Possibilities and Pitfalls of Confidence-building Measures

Image Credit: OSCE

On September 18th, IPI’s Vienna Office organized a roundtable discussion on lessons learned from confidence-building measures (CBMs), particularly within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).


Confidence and security building measures (CSBMs) were used extensively during the Cold War and in the period of post-Communist transition in order to build trust between the Western and Eastern blocs in Europe in relation to “hard” security issues like arms control. Now that most tensions within Europe are intra- rather than inter-state, the emphasis has shifted to non-military confidence-building measures. These are actions or processes designed to increase transparency and predictability, as well to build trust and confidence between two or more conflicting parties. They can include political CBMs (like dialogue and power sharing), economic CBMs (like promoting trade and carrying out joint infrastructure and community development projects), environmental CBMs (like cooperative projects for water management or joint responses to disaster relief), societal CBMs (facilitating people to people contacts), as well as cultural CBMs (promoting tolerance, enhancing minority rights and participation, and preserving national heritage).
At the IPI roundtable, Claus Neukirch, the Deputy Director of the OSCE’s Conflict Prevention Centre, presented a new OSCE Guide on Non-Military Confidence-Building Measures.

The user-friendly guide explains what CBMs are, how and when they can be used, as well as their possibilities and limitations. It also describes how CBMs have been implemented in different parts of the OSCE area, including Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and southern Serbia.

It was stressed that there is no “one size fits all” approach to applying CBMs: they have to be tailored to the specific context in which they are being implemented. Nevertheless, CBMs are most likely to succeed if their implementation is reciprocal, incremental, long-term, predictable, transparent, and verifiable. “Confidence is best built by combining several CBMs reaching out to different layers in an incremental, cumulative process,” said Neukirch. The need for local ownership on both sides was stressed: CBMs are seldom successful if they are imposed from the outside. CBMs should respond to the needs of the affected communities. To identify those needs, situation assessments or polling can be helpful.

In a candid, off-the-record discussion, participants–mostly from OSCE participating states–debated the limitations and obstacles related to the implementation of CBMs. Some participants felt that CBMs could be applied only when the situation was ripe, whereas others felt that CBMs should be used to ripen the situation. It was noted that CBMs alone cannot solve a conflict. They need to be part of a broader settlement or reconciliation strategy. Questions were raised, including how can mediators encourage parties to take the first step, how can “peace constituencies” be mobilized in order to create popular support for CBMs, and what are the incentives for parties to engage in CBMs?

Mr. Neukirch, the main author of the OSCE guide, outlined some pitfalls to avoid when designing and implementing CBMs. For example, where possible, CBMs should be implemented at several levels simultaneously: top-down and bottom-up. Care must be taken to ensure that CBMs are not misused, for example for attracting revenue, buying time, or strengthening the status quo rather than genuinely reaching out to one’s opponent for the sake of narrowing differences. There is also a danger of misreading unilateral steps as dishonest or as a sign of weakness, or taking a short-cut in the implementation process instead of following a step-by-step approach. To avoid these and other pitfalls, the need for verification, and third party engagement as “honest brokers” were noted. Furthermore, public policy is vital in order to communicate one’s intentions clearly to the other side as well as to the public at large.

IPI is currently exploring ways of applying CBMs in a number of situations, including Cyprus, Kosovo, and Moldova.