10 years of encouraging human rights in Eastern Europe
HELSINKI is getting ready for a giant birthday party. Foreign ministers of 35 states will gather in the capital of Finland Aug. 1 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The act was signed in Helsinki in 1975 by the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, and all the nations of Eastern and Western Europe except Albania.Skip to next paragraph
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The Helsinki event calls attention to one of the most unusual forums for East-West dialogue. Under the ``Helsinki accords,'' as the Final Act is commonly called, the 35 member states, including neutral and nonaligned nations like Finland and Yugoslavia, gather periodically to review progress toward the goal of easing East-West tensions and promoting cooperation.
Public interest tends to focus on one aspect of the accords: human rights. This is because dissidents in the Soviet Union and East European countries invoke the accords when pressing for greater freedom -- and because the West holds Moscow's feet to the fire on human rights violations.
But the Final Act is not only a declaration on human rights. It is a carefully balanced package of principles designed to provide a framework for improving cooperation in many areas, including military security, trade, science, technology, environment, culture, and education.
Although set out like an international agreement, the Final Act does not have legal status and there is no mechanism to enforce it. It is in fact a political rather than a legal undertaking.
A brief history explains why.
The idea was first broached by the Soviet Union in 1954. Because no peace conference followed the end of World War II, the Soviets saw a security conference as a kind of substitute peace treaty to seal the division of Europe and legitimize their wartime gains, including absorption of the Baltic states and the communization of Eastern Europe. The West European nations initially rejected the proposal as an effort to endorse Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe and exclude the US from European affairs.
But a decade and a half later the European scene had appreciably changed. West Germany had concluded a series of treaties with its eastern neighbors enshrining the postwar borders. An era of d'etente began to emerge in East-West relations.
The Western nations agreed to explore the possibilities for a European security conference on three conditions: that the status of Berlin is regularized and separate talks to reduce conventional forces in Europe held simultaneously; that the US and Canada also take part; and that ``European security'' is broadened to include humanitarian concerns.
After three years of negotiation, the Western concept largely prevailed. Moscow had yielded in order to get the conference.
When the Final Act was finally signed, critics cried that the West had sold out to the Soviets. Many scorned it as a collection of wordy declarations. The Americans were ambivalent. Only idealists suggested it marked the beginning of a new era in East-West relations.