The FINANCIAL — Meeting virtually, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s committees on economic and environmental affairs and human rights and democracy discussed the impacts of COVID-19, as well as other pertinent issues. It was the first time that the two committees have met – albeit in an online format – since the coronavirus outbreak last year. According to OSCE, the meetings featured speeches by committee leaders, presentations by high-level OSCE officials, and wide-ranging debates with the participation of dozens of parliamentarians from North America, Europe and Central Asia.
Chaired by Doris Barnett (Germany), the OSCE PA’s Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and Environment was addressed by representatives of the OSCE’s executive structures in Vienna, including Ambassador Florian Raunig, Chair of the Economic and Environmental Committee, and Ambassador Vuk Žugić, Co-ordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities. Their presentations were followed by discussion focused on how OSCE parliamentarians and governmental representatives of the OSCE can join forces in building economic and environmental security amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
As OSCE notes in her opening remarks, Barnett highlighted the connection between COVID-19 mortality rates and the environmental degradation affecting human security, particularly the pervasive impact of air pollution. “Appallingly,” she said, “most of the pre-existing ‘conditions’ that increase the risk of hospitalization and deaths among COVID-19 patients are the same diseases caused by short- and long-term exposure to sustained pollution.”
She explained that the scale of the problem is greater than had been previously known, pointing to recent research that has found that exposure to fossil fuel emissions accounted for nearly one in five global deaths in 2018. The immediate threat of pollution on public health is compounded by unsustainable development and global warming, she pointed out, and, like these related issues, requires common approaches and solutions.
Committee Rapporteur Elona Hoxha (Albania) presented her ideas for the report and draft resolution that will be considered at the 29th OSCE PA Annual Session this July, focusing her remarks on themes such as economic recovery, economic empowerment of women, migration management, good governance, and pollution and climate change as top priorities to be addressed through new regulations, technologies, partnerships and development schemes. She noted that the pandemic has underscored the need for co-ordinated efforts in addressing a multitude of complex, interlinked issues, for which the international community must provide strong and credible responses.
“We should collectively seize this opportunity and encourage our parliaments to play a pivotal role in forging the new, post-COVID-19, world order,” Hoxha said. “An order which will have to effectively address our growing development needs while fully safeguarding the planet where we live.”
According to OSCE, in the discussion, members raised issues including climate change, corruption, money laundering, infrastructure development, the economic effects of COVID on women, and cybersecurity. It was noted that with COVID lockdowns, the internet has become more indispensable than ever and therefore it has become increasingly important to ensure digital access and freedom of information online. Committee Vice-Chair Artur Gerasymov raised concerns about the impacts of conflicts on environmental security, highlighting the problems that his country of Ukraine faces in this regard.
Kyriakos Hadjiyianni (Cyprus) chaired the meeting of the Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions, which heard presentations by Matteo Mecacci, Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Teresa Ribeiro, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and Anne-Kirsti Karlsen, Chair of the Human Dimension Committee of the OSCE Permanent Council.
Opening the meeting, Chair Hadjiyianni noted that much has changed since the last time the committee met a year ago, but the human rights problems have only continued, stressing in particular the importance of humanitarian protection in conflict zones. He recalled that in webinars organized by the PA over the past year, OSCE parliamentarians have focused on issues such as respect for human rights and democratic control during states of emergency, as well as COVID-related challenges and opportunities in diverse societies.
Committee Rapporteur and OSCE PA Vice-President Kari Henriksen (Norway) presented her ideas and intentions for the report to be considered at the Annual Session this summer, highlighting the pandemic’s impact on the human dimension. “The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have been deep and will be long-lasting, with profound impact on the lives of almost all of our populations within and beyond the OSCE region,” Henriksen said.
She stressed in particular the need to maintain focus on the most vulnerable members of society, including those impacted by conflicts, and noted that COVID-related social and economic challenges have been particularly hard on women and children, with increased domestic abuse related to lockdown orders. Migrants are also faced with additional closures of borders and serious threats to their well-being in migrant camps, she pointed out.
Henriksen also highlighted the stress that COVID has placed on healthcare systems. “It is time that we recognize effective healthcare as a full-fledged human right,” she said. “The state has a responsibility to protect its population from health challenges just as it has a responsibility to protect against terror attacks or other hostile forces.”
In the discussion, OSCE parliamentarians raised issues such as the need to follow international humanitarian law during armed conflict, media freedom, gender equality, difficulties facing refugees and migrants, the imperative of building resilient societies in order to deal with challenges such as COVID-19, and the need for constructive dialogue on human rights concerns. Discussion also focused on the humanitarian implications of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The committee meeting also featured reports and discussion on recent election observation missions to Montenegro, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and the United States of America. Committee Vice-Chair Michael Georg Link (Germany) reported on the US election observation mission, noting that it was a successful effort despite the difficult circumstances due to the pandemic.On Thursday, the OSCE PA’s Committee on Political Affairs and Security met, following the opening joint session of the Winter Meeting.