FOR more than two years, political leaders in Europe and North America have promised to move the Conference on Cooperation and Security in Europe (CSCE) closer to the heart of European security affairs. The international forum would no longer merely deliberate over standards of national conduct, but would get more directly involved in emerging and urgent political crises.
Until recently, though, the CSCE has been kept weak, making only modest reforms. Despite its long experience with ethnic issues, for instance, the CSCE was prevented from playing a role in the Yugoslav crisis; that job was grabbed by the European Community (EC), which was not particularly effective.
The CSCE's new initiative in another ethnic clash - between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan - may represent a real turning point for the group. Foreign ministers meeting in Helsinki last week decided to convene a peace conference to deal with the conflict. The ministerial session kicked off a review conference that will continue until early July and will chart the future course of the CSCE. If the reform proposals under discussion are adopted, it will develop into a much stronger organization.
The 11 states who will take part in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace conference have in effect been designated by the 51 CSCE states to serve as a crisis-management team for the dispute, which has already claimed 1,000 lives. The CSCE's large size is both its main virtue and its biggest hindrance. The CSCE is made up of all the countries of Europe, North America, and the Asian portion of the former Soviet Union (Croatia, Slovenia, and Georgia were added last week). This inclusive membership reinforces the perc eption of the CSCE as a neutral forum, an image that is essential for conflict resolution. French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas acknowledged in Helsinki that the EC was too narrow a group to deal effectively with the Yugoslav crisis and had to pass off to the United Nations.
At the same time, decision making in such a large group is often unwieldy, and moving beyond the CSCE's tradition of consensus is one of the main challenges to the group. Germany is proposing that, as in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, the CSCE appoint an ad hoc steering committee for each emerging conflict. A senior German diplomat pointed out that as the CSCE tries to become more agile and responsive, "you have to have countries who are responsible [for initiatives]." Responding to concerns among smaller
countries that they might be excluded, he said membership of these committees would be kept open.
Together with France, Germany is also proposing the formation of a court of conciliation. Such a body of experts would rule on some of the legal complexities that might arise as elements of the political settlements being worked out by other CSCE mechanisms. This idea is modeled on a panel, chaired by an eminent French figure, that was used to help establish some legal principles in the Serb-Croat dispute.
A growing consensus at the Helsinki conference would like to give the CSCE the ability to mandate the deployment of peacekeeping forces, as the UN is currently doing in Croatia. It is unclear, however, whose forces would be used in a CSCE-sanctioned operation. NATO is mentioned as a possibility, as is the Western European Union, which discussed sending forces to Yugoslavia. But many of the countries who have experience in this field do not belong to either of these organizations; they are neutral (Sweden , Switzerland). So while it may not be practical for the CSCE to establish a military structure for peacekeeping, participation in any action will need to be kept open.
It must be hoped that future crises never reach the point where peacekeeping forces are needed. To do its job, the CSCE needs to have its antennae tuned for early stages of conflict. One early warning mechanism being discussed in Helsinki is a Dutch proposal for an ombudsman or high commissioner for national minority concerns who would scout potential flash points.
Along with the Nagorno-Karabakh initiative, this rich menu of ideas brings the discussion about strengthening the CSCE to a new level. Much of the credit for energizing the Helsinki meeting goes to the "troika" of Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Sweden - the previous, current, and upcoming presidents of the CSCE's ruling council. The idea of using such a troika to guide its work is new for the CSCE, which borrowed it from the EC.
It is yet to be seen how the United States will contribute to the Helsinki conference. Over the past two years, the Bush administration has put a brake on the CSCE, vetoing many reform proposals. Secretary of State James Baker III was conspicuously absent from last week's meeting. Still, US support for the Nagorno-Karabakh initiative - as well as its participation in the upcoming peace conference - may signal a more supportive attitude.
The three-month conference in Helsinki is widely seen as a "make or break" moment for the CSCE. Some of the countries that have been strong CSCE supporters are growing impatient. Ambassador Istvan Gyarmati, head of the Hungarian delegation, said, "Helsinki is perhaps the first and surely the last opportunity to operationalize the CSCE."