Helsinki Accords

views updated May 21 2018



The Helsinki Accords (or as they are formally known, the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) were signed on 1 August 1975. The Helsinki Accords were the culmination of a process that had its origins in the 1950s when the then Soviet Union began a campaign for the setting up of a European regional security conference. In May 1969 the government of Finland offered Helsinki as a venue for such a conference. In November 1972 the representatives of thirty-three European states together with the United States and Canada began talks about setting up the framework for such a pan-European security conference. On 1 August 1975 the leaders of these thirty-five states signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe is a politically binding agreement that contains four sections or "baskets," as they are commonly known. The first basket includes a declaration of principles guiding relations between the participating states to the agreement. These include respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The second basket deals with economic, scientific, and environmental cooperation. Basket three deals with issues such as free movement of peoples and freedom of information. Taken together, basket three and principle 7 of basket one are known as the "Human Dimension" of the Helsinki Accords. The fourth basket deals with the follow-up process after the conference. The main tasks of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) were the prevention of conflict, early warning, and post-conflict rehabilitation.

Following the Helsinki Conference a series of follow-up conferences were held in Belgrade (1977–1978), Madrid (1980–1983), Vienna (1986–1989), and Helsinki (1992). These conferences led to many amendments in the nature and scope of the CSCE. The CSCE as it was known in its opening phase from 1975 to 1994 was not a formal international institution. Its lack of formal structures proved an advantage in the Cold War period in its primary role as a conduit between the West and the Eastern bloc. Through its fluid diplomatic make-up it attempted in the period before the break-up of the Soviet Union to prevent conflict between the Western and Eastern bloc powers and tried to engage in narrowing the political gulf between both blocs. In the period after the 1975 Final Act many Helsinki-based human rights NGOs were set up in the Soviet bloc. Though persecuted in their home countries, these groups did help highlight human rights abuses in the Eastern bloc. The breakup of the Soviet Union together with the war in the former Yugoslavia forced the CSCE to rethink its role in the new world order. The reaction of the CSCE to the changed world situation would eventually lead to its transformation from diplomatic process to a formalized international organization.

In 1989 the concluding document of the Vienna follow-up meeting of the CSCE added a further dimension to human rights protection in the form of a four-stage monitoring process. This process, known informally as the "human dimension mechanism," considered questions in relation to the Human Dimension of the Helsinki Accords. In the first stage of this monitoring process information would be exchanged via diplomatic channels. The second stage would involve the holding of bilateral meetings with other participating states and would require them to exchange questions in relation to particular human rights issues. In the third stage any state would be able to bring relevant cases to the attention of other participating states. In the final stage participating states could broach relevant issues at the conference of the Human Dimension of the CSCE as well as at CSCE follow-up meetings. This mechanism was used seventy times in 1989 during the events that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

In 1990 the concluding document of the Copenhagen meeting of the Human Dimension of the CSCE brought further changes to the functioning of the CSCE in the post–Cold War era. In the Copenhagen document the participating states expressed their belief that in establishing a new democratic order in Eastern Europe, full regard was to be had for the values of pluralistic democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Importantly it was noted that participating states would violate their commitments to the CSCE if they set up a nondemocratic political system. The Copenhagen document placed a particular emphasis on linguistic, cultural, and religious rights, noting that national minority questions could only be resolved within a democratic political framework based on the rule of law and with an independent judiciary. The document also contained recommendations for improving the implementation of the commitments set out in the Human Dimension of the Helsinki Accords. These included a recommendation to deploy independent experts to examine potential conflict situations on the ground.

On 21 November 1990 the heads of state and government of the CSCE participating states signed the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. The charter agreed that states would cooperate and support each other with the aim of making democratic gains in the former Soviet bloc "irreversible." The charter made institutional and structural changes to the CSCE and led ultimately to the creation of new structures and posts within the organization, namely the Secretary-General, the High Commissioner for National Minorities, a Parliamentary Assembly, a Ministerial Council (made up of the foreign ministers of participating states), the Permanent Council, the Chairman-in-Office (this is a revolving office held in turn by each participating state's foreign minister), and the initiation of regular summit meetings of heads of state or government of participating states.

At the Moscow meeting of the Human Dimension of the CSCE on 3 October 1991 the monitoring mechanism ("the human dimension mechanism") established in the concluding document of the Vienna follow-up conference of 1989 was amended to create a five-step mechanism for the sending of rapporteurs to investigate human rights abuses in participating states. The "Moscow mechanism" allowed for a group of participating states to send a mission to another participating state even if the latter did not agree to it. This principle is known as "consensus minus the party in question" or "consenus minus one." Rapporteurs sent on such missions are enabled to facilitate resolution of a particular problem relating to the Human Dimension of the CSCE. The "consensus minus one" principle was formally adopted in the Prague Document on Further Development of CSCE Institutions and Structures produced at the second meeting of the CSCE Council of Ministers in January 1992. This allowed the Council of Ministers to adopt formal sanctions against participating states that were deemed to be in breach of human rights commitments. This fact-finding procedure was used, for example, in relation to the investigation of attacks on unarmed civilians in Bosnia and Croatia. As a result of these interventions the CSCE decided to amend the practically cumbersome Moscow mechanism in favor of setting up ad hoc missions that were to be called "missions of long duration."

The fourth follow-up meeting of the CSCE was held in Helsinki in 1992 (known as Helsinki II). The question of the role of the CSCE in post-communist Europe was high on the agenda. The concluding document of the Helsinki II conference noted the dangers posed by aggressive nationalism, xenophobia, ethnic conflicts, and human rights violations in the new post-Soviet states and set up a number of conflict prevention mechanisms. The most significant of these was the formal establishment of the office of High Commissioner for National Minorities. This post was created with the objective of putting pressure on states to improve both their individual and collective rights records. The High Commissioner for National Minorities acts as a mediator in disputes between national minority groups that have the potential to develop into conflicts within the area covered by the CSCE. Helsinki II represented a major development in the history of the CSCE. It was now moving from being a diplomatic process to a formal international organization. In 1995 the CSCE was officially renamed the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It is now the largest regional security organization in the world, counting fifty-five states among its members.

See alsoBosnia-Herzegovina; Croatia; Soviet Union.


Bloed, Arie, ed. From Helsinki to Vienna: Basic Documents of the Helsinki Process. Dordrecht, Netherlands, and Boston, 1990.

——. The Challenges of Change: The Helsinki Summit of the CSCE and Its Aftermath. Dordrecht, Netherlands, and Boston, 1994.

Bloed, Arie, and Pieter Van Dijk, eds. Essays on Human Rights in the Helsinki Process. Dordrecht, Netherlands, and Boston, 1985.

Heraclides, Alexis. Helsinki II and Its Aftermath: The Making of the CSCE into an International Organization. New York, 1993.

——. S ecurity and Cooperation in Europe: The Human Dimension, 1972–1992. London and Portland, Ore., 1993.

Kovacs, Laszlo. "The OSCE: Present and Future Challenges." Helsinki Monitor 6, no. 3 (1995): 7–10.

Maresca, John M. To Helsinki: The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 1973–1975. Durham, N.C., 1985.

Russell, Harold S. "The Helsinki Declaration: Brobdingnag or Lilliput?" American Journal of International Law 70, no. 2 (1976): 242–272.

Thomas, Daniel C. The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights, and the Demise of Communism. Princeton, N.J., 2001.

Patrick Hanafin

Helsinki Accords

views updated May 29 2018


Signed at the Finnish capital of Helsinki on August 1, 1975, the Helsinki Accords were accepted by thirty-five participating nations at the first Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The conference included all of the nations of Europe (excluding Albania), as well as the Soviet Union, the United States, and Canada. The Helsinki Accords had two noteworthy features. First, Article I formally recognized the post-World War II borders of Europe, which included an unwritten acknowledgement of the Soviet Union's control over the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which the USSR had annexed in 1940. Second, Article VII stated that "the participating States recognize the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms." This passage, in theory, held the Soviet Union responsible for the maintenance and protection of basic human rights within its borders.

Although the Soviet government was never serious about conforming to the human rights parameters defined by the Helsinki Accords, the national leadership under General Secretary Leonid I. Brezhnev believed that its signing of the document would improve the Soviet Union's diplomatic position with the United States and other Western countries. Specifically, the state wished to foster the perception that it was as an equal player in the policy of détente, in which both superpowers sought to relax Cold War tensions. What the regime did not anticipate, however, was that those outside the Soviet Union, as well as many of the USSR's own citizens, would take the Accords seriously. Soon after the Soviet delegation returned from Finland, a number of human rights watchdog groups emerged to monitor the USSR's compliance with the Accords.

Among those organizations that arose after the signing of the accords was Helsinki Watch, founded in 1978 by a collection of Soviet dissidents including the notable physicist Andrei D. Sakharov and other human rights activists living outside the USSR. Helsinki Watch quickly became the best-known and most outspoken critic of Soviet human rights policies. This collection of activists and intellectuals later merged with similar organizations to form an association known as Human Rights Watch. Many members of both Helsinki Watch and Human Rights Watch who were Soviet citizens endured state persecution, including trial, arrest, and internal exile (e.g., Sakharov was exiled to the city of Gorky) from 1977 to 1980. Until the emergence of Mikhail S. Gorbachev as Soviet general secretary in 1985, independent monitoring of Soviet compliance with the accords from within the USSR remained difficult, although the dissidents of Helsinki Watch were never completely silenced. After the introduction of openness (glasnost) and restructuring (perestroika) under Gorbachev in the late 1980s, however, these individuals' efforts received much acclaim at home and abroad. The efforts of Helsinki Watch and its successor organizations served notice in an era of strict social control that the Soviet Union was accountable for its human rights obligations as specified by the Helsinki Accords.

See also: brezhnev, leonid ilich; dÉtente; dissident movement; human rights


Civnet: A Website of Civitas International. (2003). "The Helsinki Accords." <>

Luxmoore, Jonathan. (1990). Helsinki Agreement: Dialogue or Discussion? New York: State Mutual Book and Periodical Service.

Nogee, Joseph and Donaldson, Robert, eds. (1992) Soviet Foreign Policy since World War II, 4th ed. New York: Macmillan.

Sakharov, Andrei D. (1978). Alarm and Hope. New York: Knopf.

Christopher J. Ward

Helsinki Accords

views updated May 11 2018


HELSINKI ACCORDS. As part of the emerging East-West détente, in November 1972 talks opened in Helsinki to prepare for a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Between 3 July 1973 and 1 August 1975, representatives of thirty-five states, including the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, the Vatican, and all of the European states except Albania, discussed the future of Europe.

On 1 August 1975 leaders from the participating nations signed the Helsinki Final Act. It included three "baskets." Basket I contained a "Declaration on Principles Guiding Relations between Participating States." It legitimated the present borders within Europe, outlawed the use of force, prohibited intervention in the internal affairs of any state, and required respect for human rights and the self-determination of peoples.

Basket II addressed "Cooperation in the Field of Economics, of Science and Technology, and of the Environment." It sought to encourage increased East-West trade, scientific collaboration, and industrial management, and recognized the interdependence of societies across Europe.

Basket III dealt with "Cooperation in Humanitarian and other Fields." It provided a basis for increased person-to-person contacts between Eastern and Western Europe, encouraged the freer movement of peoples and ideas, and promised to facilitate the reunification of families long separated by Cold War conflict.

Critics were quick to point out that these agreements lacked enforcement mechanisms. Moreover, they gave the communist governments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe legitimate standing as equals with the democratic regimes in the West. The Helsinki Accords, however, also legitimized human rights in the most repressive parts of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Dissidents, like the founders of "Charter 77" in Czechoslovakia, used the language of the Helsinki Accords to justify their criticisms of communist governments. Many of the dissidents inspired by the Helsinki Accords led the anticommunist revolutions of 1989. In addition, many of the "new thinkers" in the Soviet Union who attained power after 1985—including Mikhail Gorbachev—explained that they hoped to build a more humane European civilization, as outlined in the Helsinki Accords. Seeking stability, Soviet leaders signed the Final Act in 1975; in so doing they unleashed domestic forces they could not control.


English, Robert. Russia and the Idea of the West: Gorbachev, Intellectuals, and the End of the Cold War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Garthoff, Raymond L. Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1994.

Maresca, John J. To Helsinki: The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 1973–1975. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1985.


See alsoCold War .