OSCE Meetings in Vienna
Freedoms of Association, Assembly, and Use of Technology

OSCE Meeting Quarters at Hofburg in Vienna, Austria

OSCE Meetings in Vienna
Freedoms of Association, Assembly and Use of Technology
by Sue Basko

 contact (local U.S.) Sue Basko: OccupyPeace@gmail.com
 contact (serious inquiries only, please) Omer Fisher: Omer.Fisher@odihr.pl

November 15, 2012.  Last week, I was in Vienna, Austria, attending 3 days of meetings at OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.  OSCE has 56 member nations in North America, Europe, and Asia and 12 nations that are partners in cooperation in the Mediterranean Region, Asia, and Australia.   OSCE has meeting headquarters at the Hofburg in Vienna.  The meetings I attended were of ODIHR, the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, a sub-office of OSCE, headquartered in Warsaw, Poland.  OSCE is funded by its member nations with an annual budget of about 150 million euros.  OSCE has a permanent meeting quarters in the Hofburg in Vienna.   

The ODIHR meeting was attended by representatives of the nations, and by people who are involved in the law and organizing of protests in those nations.  Most of the people I met were multi-faceted, being lawyers or law students as well as protest organizers or media activists.  It was incredible to be meeting with all of these smart, dynamic people.

At the meetings, we each had a translator headset with about 6 channels, one for each language. Translators sat behind glass windows listening and translating.  I kept my headset on the whole time, tuned to the English language channel.  That way, I could hear the translations from the various languages and could also easily hear those speaking English.   What a great listening tool this is in a crowded room!           

At the ODIHR meetings, we worked on 3 topics: Freedom of Association, Freedom of Assembly, and Use of New Technologies in Freedoms of Assembly and Association.  On each topic, we made recommendations or interventions aimed at the nations, at ODIHR, or at NGOs (nongovernmental organizations).  ODIHR sets standards and then asks the member nations to live up to the standards.  It was stated that in the past five years, rather than improving in these areas of human rights, the nations had slid backwards. This was said to be particularly true in the past 2 years, which I think is because in the past 2 years there has been much activity of people forming associations and engaging in assemblies, or protests.  The nations have been put to the test recently. 

The U.S. Department of State sent a representative, who read off a short statement about the U.S. supporting the Freedom of Assembly.  His statement was in sharp contrast to the protest monitoring report that was presented by ODIHR; the group monitored the protests at NATO in Chicago, G8 in Maryland, and Occupy Wall Street in New York, Occupy Chicago, Occupy Los Angeles, and Occupy Oakland.  It is fairly easy for the U.S. representative to say “We support freedom of assembly,” and much more difficult to take action so freedom of assembly is actually allowed and facilitated in the cities and states.

A group was in attendance from NYU Law and Harvard Law.  During a side event, they presented their paper on Occupy Wall Street in New York.  Afterward, I saw they were meeting in the lobby with the State Department rep.  He looked as if it was somehow the first time he was hearing that protesters in New York had been beaten and randomly arrested.  He was taking notes.  I considered it a good sign this impromptu meeting was taking place.       

Over the past months, ODIHR has planned and prepared a report on their protest monitoring activities in 11 nations.  CLICK TO DOWNLOAD REPORT.   The monitoring and report were led by Omer Fisher, Deputy Head of the Human Rights Department of ODIHR.  Back a year ago, Omer asked for my help with the U.S. protest monitoring plans.  It was an honor to assist such an important endeavor.  I write a blog on protest planning and laws and was able to provide background information and legal cites.  I also was involved with the G8 and NATO plans, so had direct knowledge of the process, which I shared with the ODIHR teams as things happened.  I also readily had contact with people involved in organizing and indie media in Chicago, Maryland, New York, Los Angeles, and Oakland.

In each U.S. location, many key people gave generously of their time and shared their experiences with the ODIHR researchers.  This was quite remarkable, as people truly had to overcome their fears and doubts to open up and share.  Some had been left traumatized by their experiences with police or FBI.  Would-be saboteurs spread misinfo about OSCE and even about me.  In Chicago, this played out against a background of protesters being infiltrated and entrapped on terrorism charges, homes being raided, indie journalists being interrogated at gunpoint, and police using bikes and batons to hit protesters. Out of all this, there were plenty enough strong, smart people willing to tell and show what they had witnessed to make for a very well-researched report.       

The ODIHR team also met with City and police officials who agreed to meet with them.  The ODIHR report, therefore, has a breadth and depth unprecedented in such a report.  The ODIHR group had access to many hours of protest video from the live streamers who risk their own safety to give live internet views of the protests.  In addition to all the video and interviews, the team monitored the G8 and NATO protests in person.  In Chicago for NATO in May, they hired and trained a team of legal observers to witness several long, hot days of protests.  All the information from the monitoring in 11 nations was organized into the 100-page report. 

The ODIHR report covers such topics as the permitting process, requirements for insurance, facilitating unpermitted protests, being within sight and sound of the intended target of the protest, use of force, and kettling.  The report makes observations and recommendations. 

At the ODIHR meetings in Vienna, our first topic was Freedom of Association.  In many of the OSCE nations, associations of any sort are required to register with the government.  Sometimes, the governments make it complex or impossible for certain associations to register, thereby making it illegal or impossible for them to function.  Participants made several recommendations regarding this.  Among the recommendations was that online registration should be allowed; many places require individuals to show up in person during office hours.

The second topic was Freedom of Assembly.  This is mainly about the right to peaceful protest.  The recommendations that were stated were the mostly the same ones that have previously been stated in the ODIHR guidelines as well as in the 2012 report.  The general idea was that nations should abide by international law, which says freedom to assemble is a basic human right, that public space should be free for this use, and that city officials and police should facilitate this right. 

We also covered the topic of semi-permanent protests or encampments of structures or tents.  The general idea  is that these should be allowed and that any genuine state needs, such as health or safety, should be met in the least obtrusive way.  For example, if the government perceives a health issue with a camp kitchen, then it should work with the protesters to improve the kitchen, rather than evicting the camp.  At the Occupy sites in the U.S., health and safety concerns were used at the pretext for evicting many of the camps. 

The third topic we covered was New Technology in Freedoms of Association and Assembly.  These discussions were mainly about the internet, facebook, twitter, live streaming, cellphones, wifi.  Mark Zuckerberg should have been there to hear how Facebook has been used to organize revolutions and overthrow dictators.  (Maybe this would encourage him to find a way to support Facebook without the new system of charging for posts to reach many “friends.”)  I launched the recommendations that OSCE States prohibit the use in public spaces of any technology that interferes with use of cellphones or cellphone cameras, or with the internet.  I also recommended that States encourage standardization of cellphones so they can be used worldwide.  I also recommended that States make cellphone purchases and data packages available to short-term visitors without a local address, or in other ways make it possible for visitors to get high speed internet, mainly for the use by indie journalists who want to tweet and live stream from protest sites.  It was also recommended that all states allow the video and audio recording of police on active duty. 

During the three days, I heard some dismal reports from participants.  Spain has put forth legislation to ban protests.  Several places bar filming the police in action.  In some locations, protesters have been attacked by soccer/ football hooligans.  There were several officials who felt the balance between freedom of assembly and state security should fall clearly on the side of security.  There were numerous people who spoke of their governments as “they,” making it clear the government was not perceived to be of or by the people.   This, more than anything in the three days, made me realize that we in the U.S. had better get busy and get our government more in line with being of the people.  After a year of seeing overwhelming cordons of police in riot gear aggressively facing off against smart, vibrant people wanting such simple things as a place to live, food, education, and health care, it seems time to stop the overfunding of law enforcement agencies and start funding real needs.  

Protest I saw in Vienna.