This summer marks the fortieth anniversary of the signing of the Helsinki Accords, which established principles to guide relations between the Communist bloc and the West. We asked Professor Sarah Snyder, author of Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network, to reflect on the legacy of the accords:
Q: What was the significance of 35 states signing the Helsinki Final Act in 1975? What did the agreement seek to accomplish?
Securing the participation of 34 other European and North American countries in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) negotiations and their ultimate agreement to the Helsinki Final Act was initially seen as a great diplomatic coup by the Soviet Union. The conference had long been sought by the Soviets, who hoped for formal recognition of the post-World War II borders in Central and Eastern Europe. There had been no postwar peace conference, and the Soviet Union first proposed a treaty on “collective security in Europe” at the 1954 Foreign Ministers Meeting.
The agreement evolved, however, to include principles governing relations between states; free movement of people, ideas, and information; environmental cooperation; and human rights. Such measures were intended by Western, neutral, and nonaligned governments to erode the East-West divide in Europe.
Q: How did the Helsinki Process contribute to the end of the Cold War?
The Helsinki Final Act’s human rights principle, human contacts provisions, and follow-up mechanism all spurred the development of a transnational network of activists pushing for reform in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. This network of human rights advocates moved the topic into the forefront of international relations, and, as a result, human rights became an important element of Cold War diplomacy. The Helsinki network influenced both Western and Eastern governments to pursue policies that fostered the rise of organized dissent in Eastern Europe, freedom of movement for East Germans, and the acceptance of human rights norms in the Soviet Union—all factors in the end of the Cold War.
Q: How has the Helsinki agreement affected the modern human rights movement? What is the legacy of the Helsinki Accords?
Monitoring groups that developed in the wake of the signing of the Helsinki Final Act were part of a broader network of human rights organizations developing internationally in the 1970s, and they played a central role in the rising profile of human rights activism. Human rights advocates secured international legitimacy for the idea that governments’ treatment of their own people is subject to international criticism and comment in part by changing ideas of national interest.
Helsinki monitoring groups were a key element of this broader, international movement, working to advance human rights at the same time as those fighting against apartheid in South Africa and those campaigning for human rights in Latin America and China. These human rights movements learned from one another and improved protections of human rights overall in the years that followed.
Agreement that a country’s human rights record is a matter of international significance, subject to the scrutiny of foreign governments and nongovernmental activists, is the most important legacy of the Helsinki Final Act.