The High Commissioner on National Minority’s task is to provide “early warning” and, as appropriate, “early action” at the earliest possible stage “in regard to tensions involving national minority issues which have not yet developed beyond an early warning stage, but, in the judgement of the High Commissioner, have the potential to develop into a conflict within the OSCE area.”
The High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) thus has a twofold mission: first, to try to contain and de-escalate tensions and, second, to act as a “tripwire”, meaning that he or she is responsible for alerting the OSCE whenever such tensions threaten to develop to a level at which the High Commissioner cannot contain them with the means at his/her disposal.
Even though the HCNM’s mandate places his/her work first and foremost in the category of short-term conflict prevention, the High Commissioner cannot, if he/she wishes to be effective, overlook the important long-term aspects of the situations.
A long-term perspective is essential if sustainable solutions are to be achieved. One of the most important conclusions from the High Commissioner’s activities in conflict prevention is that more attention should be devoted to the root causes of ethnic tension. These underlying issues need to be addressed together with the stakeholders.
In a general way, the High Commissioner’s mandate contains guidelines for determining whether he or she should become involved in a particular situation. The mandate provides the High Commissioner with the necessary freedom of initiative in this regard.
It is particularly important that the mandate allows the HCNM to operate with the necessary independence. Involvement by the High Commissioner does not require the approval of the Permanent Council or of the State concerned. This independence is crucial to the timing of the HCNM's involvement.
Despite the degree of independence allowed in the High Commissioner’s work, the HCNM cannot function properly without the political support of the participating States. The importance of such support becomes particularly acute when the High Commissioner presents reports and recommendations to the State concerned and, afterwards, to the Permanent Council.
At this stage, it also becomes clear whether the States will provide the follow-up where needed. For the High Commissioner, the Permanent Council is the primary OSCE body as far as political support is concerned.
If the High Commissioner is to be truly effective as a third party, it is equally essential that he/she preserve impartiality at all times. In view of the sensitive issues with which he/she is called upon to deal, the High Commissioner cannot afford to be identified with one party or another.
If the international norms and standards to which OSCE participating States have committed themselves are not met, the High Commissioner will ask the Government concerned to change its policy, reminding it that stability and conflict prevention are as a rule best served by ensuring full rights to the persons belonging to a minority. In doing so, the HCNM will act with strict impartiality.
The condition of confidentiality – which means that the HCNM acts through quiet diplomacy – serves more than one purpose. It was meant to reconcile the need to establish such an office in the first place with the importance of avoiding any possible escalation that might be caused by the High Commissioner’s involvement.
Often parties directly involved feel they can be more co-operative and forthcoming if they know that the discussions will not be revealed to the outside world. Conversely, parties may make much stronger statements in public than in confidential conversations, from the presumption that they should be seen to be maintaining a strong position or that they should try to exploit outside attention.
On the other hand, the High Commissioner recognizes the need for participating States to be informed about his/her activities. He/she regularly briefs the Permanent Council, both formally and informally, and if the HCNM submits recommendations to a government, he/she will subsequently discuss them with the Permanent Council.
The mandate does not contain a description or definition of what constitutes a national minority. Indeed, there is no clear-cut definition, either in the OSCE or elsewhere. The High Commissioner cannot pretend to improve on the work of the many experts who over the years have been unable to agree on the definition of the term “minority”.
However, in this connection, it is useful to recall the 1990 Copenhagen Document, a text of fundamental importance to minority issues within the OSCE. It states that “to belong to a national minority is a matter of a person’s individual choice.” The existence of a minority does not depend on a decision by the State, determined by objective criteria such as language, ethnicity or religion, but on self-identification. It depends on the will and decision of those individuals who collectively see themselves as different to the majority, on a sense of belonging to the group and a commitment to the preservation of the identity of the group.
The mandate contains a number of provisions restricting the High Commissioner’s activities.
Explicitly excluded from the High Commissioner’s mandate are individual cases concerning persons belonging to national minorities. With regard to the HCNM’s activities in general, and to the HCNM’s information-gathering and fact-finding activities in particular, the High Commissioner is not allowed to consider national minority issues in situations involving organized acts of terrorism or to communicate with or acknowledge communications from any person or organization that practises or publicly condones terrorism or violence.