Ethnic conflict is one of the main sources of large-scale violence in the OSCE area today.
To respond to this challenge, the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE; now the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – OSCE) decided to establish the post of High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) in 1992 to be an instrument of conflict prevention at the earliest possible stage in regard to tensions involving national minority issues. Netherlands Minister of State Max van der Stoel was appointed as the first High Commissioner in December 1992, and he started operations in January 1993.
In December 1995, the OSCE Ministerial Conference in Budapest renewed Mr. van der Stoel’s mandate until 31 December 1998. In July 1998, his mandate was extended to 31 December 1999. At the Istanbul Summit of December 1999, Mr. van der Stoel was asked to continue in office until 2001.
The Eighth OSCE Ministerial Council in Vienna, 27–28 November 2000, appointed Ambassador Rolf Ekéus of Sweden as the High Commissioner on National Minorities for three years with effect from 1 July 2001. His appointment was extended for another three years on 1 July 2004.
On 5 July 2007, the OSCE appointed Ambassador Knut Vollebaek, a former Foreign Minister of Norway, as the High Commissioner on National Minorities for a three-year term. His mandate was extended for a further three years on 20 August 2010.
The High Commissioner’s function is to identify and seek early resolution of ethnic tensions that might endanger peace, stability or friendly relations between the participating States of the OSCE. The mandate describes the HCNM as “an instrument of conflict prevention at the earliest possible stage.”
The successive High Commissioners have employed an approach that can be characterized in three words: impartiality, confidentiality and co-operation.
The High Commissioner is not an instrument for the protection of minorities or a sort of international ombudsman who acts on their behalf; he or she is the High Commissioner on, and not for National Minorities. Adequate protection of the rights of persons belonging to national minorities contributes greatly towards a State’s success in minimizing ethnic tension that could create a context for wider conflict. The High Commissioner’s recommendations to States often focus on such concerns, but they are by no means restricted to these concerns.
Confidentiality is important since the parties involved often feel they can be more co-operative and are less inclined to maintain strong demands or to try to exploit outside attention. The co-operative and non-coercive nature of the High Commissioner’s involvement is crucial. Durable solutions are only possible if there is a sufficient measure of consent from the parties involved.
The goal is to develop a process of exchange and co-operation between the parties, leading to concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and to address underlying issues. Only rarely, when tensions have escalated beyond the point of preliminary mediation and threaten to erupt into open violence, have “early warnings”, as defined in the mandate, been issued to the OSCE. This has happened twice: in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 1999 and, more recently, in Kyrgyzstan in June 2010.
The office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities is in The Hague.