in-Office and are able to use their political leverage in the event of imminent crises.

The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly is made up of 323 parliamentarians from all participating States and focuses on strengthening parliamentary dialogue and thus democratic development in the OSCE region. George Tsereteli (from Georgia) assumed the duties of President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on 9 November 2017.

The majority of the international experts involved in the OSCE field operations and election observation activities are seconded to the OSCE by the participating States. For information on current vacancies and employment opportunities in the OSCE institutions and field operations as well as on the application procedure, please click here