After a low-key opening in Madrid on Sept. 9, the preparatory sessions of the European Security Conference have become critically bogged down: Communists states and Western nations are at odds on the issue of the amount of time to devoted to reviewing human rights commitments, and neither seems willing to yield an inch.
At issue in US and Western nations' insistence that the agenda guarantee a prolonged and detailed discussion of how member states have lived up to their 1975 Helsinki commitments. These include a commitment to respect fundamental liberties (freedom of thought, expression, religion), respect for the right of different peoples to determine their own futures, and for the principle of the nonintervention of states.
But the Warsaw Pact communist states want to avoid such an examination at all costs. Aware that it is at this "review" stage of the conference that Russia's intervention into Afghanistan will be publicly condemned, and that detailed appraisals may be made of East-bloc treatment of dissidents and minority groups, the Soviet Union and its allies want to ensure that the agenda and procedures now established in Madrid cut these discussions to a minimum.
The real trouble started on Sept. 24, when the Czechoslovak delegation, backed by other communist states, proposed that all review discussions should be limited to six days, and that subjects other than the implementation of human rights could be raised during this time.
Western states refuse to accept this proposal. In contrast to Eastern bloc countries who want to pack all the discussions together, Western delegates want a clear division established between human rights debates and discussion of new disarmament proposals. Since the beginning of the preparatory sessions, they have also been insisting on the right to raise "review" questions at any stage of the conference. The West wants this option in case it feels review is warranted by a gross international violation of human rights -- for instance by a major new development in Poland.
Westerns also want to ensure the continuation of the Helsinki process by fixing the time and date of a fourth conference after Madrid. The communists are opposed to this as well.
In a broader context, the nonaligned and neutral states see the East-West wrangling as the price now being paid for an initial agreement in Helsinki in 1975.At that time, the 35 member states publicly committed themselves to respecting the inviolability of existing frontiers in Europe, which included the partitioning of Germany after World War II.
Russia had the most to gain from this commitment, using it to legitimize its moves into the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia, the Ukraine, and Latvia.
Western states responded with a procedural coup of their own: continual review of member countries' human-rights practices.
One result of this was seen three years ago at the european Security Conference in Belgrade, when Western nations publicly censured Moscow and its allies for continued human-rights shortcomings.
Summing up the present situation, Max Kampelman, head of the US delegation, says: "What the Soviets got [in Helsinki] they put in their pockets. But what we [the West] got we have to keep on collecting."