The United States has taken a hard line on reported Soviet bloc violations of human rights, according to sources familiar with a human-rights meeting in Ottawa. The six-week meeting is being attended by delegates from the 35 countries that signed the 1975 Helsinki accords on human rights and security in Europe, including the US and the USSR. The meeting, which ends June 17, is closed to the public and news media.
The sources say that:
Richard Schifter, head of the US delegation, has apparently revived the concept of linking Soviet behavior in the area of human rights with other aspects of US-Soviet relations. ``The field of human rights is inextricably linked to all aspects of improved bilateral relations,'' Mr. Schifter said during a recent session attended by all the participating nations. Later, however, he added that he was not referring to the Geneva arms talks.
In two other addresses, Schifter criticized the Soviets for their continued persecution of human rights activists, including members of nongovernment groups set up to monitor Soviet compliance with the accords. He also cited repressive measures against religious activists.
The US delegation has circulated details of the cases of some 150 persecuted activists in the USSR, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, most of whom were arrested and imprisoned after the Helsinki agreement was signed.
The Helsinki process -- i.e., periodic meetings to review the original agreement -- has disenchanted some Soviet 'emigr'es.
Recently, 22 former Soviet human rights activists and political prisoners now in the West urged the US and its allies to declare the Helsinki accords ``null and void.''
Citing continued Soviet persecution of rights activists and the failure of subsequent review meetings in Belgrade (1977-1978) and Madrid (1980-83) to mention specific Soviet abuses in their final documents, the former dissidents wrote that they could no longer support an agreement that has been ``turned into a repressive tool in the hands of Soviet authorities.''
Indeed, the accords have inspired strong views.
Supporters say the Helsinki process keeps open a valuable channel of communication between East and West while working for the implementation of a set of standards for international behavior that ultimately enhances the quest for peace.
Max Kampelman, who led the US delegation at the review in Madrid, said in a February interview with Encounter, a British journal, that he believes the Helsinki process could even lead to an eventual liberalization of Soviet society. (Mr. Kampelman now heads the US arms control negotiating team in Geneva.)
As for the Kremlin's continued suppression of the Helsinki monitors and other human rights activists, backers of Helsinki argue that the follow-up conferences and meetings such as Ottawa help those men and women by focusing the international spotlight on their plight.
Detractors of the accords, among them some conservative politicians and columnists, notably George F. Will, maintain that the Soviets have turned the agreement to their own ends. The Soviets, the detractors say, have ridden roughshod over the human rights clauses while taking advantage of the provisions dealing with trade and technology and the inviolability of borders.
They note that while the Madrid conference was in session, the Soviets exiled Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov, introduced legislation that further repressed dissent, gave its support to the declaration of martial law in Poland, and arrested scores of Helsinki activists, three of whom died last year while in Soviet labor camps.
The Helsinki Final Act was signed on Aug. 1, 1975, as the culmination of a two-year, 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The agreement pledged the signatory states to cooperation in such areas as security, commerce, and human contacts.
The accord included such principles as respect for human rights and freedoms of thought, conscience, and religion, and the inviolability of existing European borders. There was also a pledge to continue the ``multilateral process initiated by the conference,'' including the possibility of follow-up meetings to review implementation.
The agreement, though technically nonbinding, provided the Soviets with de jure recognition of their sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. It also provided the Soviet bloc easier access to Western technology. In exchange, the Kremlin agreed to abide by human rights principles, believing them to be open to interpretation.
In the West the accords were viewed as providing another legal base on which to link ties with the Soviets to Moscow's human rights behavior. Moreover, the West hoped to use the accords to draw the USSR's allies and the ``nonaligned'' nations closer to Western Europe, particularly through economic and scientific cooperation.
One factor neither side fully anticipated, however, was the impact the accords would have on the burgeoning dissident movements in the Soviet bloc. Within a year of the agreement, unofficial monitoring groups were formed in Moscow and the Soviet republics of Armenia, Georgia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine, demanding that the Soviets comply with the human rights provisions. Rights groups also sprang up in Eastern Europe.
By the time the first review meeting was convened in Belgrade in 1977, the Soviets had begun arresting members of the monitoring groups and charging them with ``anti-Soviet'' activities, among them Anatoly Shcharansky, Yuri Orlov, and Mikola Rudenko. Yet the Belgrade concluding document, while acknowledging general East-West differences, failed to mention human rights specifically, largely because the West was reluctant to jeopardize what was left of d'etente.
When the next follow-up meeting convened in Madrid in 1980, however, the political atmosphere had shifted. In the intervening months, the concept of d'etente had been all but shattered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, the imprisonment or exile of virtually all the Helsinki monitors, and the failure to achieve ratification of the SALT II arms control agreement. The US delegation led a united NATO contingent in condemning alleged Soviet violations. After three years of often rancorous negotiations, the meeting ended with a lengthy final document that, while again failing to mention specific rights cases, did show some progress in the areas of family reunification and emigration rights and made reference to religious and trade-union rights.
No progress was made in such areas as putting an end to Soviet jamming of Western broadcasts and allowing for freer exchanges of information.
The Madrid conference also agreed to extend the Helsinki process. The West accepted a proposal for a disarmament conference, which opened in Stockholm in January 1984, while the Soviets consented to the current human-rights parley in Ottawa. The 35 countries will meet this year in Helsinki on Aug. 1 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the accords. A ``human contacts'' conference was also scheduled for Bern in 1986 and a follow-up review meeting for Vienna the same year.
The author is associate editor of The Ukrainian Weekly in New Jersey.