Eurointegrators: Jeffrey Erlich, Senior Project Officer of the OSCE Project in Ukraine (23.09.19)

In “Eurointegrators,” media expert and ex-Deputy Minister for Information Policy of Ukraine Tetiana Popova sits down with diplomats, heads of international organizations, and Ukrainian power brokers to discuss Ukraine’s European integration.

In this episode, the guest is Jeffrey Erlich, Senior Project Officer of the OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine.

The show is produced by a Ukrainian NGO Information Security and Oboz.TV.

See the text version of the interview:

Popova: Jeffrey, could you please tell us, what are the main functions of the OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine?

Erlich: In shirt, OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine conducts projects in partnership with Ukrainian institutions to help Ukraine in its observance of OSCE principles and commitments. Security requires a comprehensive approach, so it includes hard security matters like border control, like small arms control, like humanitarian demining. But also includes things that might be concerned softer security issues like freedom of press, civil society, good governance and rule of law.

Popova: What is your coordination or cooperation with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission? We hear a lot of critics about the Mission from both sides. What are your relations with them?

Erlich: As you rightly mentioned, the Special Monitoring Mission is a separate mission. And the Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine is a separate mission. Both of us get our mandate from the 57 participating states. Our mandate is renewing on a six-month basis, so we speak with the Monitoring Mission pretty much daily, we certainly share some administrative recourses. These days, the Special Monitoring Mission of course is much larger than our mission. When they first started, we were helping them from administrative point of view, but in terms of policy and in terms of leadership, we are completely separate missions.

Popova: What are the projects that your office conducts in Ukraine?

Erlich: We have roughly 30 projects, I won’t list them all. What I would say is that they cover the spectrum of OSCE commitments, which we talked about in three categories. One is politico-military, one is economic and environmental, and the third dimension is called human dimension. In politico-military sphere we are assisting the government in developing a policy and improving techniques for humanitarian mine action. We are working on improving chemical safety and security. Donbass has always been environmental risky area because of heavy industry, but now there are additional factors like for example floating coalmines, emergency shutdown of the factories, the possibility of direct carnatic action affecting, the environmental and human health situation. That is the second dimension – economic and environmental. And the third dimension is human dimension. There we have, in my personal opinion, a very important project in promoting a cultural dialogue, so helping Ministries conduct dialogue with different target groups. Just to give you one example. Working with the Ministry of Education, to talk with language minorities about the language application of the education law. Also on human dimension – that’s freedom of press work and our work with elections.

Popova: With elections? What exactly?

Erlich: We are a partner of the central election commission; we support the central election commission. We have a modest contribution, basically in two areas right now. One is providing online trainings for the election commissioners. And the second area is cyber security for the state voter registry. We helped set up the state voter registry several years ago, when the state voter registry was first put in a digital format. Since it is in a digital format, you don’t have to be too creative thinker to understand that it might face cyber risks. So we helped harden that system against cyber-attacks, and also to detect if there is a cyber-attack. This is hardware, software and also training for the IT-personnel, who maintain that system.

Popova: What projects do you do in the information sphere. I remember, and we have found a photo of you with the Minister of information policy. What exactly do you do in this field?

Erlich: I think that photo is from a couple of years ago, when we were supporting the Ministry of information policy in thinking through the information security policy for the country. Our role there was first of all providing international experience in how other countries approach the issue. And also trying to ensure that OSCE commitments regarding freedom of expression, freedom of speech and freedom of press are honored in the part of the government policy. What we are working on right now is basically two areas. One is on soft regulation of the journalism as a profession. The second area that we are working on is regional journalism. I’m sure you know and some of our viewers must be aware of the law on subsequent policy to divest media from municipal and oblast ownership to private ownership. And, you know, it’s a very-very difficult time for any print media to survive, especially small regional media. These newspapers, for the most part, print media, have been cut from government funding. And the ideal outcome will be that they would become viable independent voices in their community. There are some other possible outcomes including obviously, that they would simply closed. Or that they would not be independent. We are trying to help them through providing business consulting, journalism consulting and training on journalism standards. We try to help them, if at all possible, to become viable independent print media.

Popova: We’ve also read that your Project Co-ordinator office has helped the police and the cyber police in Ukraine. Could you please tell us about this direction?

Erlich: One of the areas of assistance we gave the cyber police was equipment. We helped purchase some hi tech computers and associated materials. I don’t think there is anything top-secret there, but I’m not an IT-specialist. But these are very powerful computers. They can use them to do their work, I’m talking about the cyber police. Also, we helped put in place a training program for the cyber police. Cyber policing is, I think it goes without saying, a growing area in policing. Basically, almost every police investigation will involve a cyber-element. Even if someone robs a bank. Tracking that person’s cellphone can provide information for the police to help capture that person. Even if it’s not a cyber-crime in particular. Of course, there are also cyber-crimes, and we are working with the cyber police on that. With the overall police, we are working in couple of areas. I can say that our main area and our focus right now are on preventing and combating domestic violence, or gender-based violence. We helped the Ministry of Interior and the National police introduce these “Polina” multidisciplinary teams to respond to domestic violence calls. Domestic violence is a very complicated, very nuanced matter. And it’s not easy, I think for the police, even when they have the best intentions, it’s not easy oftentimes the police to properly respond to domestic violence calls in any country. These multidisciplinary teams include psychologists, social workers, child protection specialist. Our way of helping the police is really get a better understanding of how they can deal with domestic violence. Also in the area of domestic violence, we helped with the law on domestic violence and implementing it. That is very important, helping the police understand the risk of violence when they respond to a call.

Popova: You mentioned that 57 nations were funding your projects. Russia is among them. And there are some topics like security projects or even information projects in the security and defense sphere. I was personally one of the trainers who trained combats how to deal with journalist. So how do you deal with sensitive information and Russia who is a contributor to your projects too?

Erlich: Tthere are 57 participating states. When our organization was first found, of course there were far fewer, because there were fewer states. Mongolia was actually the most recent to join a few year back. I just want to emphasize that the nature of the OSCE is that it should be a platform for dialogue. The OSCE itself actually has its origin in 1975 as the Helsinki Final Act, which was an international treaty. And it also led to this conference on security and cooperation in Europe. And this during the Cold War period was a dialogue platform between East and West, which was very important. And we remain a dialogue platform. Unfortunately, I think that there is a great union for dialogue in 2019, than maybe we would have predicted in 1990 or 1991. So the OSCE remains a platform for dialogue. And it’s a very fundamental principle that all decisions of OSCE are taken on a full consensus basis, that is 57 votes. So all 57 countries have to agree. Well, the 57 countries don’t have to agree that we provide a training or that we hire you to be a trainer. But the 57 do agree on the outline of our work, on the plan that we give them every year. How do we deal with sensitive information in general? We don’t have a classification system. We certainly have a business confidential information – human resources information, financial information, obviously that is business confidential. But in all programmatic work we are fully transparent. You mentioned the area of defense – we do work with the Ministry of Defense. We have an excellent cooperation with the Ministry of Defense. But we certainly aren’t advising or working with the Ministry of Defense in any area relating to military operations. That would probably not achieve a consensus among the 57. What does achieve a consensus among the 57 work with the Ministry of Defense is, for example, you mentioned, good relations between journalists and the military. That the principle of the OSCE, they have commitments on that. And those commitments and principles are staying in place. Also on the areas like democratic control of the arm forces. This is something that enjoys a full consensus among the 57 participant states. So we are working with the Ministry of Defense on democratic control of the arm forces. I mentioned the humanitarian mine action – again, this is something that all 57 states support. And this is an area where we work. In area like, for example, strengthening the combat capacity of the Ukrainian military – definitely we would not achieve a 57 states consensus. That is not an area where we work. So the shirt answer is we don’t have classifies information inside the organization. We have business confidential information, business sensitive information. We are fully transparent, and we engage with all the participating states.

Popova: You mentioned the central election commission. How are you going to work with this parliamentary election?

Erlich: What I can say is that we are assisting the central election commission in the areas that I’ve mentioned before. What I’ve observed in the way that the election commission works, is that they are profoundly fundamentally busy with their day-to-day operations. We’ve got this online training platform for election commissioners that is in place. It’s ready to go, and we’ll certainly offer that. We have a chatbot, this is both for election commissioners and also for voters. For voter that for example doesn’t know where her polling station is. She can type in the question: this is my address, where is my polling station? And the chatbot will answer. I also mentioned by the way that a different part of the OSCE, which is not my mission, but a different office – the Office for Democratic institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), based in Warsaw – does observation missions for the elections. And I’m sure that ODIHR will do everything possible to put in place a mission for the parliamentary elections.

Popova: You also mentioned the language law. What is the OSCE’s position towards this language law?

Erlich: Just to be exact. We are assisting the Ministry of education with the language part of the education law. We haven’t actually engaged on the law yet. The first thing I have to say is that it’s not in the mandate of our mission to give assessments on laws or policies. ODIHR, the Office for Democratic institutions and Human Rights, can give a legal analysis of legislation if requested. The OSCE also has a very important institution called the High Commissioner on National minorities. And the High Commissioner on National minorities has put an article on KyivPost on giving his assessment on the language law.

Popova: Was it positive or negative?

Erlich: I think it was nuanced. What I would say is that there are the OSCE commitments, and there are also international legal commitments regarding the respect for national minorities, including language rights. There are also international commitments and international legal obligations regarding freedom of expression, the ability to give and receive information in your native language. Those are some of the angles I think that the ODIHR or the High Commission on National Minorities might look at this law through the prism of international commitments and legal obligations.

Popova: What exactly is your relation or subordination to office of Harlem Désir? He often makes his statements or positions towards freedom of speech.

Erlich: We are not a tiny organization. We have about 4,000 people who work for the OSCE. But we are also not the United Nations.

Popova: Worldwide?

Erlich: 4,000 total, right. So, we are not as large as the United Nations. But nevertheless, we are large enough to have separate autonomous structures. I mentioned two of them now, and you mentioned the third. So there are three autonomous institutions. Autonomous meaning that they do not require approval from the 57 to give their opinions. This is very important, because the OSCE works in a full consensus basis. I’ll give you one example. A few years ago, in the United States they were some incidents with the police mistreating journalists. And the representative on freedom of media (which is currently Harlem Désir) issued a statement criticizing the United States for how the police were treating journalists. If you had to get a 57 states’ consensus on that – you wouldn’t get it. Because the United States would not agree to criticize itself. So, there is an autonomous institutions that are empowered to give opinions and to assess the situation in anyone of the participating states. And Harlem Désir is the representative on freedom of media, So he’s empowered by the 57 to then assess both positive or negative what countries are doing in the area of freedom of media. So, we are not under him or not over him. We are separate. Our office, our mandate does not allow us to make assessments, we’re not allowed to make assessment. If I do an assessment, I should say it will be my personal assessment, not the position of the OSCE. And when Harlem Désir makes a statement, it’s the position of his office. It is not technically the position of the 57, because the 57 haven’t voted on it.

Popova: But 57 voted for Harlem Désir to take his position several years ago?

Erlich: Absolutely. Essentially, his function is to assess the state of freedom of media. Our function is to assist Ukraine in improving freedom of media.

Popova: If your goal is to help develop freedom of speech and democracy in Ukraine, what is your opinion – what else should be done in order to be better in ratings of freedom of speech etc.?

Erlich: Sure. So, again, I can’t give an assessment of the state of media in Ukraine. But there is something I can say. It relates to the OSCE commitments. For example, the establishment and the proper function of the public broadcaster is considered very important for the promotion of freedom of media and freedom of press. In my own country, in the United States, we have a public broadcaster that is very well established, and has been functioning for a number of years. This public broadcaster in the US really does provide these neutral objective highest standards of journalism. And not only in journalism, but also communications and educational programming as well. Without any commercial interest, with only personal interest. That’s an important element in strengthening of freedom of media. Obviously, Ukraine is taking some significant steps to put in place a sustainable independent public broadcaster.

Popova: But in Ukraine now, we do not have enough financing for the public broadcaster. And it’s top manager is out now.

Erlich: A sustainable independent public broadcaster is very important for freedom of speech. And Ukraine is taking steps to create such an institution. I’m limited to making assessment, but I think it would be probably not too controversial to say there is additional work that might be done in that area. I just touched briefly on this divestiture of regional and municipal level print media. Also very important to do away with state funded media. Here I’m stating OSCE commitments that there is not much place for state funded media in the country with freedom of press. I mentioned the work we are doing in media self-regulation. Very-very important area. I think some other steps that we haven’t been involved, but that you see is in increasing the transparency of media ownership. This this an area that is important.

Popova: If it’s possible, could you please tell us more about how you support human rights dimension with NGOs and civil society?

Erlich: Ukraine should take tremendous pride in civil society and its NGO sector. I think that it’s been written in many places, and there’s been much research done about the strength of civil society in Ukraine. That’s a great source of a healthy society of good governance and sustainable security. Practically, what have been we done? We worked with NGO networks in three areas. One is we helped setup what called the national preventive mechanism, which is supporting the ombudsperson working with NGOs to monitor places of detention, for to prevent or detect torture or ill-treatment in prisons and other places of detention. This is done through the NGO network, NGOs with the human rights focus. We also support a trial monitoring by NGO coalitions. The OSCE and specifically ODIHR, the Warsaw based ODIHR, has really world-class standard in what should you look for, how does the monitor conduct herself, how do you report your findings. The third area is in counter trafficking. Together with the International Organization for Migration, we support NGOs in every oblast of Ukraine, who work with local authorities to prevent, to combat and to assist victims of human trafficking. Those are some of the areas we work with NGOs on.

Popova: In one of your interview, you said that the Special Monitoring Mission of the OSCE was often criticized. Why does it happen?

Erlich: I certainly wouldn’t criticize the Special Monitoring Mission. What I can say is that almost without exception, every one of the 57 states praises the work of the Special Monitoring Mission – their bravery, their commitment, their professionalism. My country, the United States, certainly on a weekly bases issues statements of support on the Monitoring Mission. I won’t speak for Ukraine, but Ukraine likewise supports the work of the Special Monitoring Mission. I mentioned that our mandate is renewed every year. It was renewed in March. It requires all 57 states to support the extension of the mandate. And they did so. The Special Monitoring Mission, just to remind, was established in March 2014, at a very-very difficult time in the country’s history. No one knew what was going to happen. It was a scary time. It was a very fraught time, very difficult time.

Popova: Is Russia still a part of the Special Monitoring Mission?

Erlich: Russia is a part of the Special Monitoring Mission.

Popova: So Ukrainians are not allowed there, but Russians are.

Erlich: Just to take a step back. There is a fact sheet that the Special Monitoring Mission puts on. Website is also available, and Twitter and Facebook. You can see the number, I’m not sure of the exact numbers, but I thing out of roughly 750-800 monitors, 25-30 are Russian monitors. In comparison, there are similar number of German monitors. The US sends more monitors. Bulgaria sends a lot of monitors. Norway sends a lot of monitors.

Popova: The US monitor was killed.

Erlich: Yes, that’s right. To be exact, he was the monitor, but paramedic. He was actually in addition to the number I gave. He was killed in a mine accident. It’s a dangerous action that they have. You can see for yourself, there are the public reports. Unfortunately, more often than we’d like, the monitors are subjects to indirect fire, to threats, to restrictions on their freedom of movement. But to get back to the question about why the mission might be criticized. I guess what I’m trying to convey that in 2014 and then for a couple of years after, there was maybe an expectation that the OSCE, the Special Monitoring Mission could kind of solve the crisis. But that’s not the case. The OSCE can provide a platform for dialogue. The OSCE can provide information. The OSCE can run projects like myself. But it is only a platform for dialogue. The OSCE is not a party to the conflict.

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