Helsinki Watch

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Helsinki Watch (1978),a division of the U.S.‐based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch, was founded to monitor and promote the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Those accords focused primarily on the security and economic dimensions of East–West Cold War relations, confirming, among other things, the Soviet Union's post–World War II borders. But the agreements also made economic and security cooperation dependent on the human rights practices of signatory countries. Activists throughout the Eastern bloc seized on these provisions to demand greater political freedoms, and established local committees to fight for government compliance. The groups were harshly repressed by incumbent Communist regimes. The first arrests of human rights monitors were carried out by Soviet authorities in early 1977. Helsinki Watch was organized to campaign internationally on behalf of the imprisoned monitors in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, spearheading efforts to free such leading figures as Yuri Orlov in the Soviet Union, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, and Adam Michnik in Poland. The group lobbied Western and neutral governments meeting at periodic Helsinki review conferences to pressure Eastern bloc signatories to live up to their human rights commitments under the accords.

During heightened Cold War tensions in the 1980s, Helsinki Watch worked closely with U.S. government officials, whose strategic agenda included the promotion of civil and political freedoms in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Relations with official Washington became more distant after the end of the Cold War, as the United States stressed economic development and political stability over human rights concerns, or was simply unwilling to become involved in outbreaks of ethnic or communal violence in former Communist states. Since the eruption of wars in Bosnia and Chechnya, Helsinki Watch has focused its efforts on promoting respect for the laws of war, including the treatment of civilian noncombatants in conflict areas, conditions in prison camps, and the use of rape as a weapon of political terror.
[See also Bosnian Crisis; Cold War: External Course; Cold War: Changing Interpretations.]

Cynthia J. Arnson