On his recent visit to Helsinki, Oksana Chelysheva interviews the principal deputy head of the OSCE, Alexander Hug. They discuss his work with the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.
Alexander Hug, the principal deputy head of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-Operating In Europe), monitoring the mission in Ukraine, came to Helsinki on the invitation of The Finnish Peace Committee, the non-governmental organisation which was established in 1949. When I was asked by a member of the audience what I could see as a positive thing in the devastating reality of the conflict in Ukraine, I personally responded; “The fact that Alexander Hug did respond to the interest of the civil society in Finland, finds time to come here and does come – is already a positive thing. It clearly indicates that the OSCE as such still continues to be a political structure bearing the same level of responsibility over the human dimension as well as of the content of the three OSCE “political baskets” agreed upon in Helsinki 1975.”
Oksana Chelysheva: Three years after the Minsk Agreements were signed; we keep asking why they are not implemented? What are the obstacles?
Alexander Hug: First of all, the Minsk Agreements, as such, are a whole series of agreements. It is also important to recall that the Special Monitoring Mission is not a signatory of those Minsk Agreements. Our mandate derives from a consensus decision of the OSCE Permanent Council, and part of our work is to monitor the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. Part of the problem is that the measures that had been agreed to bring about stability from a military point of view – but also development from the political, economic and humanitarian point of view – are not implemented. And one big obstacle is that non-implementation – so non-adherence to commitments made – leads to a lack of incentive to adhere to what had been agreed, because there is no cost for failure to adhere to it – be it political, economic, and humanitarian or security measures.
Not all of these specific measures are equally advanced. And even where they are advanced, there is a difference from week-to-week and day-to-day in terms of their implementation level. We have days when security measures have a considerable level of implementation, where there are very few ceasefire violations for instance. And then we have days when there is a high degree of uncertainty. What is required is a mechanism which can hold to account those who do not abide by what they have agreed. And the OSCE mission is highlighting some of those shortcomings, so there is objective information on the basis of which such a mechanism could be applied. It is important that the violations are not seen as normal but taken as an indicator for action. First of all, by those who have committed them, but also by the international community as a whole, who are also supporting the implementation of these Agreements.
OC: If we are to push the sides of fighting into really implementing the Agreements, who would be the main players?
AH: Initially those who signed on the dotted line. They are the ones who have promised to stop the fighting, to withdraw weapons, de-mine, and to allow humanitarian organizations access. They are the ones who said they would do all they can to economically look after those regions. They are also the ones who have said they want to implement the whole set of measures that will help to stabilise the security and political setting. They are the ones who have to take action first, with the help of the international community, based on the information that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission provides. Then in parallel to that, the international community must act, and this includes the OSCE participating States – some among them who have taken upon themselves to be more engaged. For instance, the Trilateral Contact Group or those involved in the oversight mechanism, “Normandy Four.” It is in the interest of the international community, I would argue, that this conflict is not just contained, but resolved.
OC: The mission operates on the political will of all the parties involved. Is there a way to influence their determination to push the sides for peace?
AH: I think it’s important to be resilient. If this action does not come immediately, one has to understand that one has to continue to show the reality. And we repeatedly do it in our daily reports. It has to be done objectively and independently. It has to be done consistently. And it has to be unbiased. And if we continue to do it, I am convinced that over time the pressure will be such that the reality will be unavoidable.
OC: What is the relationship between the mission and the journalistic community?
AH: We have an open-door policy with journalists. Anyone who wants to talk to us or wants to accompany us is welcomed. If anyone wants to have information, he or she will be provided with it as much as we can. From very early on we in the OSCE decided to conduct our work transparently. Our reports are public. That’s rare in a political organization that reports are public – normally there are cables that are shared only selectively. We decided that we would make them public. And we decided that we would do it in three languages every day so that everyone has access, both journalists and the wider public. We will continue to do so. There are certainly journalists who critically report about us and we don’t mind that, because we agreed to transparency and with transparency comes criticism.
OC: What are the main challenges to your work?
AH: There are many, but the most important one, as we have already discussed, is the absence of remedial actions by signatories based on information we have been providing. And it is the political will of the 57 participating States, including Russia and Ukraine who agreed in consensus, the last time in March this year, to have this mission on the ground to provide this information. So it is for them that we do this – it is for the Permanent Council that we produce this information – but of course the wider public also benefits. But it is the absence of action – inaction in other words – by the sides of the conflict that is concerning.
But it is the absence of action – inaction in other words – by the sides of the conflict that is concerning.
Then there are impediments to our operations imposed by the sides. These are security threats. These are harassments, other intimidations that we experience. All of that has only one reason which is to prevent us from monitoring and, as a consequence, to prevent us from reporting. And it’s logical that if you intimidate someone, in the long run this person would reduce his or her activity in order not to be exposed to intimidation. At the same, we are determined to continue to implement our mandate, of course, taking due care about the security of our staff. A report on intimidations, on obstacles imposed by the sides is a fact in itself.
OC: You mentioned that there have been 600 instances this year when you were obstructed. Who commits these? And why?
AH: Why is clear. The sides obstruct us because they don’t want us to see what is going on. It’s the same reason in the government-controlled areas and non-government-controlled areas. They may say, “It’s for your security”. Fine, thank you. But it’s their responsibility to remove that threat. If they say there is a mine in the way, of course, we don’t go. We don’t test our luck. But it’s their responsibility to remove it. If they don’t remove it, they do it because they don’t want us to go there and see what’s going on. It can only be that reason. If they say, there is active fighting and you can’t go there – then just stop fighting. This is as simple as that. So, there can be no doubt that on both sides the only intention to stop us is that they don’t want us to see what is going on. Now, the difference between government and non-government controlled areas is the nature of this intimidation. We face more and worse impediments and incidents in non-government-controlled areas, including aggression, intimidation, harassment and violence. There, they shoot at us, shoot near us, sexually harass our staff. They intimidate, they swear. Some of them can be drunk. So, the nature is quite different and it’s far more intimidating, aggressive and insulting in the areas not controlled by the Government.
…they shoot at us, shoot near us, sexually harass our staff. They intimidate, they swear. Some of them can be drunk.
OC: The Mission has suffered losses due to an explosion. Is it being investigated?
AH: There are different processes running. As in any other organization, there is an internal audit that had been launched. There is an internal investigation. It’s done not by the Mission but by the OSCE Secretariat in Vienna. They look at the internal administrative procedures that are in place to see if anything has been done in order or if anything needs to be changed. That is the ongoing process which has already started. Then the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Austria, has tasked the OSCE Secretary General to prepare an independent external forensic examination. That is now in preparation. Then the Ukrainian Government has also launched a criminal investigation under the law of Ukraine into that incident. We ourselves have launched an internal assessment and already completed its first round. The results of which are immediate measures that we have taken with the aim to avoid similar incidents under similar circumstances. All of that is under review. We have made it clear to the signatories of the Minsk Agreements that we expect to get the information from them about the areas which they know are dangerous. We want maps which indicate them. And we want to see an action plan for mine action in these areas. We are not naive to believe that they can clean all the mines away within a month. It will take years to remove them all. But we want to see a plan and measurable steps how they will make our work safer.
OC: And is there an inquiry by Lugansk?
AH: We understand that they have also undertaken some examination of it. But the law of Ukraine dictates that the Government of Ukraine undertakes it.
OC: What are the political constraints?
AH: You know, that the OSCE is a political organization. So its operations depend on the political will that the 57 participating States can find in consensus. But the Permanent Council has made it clear during the address Ambassador Apakan recently made to the Permanent Council that they fully support the Mission. So, at the moment, we do feel political support by participating States to continue to implement our mandate. Of course, they are concerned about their seconded staff and have said so to our mission – because it is their responsibility too to look after their staff dispatched to the SMM – so it’s a shared responsibility we have with them. We are in constant contact with the participating States. It’s also one of the reasons why I am here in Finland at the moment to talk with the seconded authorities here and to inform them about the situation on the ground. We need this close political support by all 57 participating States.
OC: What can stop the war?
AH: From a military point of view, there are two measures which need to be taken, not naively excluding what else is needed. But from a pure military point of view, a decision needs to be taken to create distance between the sides along the contact line – disengagement. And in parallel, which is also a military decision, heavy weapons which are too close to the contact line need to be withdrawn and locked up. If these two measures are taken, the situation will stabilize. And it will become more predictable. Now it is unpredictable.
OC: What is the closest point between the sides?
AH: They are as close as ten or twenty meters in some places. For infantry weapons not to be in immediate reach, we need a distance of two kilometres, as a minimum. It means at least one kilometre from each of the sides. But heavy weapons, in addition, need to go. Tanks need to go at least fifteen kilometres away on each side. Mortars need to go at least fifteen kilometres away on each side. Multiple launch rocket systems need to go even further. Ballistic missiles have to be taken at least a hundred and forty kilometres apart so that they cannot engage. That has already been agreed, so no new agreements are needed for both measures. We don’t need to go to Minsk to discuss it. We don’t need to have another session of debates. It has been agreed. They have signed on the dotted line for disengagement and for the withdrawal of weapons. These simple measures are there. It’s a question of will to implement them on the ground.
We don’t need to have another session of debates. It has been agreed. They have signed on the dotted line for disengagement and for the withdrawal of weapons. These simple measures are there. It’s a question of will to implement them on the ground.
OC: Who then should pull the string?
AH: Once again, it is those who have signed. They have made commitments. They have put their names on the lines. First of all, it is Ukraine, the Russian Federation and participants from certain areas of Donetsk and Lugansk regions. They are the ones who put their names on the line and have said they will do “a”, “b”, “c”. Then the international community as a whole is backing the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. There needs to be consistent pressure upon all signatories not just to make promises, but to implement them. That the sides are not implementing the agreements that is evidenced by the reports of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. Nobody should be allowed to say, “We are not aware of it”. Look at our reports. They are, at least, snapshots of the reality. Nobody can say they didn’t know.
OC: Have you had chances to fix the presence of foreign nationals on both sides of the conflict?
AH: We have spoken to people who claimed to be coming from abroad. We have seen people with the insignia from other countries. We have spoken to detainees who claimed they are from other countries. All of that is reported and is publicly available. I can’t speculate on their motivation and the bigger political drive behind these claims because we base our observations and reports on facts. These are available on our website. We don’t hide that when someone tells us or we see an insignia. We report what we see and we report what we hear, provided it’s verified.
OC: The mission released the report on the situation of IDPs in Ukraine. Has there been any reaction from the authorities? Is their lives changing for the better or do they remain as complicated as it was documented by the Mission?
AH: Indeed we are in contact with all involved, not just with the host Government, but also with those in areas of Donetsk and Luhansk not controlled by the Government, because IDPs (Internally Displaced Person) are also within these areas. We continue to observe the situation of IDPs across Ukraine because we have eight other teams outside Donetsk and Luhansk regions, also in the west and the south. The situation continues to be difficult for some IDPs and it continues to increase the longer people are IDPs because they use up their resources. The host or receiving community has limited capacity to look after them, to cater for them. And, of course, it creates all kinds of additional problems. We follow it closely. And it is a huge problem that concerns over a million and a half people. These are just official ones. It’s not a small number. It’s a lot of people who have lost their homes. And, as you know, like in any other conflict, all these people want is to go home. The Mission feels responsible to make information available so that these IDPs make a conscious, informed decision whether the time is right to go back or not. Some do not have any other choice as they have run out of money, they can’t pay rent where they are and they go back to where they have fled from. They are exposed to great risk because often these are the most dangerous areas.
It’s a lot of people who have lost their homes. And, as you know, like in any other conflict, all these people want is to go home.
OC: The mission also monitors the situation on the Russian border and the passage of official Russian humanitarian convoys. Have there been any speculations on whether these convoys might bring in supplies for the militants? What is the procedure to inspect them?
AH: First of all, the OSCE Monitoring Mission has no mandate to inspect. We have no right to open any truck. We are monitors. We are not inspectors or investigators. We do follow these convoys and report what we see. We also see that some of the stuff being unloaded in some villages and we also report on that. We can’t report what happens on the territory of the Russian Federation because it is not within our mandate.
OC: What is your previous experience of conflicts?
AH: I have worked in other conflict areas, both in the Balkans and the Middle East. I have studied law and I have a military background.