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Office for Democratic Institutions and Human RightsOffice for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights

What is the human dimension?

The OSCE was created as a security organization. However, it does not deal exclusively with issues of military security, disarmament or border issues. Based on a broad concept of security, it deals equally with human rights.

The OSCE considers security more than merely the absence of war. Instead, it was the intention of the OSCE participating States to create a comprehensive framework for peace and stability in Europe.

The Helsinki Final Act acknowledges as one of its 10 guiding principles the "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief".  

This constitutes a milestone in the history of human-rights protection.  For the first time, human-rights principles were included as an explicit and integral element of a regional security framework on the same basis as politico-military and economic issues. 

This acknowledgement has been reinforced by numerous follow-up documents. It is therefore now well established and beyond question. There is no hierarchy among these principles, and no government can claim they have to establish political or economic security before addressing human rights and democracy.

Recent history proves the validity of the OSCE concept that a free society allowing everyone to fully participate in public life is a safeguard against conflict and instability.  For example, the exclusion of individuals or certain groups from society, sometimes on ethnic grounds, has led to tensions and sometimes even armed conflict is one example.  The impact of refugee crises on security, often as a result of massive human-rights abuses, is another example.

In OSCE terminology, the term human dimension is used to describe the set of norms and activities related to human rights and democracy that are regarded within the OSCE as one of three dimensions of security, together with the politico-military and the economic and environmental dimensions. The term also indicates that the OSCE norms in this field cover a wider area than traditional human-rights law.

Limitations on human rights

OSCE commitments reflect traditional human rights and freedoms, as well as some areas beyond the scope of traditional human-rights law.
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A matter of international concern

OSCE states have stressed that issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of international concern, as respect for these rights and freedoms constitutes one of the foundations of the international order.
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Politically binding commitments

The OSCE process is essentially a political process that does not create legally binding norms and principles. Unlike many other human-rights documents, OSCE human dimension commitments are politically, rather than legally, binding.
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Democracy and the rule of law

In essence, OSCE states have agreed through their human dimension commitments that pluralistic democracy based on the rule of law is the only system of government suitable to guarantee human rights effectively.
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The OSCE process

Since its beginnings, the OSCE has followed a process approach. The Helsinki Final Act provides for regular follow-up conferences and meetings. This is very important for understanding the OSCE human-rights framework.
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ODIHR Director Ambassador Christian Strohal at Finlandia Hall, where the Helsinki Final Act was signed on 1 August 1975. (OSCE)

ODIHR Director Ambassador Christian Strohal at Finlandia Hall, where the Helsinki Final Act was signed on 1 August 1975. (OSCE)

Photo Gallery: Human Dimension