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OSCE by All – Elevating Civil Society Voices: An Example from Historians without Borders

2025 will be a significant year not only for European security politics, but also for Finnish foreign policy. It will mark the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE – Conference and CSCE 1975-1995). Discussions on how to best utilize the anniversary have been slowly gaining progress. 

In supporting the OSCE as an important institution in Europe’s security architecture, Historians without Borders in 2024 will implement the pilot project OSCE by All, funded by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The project will coordinate civil society and expert voices within Finland to find new innovative ways to support Finland’s leadership of the OSCE in 2025. The objective is to support discussion of an OSCE for the 21st Century and build on the 2023 North Macedonian and 2024 Malta OSCE Chairperson-in-Offices’ objectives to place “security of people at the centre of [OSCE] endeavours.” 

History and (Inter)National Policy Innovation

At the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) 2022 Autumn meetings in Warsaw, Poland, Finnish Parliamentarian and Finnish OSCE PA delegation member Eeva-Johanna Eloranta highlighted the work of Historians without Borders and its relevance for the OSCE. Eloranta remarked: 

As Russian aggression against Ukraine has shown, the use of history in attempting to advocate against another OSCE participating State’s right to exist is at the forefront of contemporary politics. Understanding the political power of history is a critical skill for citizens of the OSCE region to have. In Finland, we have an international NGO Historians without Borders, that connects academics, policymakers, and society at large in critically assessing the role of history in perpetuating conflict. These are the types of innovative, transnational, educational organizations that we should further support in OSCE activities.  Thinking about what role the OSCE PA can have in promoting innovative approaches to education as well as civil society development and security should be one of our key goals leading up to the 2025 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act. It is time to start thinking of new ways to uphold OSCE commitments for the people we represent. Especially in these unprecedented times when basic OSCE values are under threat.

Historians without Borders’ work is only one example of the type of civil society voices OSCE by All will attempt to promote, but a highly relevant one for the OSCE’s 50th anniversary. 

2025 and commemoration of the Helsinki Final Act brings an elevated sense of historicism, which Eric Hobsbawm defined as the “extrapolation of past tendencies into the future.” This political opportunity can be utilized to promote historical reflection as a foundation for policy debates on how to pragmatically develop European security institutions going forward. 

Creative policy entrepreneurship is needed in the current moment. Marko Lehti noted that:

If we don't want Europe to remain a dark region ravaged by conflicts, where the threat of war is always present, Europeans must invest mentally and financially in visionary thinking about peace and our future.

A plethora of perspectives are needed in these discussions. Organizations working in the field of history and memory politics across Europe, while only one example, possess a unique skill set to promote these debates at a public, expert, and policy level. Historians without Borders in 2023 hosted projects such as the Finnish-Estonian history dialogue, a seminar on Finnish refugee politics following the 1973 Pinochet Coup in Chile, expert debate on the situation in Gaza, and many more. These are all examples of how history can be used to frame difficult topics in Finnish society in new ways, fostering social debate and allowing citizens, experts, and decision-makers a common table for discussing security and foreign policy more generally. 

Throughout Europe, transnational networks of NGOs and decisionmakers interested in promoting these creative initiatives already exist. The Andrey Sakharov Foundation, the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, OSCE PA, the former OSCE Network of Think Tanks and now Expert Network, and many others have all worked at different societal and policy levels to pursue similar goals. If mobilized correctly, these actors can offer creative policy ideas for an OSCE of the 21st century that incorporates civil society opinions in addition to traditional foreign policy actors’.

Historical discussions will also be important in Ukraine. In 2022 President Zelensky invited Finland “to join the restoration of our educational sector and the modernization of education in Ukraine.” While the Finnish MFA has already allocated resources to support Ukraine’s education system, NGOs can help develop the more subtle aspects of history education necessary to support the rebuilding of Ukraine.  

The OSCE has experience in promoting expert training for history teachers in Cyprus as a form of conflict resolution. Local teachers participated in workshops put on by historians to help inform how history can perpetuate and alleviate conflicts, as well as offer tools for teaching students to recognize when history is being used for political aims. The OSCE PA and OSCE Support Programme for Ukraine could coordinate such workshops for Ukrainian educators led by Ukrainian and European NGOs and historians.  

The OSCE as Long-Term, Societal, Thinking

The OSCE offers unique policy opportunities, as it functions both at the level of high politics as well as civil society. As such, the OSCE should be considered a provider and promoter of innovative security, in which civil society takes a leading role. 

NGOs can have a strong and meaningful impact in revitalizing the OSCE as well as rebuilding Ukraine. To further this creative policymaking process, OSCE by All seeks to elevate similar civil society actors in Finland in support of Finland’s 2025 Chairpersonship.” Ideally, with the inclusive policy debates that ensue, inspired by the Helsinki Final Act and the subsequent blossoming of human rights defenders across Europe, Finland can offer a model for a more inclusive, engaging, OSCE for the 21st century. 


Bradley Reynolds is a board member of Historians without Borders. He researches European security in the 1990s, particularly Finland’s foreign policy and the OSCE.

Read more about the project and its project team in our press release.

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