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One Man Standing for Peace: Zannier on His Mandate of Conflict Prevention

Shadowing OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities Lamberto Zannier at the H.L. Political Forum at the UN, we learn his views on the issues

Mr. Lamberto Zannier, High Commissioner on National Minorities, OSCE. (UN Photo: Loey Felipe)

Working on the integration of societies is not easy, and it is a very politically delicate task. We are now in a phase in history when identity politics is prevailing and geopolitical relationships are becoming more complicated. Some could perceive a push towards integration as a forced departure from the established order. This is why it’s so important to identify the agents willing to cooperate to change this.

Ambassador Lamberto Zannier, High Commissioner for National Minorities (HCNM) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), represents the highest expression of international diplomacy and pride of the Italian people.

Before holding this title, Ambassador Zannier served as OSCE Secretary General for two consecutive terms. He was the UN Special Representative for Kosovo and Head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), worked for the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and served as Director of the Conflict Prevention Centre of the OSCE. Previous senior positions that he has held include being Representative of Italy to the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) , Chairperson of the negotiations on the adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and Head of Disarmament, Arms Control and Cooperative Security at NATO.

We followed him for a few days during the High Level Political Forum at the UN. In this article, we present his thoughts, expressed during the Security Council’s Briefing on Ukraine, the speaker event featuring him entitled “Conflict Prevention through Societal Integration”at the International Peace Institute (IPI), and the panel, “Preventive Diplomacy in the Changing Landscape of Modern Conflicts – The Role of Regional Organizations” organized by the Permanent Mission of Slovakia.

The Security Council Briefing on Ukraine on July 16th addressed the introduction of a law by the Ukrainian government that grants special status to the Ukrainian language and makes it mandatory for public sector workers. Ambassador Zannier opened his remarks at the Security Council Briefing by reminding us that his mandate is one of conflict prevention, and stating: “successful integration policies can help strengthen the coherence of diverse societies and their resilience to conflict and crisis” (you can watch the video his intervention hereat minute 11:30).

The HCNM’s office has developed a set of guidelines and recommendations regarding the use of language in education and in the public sector. Also, it has been long cooperating with Ukrainian authorities on various sets of policies related to the integration of Ukraine’s diverse society. Ambassador Zannier himself has visited Ukraine a number of times, engaging with the authorities, representatives of the minority communities, and other interlocutors. As he points out, Ukraine has “every right to strengthen the role of the state language to enhance a shared sense of belonging.” However, he adds, “Steps in this direction … should be balanced with concerted efforts to accommodate the ethnic and linguistic minorities of the country.”

Ukraine, following its obligations as an OSCE member country and its international commitments, should promote “a balanced and pragmatic linguistic policy [that] should ideally be achieved through positive means and incentives rather than penalties.” Doing so, Zannier believes, will help create an environment where the state language can be used as a tool of integration and not seen as a punitive measure.

During our shadowing, we also learned about The Max van der Stoel Award. This award is co-sponsored by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and the Dutch Foreign Ministry and it recognizes extraordinary and outstanding achievements in improving the position of national minorities across the OSCE countries. In 2018, it was awarded to a group of high school students from the Municipality of Jajce in Bosnia and Herzegovina for successfully resisting the local authorities’ decision to establish a new ethnically segregated school in the municipality in 2016.

Ambassador Zannier’s presentation on “Conflict Prevention through Societal Integration” at the International Peace Institute (IPI) in New York on July 18th, 2019, opened with a video of this ceremony. In fact, the youth and the education systems will be the main protagonists of Ambassador Zannier’s speech.

H.E. Lamberto Zannier, OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities, and Dr. Adam Lupel, Vice President of IPI.

As Zannier clearly restated at the very beginning of the event, the High Commissioner’s primary mandate is one of conflict prevention. When talking about conflicts and drafting policies to prevent or cease those, many focus exclusively on inter-state, or international, conflicts. However, the majority of conflicts occurring today are of a different nature, and involve exclusively internal actors of a split society. For this reason, it is extremely important to focus on prevention, and to invest more resources in strengthening the resilience of societies, integration, and promote the idea of more inclusive and peaceful communities.

To advance such an understanding of society, the HCNM has chosen young people as its principal interlocutor. It is the younger generation that now holds the strongest long-term perspective and is the most interested party in pursuing solid, long-term solutions to create a stable and prosperous society. Young people also tend to be more willing to acknowledge and overcome the challenges of the past and to take a future-oriented approach, while the older generation tends to look at the patterns of the past, which in some countries are those of segregation, and incline towards maintaining the status quo.

Working on the integration of societies is not easy, and it is a very politically delicate task. We are now in a phase in history when identity politics is prevailing and geopolitical relationships are becoming more complicated. Some could perceive a push towards integration as a forced departure from the established order. This is why it’s so important to identify the agents willing to cooperate in order to change this.

The educational system is extremely important in promoting integration. If a country has a segregated educational system, it will more likely have a segregated society. The possibility of giving equal opportunities to all starts from the school system and relies on all citizens being able to speak the national language and to learn the tools necessary for further advancement in society and play a fuller role in its development. Moreover, a unified educational system and an integrated society do not cancel out the identities of those who are different. Zannier states: “Differences and diversity are a richness for the society that should not be eliminated, …. one should invest in this diversity.” In an interview given to the Sole 24 Oreon July 7th 2019, minorities are compared to a matrioska: “you open one, and then another, but there is always another one, even smaller, even richer and more precious. Because diversity means value for everyone.”  At the same time, Zannier underlines, diversity should not be a barrier for individuals to access society.

Finally, working on strengthening a society and making it more integrated has proven to be a very effective tool for conflict prevention, effective in avoiding radicalization and the consequent violent extremism. If groups are not well integrated in society, there is more likelihood to see segregation, marginalization, radicalization and then violent conflict in that society. Zannier points out that, “working on strengthening the inclusiveness of the society is a very effective tool to prevent this kind of security challenges that we face.”

On the panel “Preventive Diplomacy in the Changing Landscape of Modern Conflicts – The Role of Regional Organizations,” Ambassador Zannier reiterated the concepts enunciated in the other events. He also presented some of the conclusions the HCNM office has reached in its work, which resulted in a collection of guidelines and recommendations. The most comprehensive document is entitled “The Ljubljana Guidelines on Integration of Diverse Societies.” As is the case for all recommendations made to States by international organizations, these are not legally binding, but they do provide a list of areas that need to be looked at in order to promote stability. The HCNM has also issued a number of sectorial recommendations: the Hague Recommendationson education, the Lund Recommendationson the participation of national minorities in public life, and other sets of recommendations in the area of rule of law, policing, access to justice, and non-discrimination in these sectors.

In his closing remarks, Ambassador Zannier concluded that there is a common recognition of the challenges that present themselves while operating in this environment, which are however addressed by all the participants in different ways. He points out that the complexity of these challenges requires coalition: “”We need to work together on these things and we need to exchange views.” He then adds: “On occasions like this, we have the possibility … to get to know each other, to create these kinds of informal networks that allow us to stay in touch and continue this kind of dialogue.” The Ambassador concludes by saying that many things have been accomplished, but there is more work to be done. Because of this, this is the kind of interaction that should be continued.

La Voce di New Yorkhad the chance to sit down with Ambassador Zannier during these days that he spent in New York and to  ask him a couple of follow-up questions.

First, we asked the Ambassador to talk more about the many projects focused on multilingual education in Central Asia and in countries such as Tajikistan and Kazakhstan that his office has been promoting. We learned that In Central Asia, the HCNM started a regional programon multilingual and multicultural education in which all five Central-Asian countries participate. Multilingual education was already present in this region when this project started, but what still needs to be done is a modernization of this system. There is a need for bigger investments in things like textbooks and teachers’ education. Overall, the HCNM’s most intense efforts in this region are targeted towards bringing investments and raising awareness on political issues. “Sometimes, [local communities] are too focused on the national language” and thus tend to overlook the minorities’ languages, Ambassador Zannier declares.

Ambassador Zannier during a visit to Tajikistan.

Since the situation in Ukraine and in Eastern Europe is in the limelight of the Security Council, we asked Ambassador Zannier to tell us if, considering the political situation, he thinks that similar multilingual programs could be implemented in that region. Indeed, as the Ambassador confirms, language is more politicized in Eastern Europe because of geopolitical issues. In some countries, the law distinguishes between European and non-European languages according to political considerations. In this situation, it is important to bring the authorities’ attention to repercussions of similar policies in society. In Latvia, for example, the national language is treated differently from Russian, which is spoken by many. With the new government, policies are now more “Latvian-centred” than “Russian-centred.” And while the HCNM’s office is actively monitoring the events there, it is worth noting that more and more Russian speakers have started investing in the Latvian language. In Estonia things are different, and it’s up to individual communities to decide on the use of languages. There are also many minority schools in Ukraine, especially in the Hungarian community. It is good that the Ukrainian authorities decided to extend the time-frame for the implementation of the policy.

Finally, we saved the most burning question for last: is a person’s native language a crucial part of someone’s national identity? Ambassador Zannier himself has affirmed this in an op-ed published in the Kyiv Poston May 14th. In Ukraine, most people identify themselves as being primarily Ukrainian-speaking, primarily Russian-speaking, bilingual, and anything in between. Thus, we asked the Ambassador what he thinks could be a solution to reconcile these identities, sometimes perceived as conflicting, in a peaceful and united society. Ambassador Zannier declared that, “We feel that we are one thing and thus can’t be something else.” People create barriers where there shouldn’t be a contradiction. One identity, ethnic or linguistic, shouldn’t be perceived as exclusive; people can have multiple identities. As for the situation in Ukraine with its new language law, maybe authorities will decide to leave some space for other languages (apart from the Russian community, Ukraine is home to Crimean Tatar, Byelorussian, Moldovan, Polish, and Hungarian minorities, among others, ndr). It is also important to note that there are many Ukrainians in Russia, so this debate goes both ways.

In the end, I think that the most significant lesson on conflict prevention and integration of societies that we can draw from these three days can be summed up in a quote from the previously mentioned op-ed: “Integration [is] a two-way process. Balance is key. On the one hand, all governments should ensure respect for minority rights. On the other hand, minorities have a responsibility to participate in the political, cultural, social and economic life of their State.”


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