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.
In dialogue with governments, the High Commissioner puts forward recommendations, in face-to-face meetings or through written communication, suggesting ways to de-escalate tensions. These recommendations can include proposals for new legislation, legislative amendments, institutional reform or a change of practice, as well as other measures to establish a political and participatory framework that promotes good inter-ethnic relations.
The recommendations may also include encouraging bilateral co-operation between neighbouring States. Mechanisms for promoting bilateral co-operation can be particularly important for defusing tension in situations where a State seeks to support and secure the rights of so-called ethnic kin in a neighbouring State in a way that is considered harmful by the State where the minorities reside.
In formulating advice and recommendations, the High Commissioner uses international human rights standards as a basis, including those embodied in instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
All OSCE participating States are furthermore bound by the political commitments on the protection and promotion of minority rights set out in the 1990 Document of the CSCE Copenhagen Meeting. These provisions were given legal expression in the Council of Europe's 1995 Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
Using these international legal standards and norms as a starting point, the High Commissioner looks at each situation from a conflict prevention perspective and formulates advice first and foremost from a political and practical point of view. It is necessary to be sensitive to the context in order to encourage the parties affected to see the logic and the possibility of internalizing and applying the established norms. The key is to move from the abstract to the concrete, to convince States to take the necessary measures – legal and political – to create the conditions envisaged in the standards concerning minorities. In short, each situation has to be assessed on its own merits.
The High Commissioner's core approach for activities and policy advice is based on the concept of promoting integration with respect for diversity. An ethnic group must be able to develop its distinctive identity and to participate in the economic, social and political life of the country. The majority group must accept full participation of all citizens in society, governance and the economy.
To support this conflict prevention policy, the High Commissioner carries out programmes and projects in areas such as education, language training, legal advice, TV and radio broadcasting in minority languages, as well as the training of civil servants, police and journalists on how to operate in a multi-ethnic environment.
These activities are funded through the annual budget approved by the OSCE participating States and from extra-budgetary funding by various donors. The High Commissioner also encourages other international donor organizations to provide similar support. The projects aim to support participating States in finding ways to reduce inter-ethnic tension.
Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn from the activities of the High Commissioner in conflict prevention is that more attention should be devoted to the root causes of ethnic conflict. Conflicts between different groups are often the result of difficulties that, in essence, are not of an interethnic nature.
Over the years, the High Commissioner has called upon international experts to develop thematic recommendations and guidelines on certain issues that frequently reoccur. To date, these cover educational rights of minorities, their linguistic rights and their participation in public life as well as media broadcasting in minority languages and policing practices in multi-ethnic societies. The most recent set of such recommendations, published in 2008, concerns national minorities in inter-State relations. The aim of all these thematic recommendations is to clarify the content of the relevant international standards and to provide practical guidance for States. The High Commissioner draws on these recommendations in formulating advice to the participating States.
The HCNM's recommendations centre on finding a balance between strengthening the unity of a society and protecting the rights and the identity of the minorities living in these States.