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  • International Organizations & DemocracyThe CSCE in the New Era
  • Neil J. Kritz (bio)

On 1 August 1975 in Helsinki, Finland, the Soviet government made one of the most profound miscalculations in its history when it led its Warsaw Pact allies in joining the countries of Western Europe, the United States, and Canada as signatories of the CSCE Final Act. The idea of a pan-European security conference had been a standby of Soviet diplomacy and rhetoric since the 1950s, one that was renewed in various forms and forums over the years until the heady days of détente, when the CSCE began meeting in 1973. The Final Act, often referred to as the Helsinki Accords, opened a new chapter in European politics.

The Accords are organized into three "baskets," the first of which opens with a catalogue of ten guiding principles for relations between the participating states. In essence, the 35 signatory states then pledge themselves to cooperate in the fields of defense and security (Basket I); technology, environmental affairs, and trade (Basket II); and selected human rights matters and exchange initiatives (Basket III).

At the time, both the Soviet leadership and many Western anticommunists believed that the rulers of the Eastern bloc were the big winners in the deal. They both believed that (a) the CSCE process conferred upon the communists a degree of respectability and legitimacy not otherwise obtainable; (b) the Final Act's requirement that the signatories agree to respect one another's frontiers and territorial integrity constituted a de facto acceptance of the post-1945 map of Europe, including the Soviet incorporation of the Baltic states;1 and (c) the Final [End Page 17] Act created significant new economic and trade opportunities for the communist countries. Many conservatives consequently called for the United States and its allies to withdraw from the Conference. For largely the same reasons, Moscow lauded the Helsinki Accords as a major success purchased at what seemed the negligible price of accepting some potentially annoying but probably inconsequential human rights provisions.

At first glance, there was indeed little that was new in the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords. Except for several important paragraphs in Basket III dealing with rights of travel and emigration, the USSR and its satellites had already committed themselves to much more comprehensive catalogues of rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the latter of which the Soviets ratified in 1973. They had ignored these earlier commitments with impunity. The Helsinki Final Act did, however, introduce two innovations that were not substantive but procedural: First, the Final Act linked human rights obligations to cooperation in the fields of security, technology, and trade—things that did matter to the Soviet bloc. Second, the Helsinki Accords provided for regular review by the participating states of one another's implementation of these commitments.

Human rights activists in the communist countries appreciated the importance of these provisions in a way that their governments never anticipated. The Soviets, perceiving nothing to fear, printed the entire text of the Final Act in the issue of Pravda for 2 August 1975, along with extensive coverage and commentary. Activists snapped up copies of the document. "Helsinki monitoring groups" were formed in the various Soviet republics and in the countries of Eastern and Central Europe to report on their respective governments' levels of compliance with the human rights provisions of the Final Act. Prior to 1975, Western complaints regarding communist abuses of human rights were generally rejected out of hand as illicit interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states; at post-1975 CSCE meetings, the Soviet bloc at least had to sit and listen as the Western delegations presented names of specific activists imprisoned for their beliefs and lists of "refuseniks" barred from emigrating. The indigenous Helsinki monitoring groups saw this process as the basis and protection for their own activities.

As communist regimes fell throughout Eastern and Central Europe in the democratic revolutions of 1989, many members of these Helsinki monitoring groups assumed leading positions in the new governments. This was perhaps most notable in the former Czechoslovakia, where the new president and foreign minister...


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