BORN of the East-West conflict, the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe - the standard bearer of human rights in the cold war - is having difficulty defining its role in the new era.
This became clear at a meeting of CSCE foreign ministers in Prague last Thursday and Friday. The ministers of the ever-growing organization, which operates by consensus and whose decisions are not legally binding, admitted that the conference needs improving if it is to be influential in solving regional conflicts.
"The CSCE was born in the cold war and can die with the cold war if it does not adapt itself to new realities and challenges," said Lennart Meri, foreign minister for Estonia, one of the group's newest members.
The CSCE's failed attempts to move one member-state, Yugoslavia, toward peace in the last year prompted this broad debate. But opinions widely differ on just how far the CSCE should evolve.
Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel, who hosted the conference, said the group of 48 states must be "more than a mere debating club." He suggested making the decisions of the unwieldy organization legally binding by putting them into treaty form, in which violations can be punished with sanctions. He advocated that the CSCE direct peacekeeping forces and have a security council along the lines of the United Nations Security Council. He voiced the opinion of many members when he said the CSCE should expan d dialogue with nonmembers, such as Japan. US and Britain dissent
These would be significant changes, and other member states, while generally supportive of change, would not go this far. Both the United States and Britain said some of the steps Mr. Havel mentioned could cost the CSCE its flexibility and come too close to duplicating tasks carried out by existing institutions.
"I think what we have to face is that the CSCE is ... essentially a political institution using peer pressure to try and influence governments who are members," said Douglas Hogg, British minister of state in the foreign office. "It is not a legal institution."
Several diplomats here said the conference members were going through a "searching process" to define their role on a case-by-case basis. The most important case was membership for the countries making up the new Commonwealth of Independent States. Several of the former Soviet republics, it was argued, are in Central Asia and could not be described as appropriate members for an essentially European organization.
But, in the end, CSCE members decided to accept all commonwealth states. Technically, it was reasoned, the states deserved membership because they were part of the former Soviet Union. Ideologically, it was reasoned, the central Asian states must be saved, so to speak, from Islamic fundamentalism and anchored in Western democratic values.
Some of the former Soviet republics, such as Kazakhstan, also possess nuclear weapons. "It could be a lot more complicated if they weren't in [CSCE]," commented Barbara McDougall, Canada's foreign minister. The conference members agreed to send fact-finding missions to these countries to judge their compliance with conference principles on human rights, democracy, and rule of law. In Prague, all states, including the 10 new members, also signed a resolution on nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruct ion and agreed to provide full information to the UN register of conventional arms. Wayward members
Last year's experience with wayward members Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union (during the August coup) spurred the ministers to modify their process of decision by consensus. They agreed that the conference can pass resolutions in cases of "gross" violations of CSCE principles even if the concerned state does not consent. The resolutions will not allow the conference to intervene, but it will allow it to express an opinion, members said.
Those who supported a more interventionist role in the form of CSCE peacekeeping forces had to be satisfied with the conference's decision that the issue be "considered" further when CSCE heads of state meet in a summit in Helsinki in July. Both Britain and the US said the CSCE might be better advised to let institutions already organized for deployments - such as NATO or the UN - do this job.
While many visions for a grander CSCE role circulated here, in the end, the conference came back to its roots: human rights. Foreign ministers resolved to improve its monitoring of human and minority rights in member countries and to find ways to help new nations institutionalize democracy. After all, said Canada's Ms. McDougall, it was ethnic disputes that caused the Yugoslav war in the first place.