Forty years ago on Aug. 1, leaders of 35 countries — the United States and other NATO members on side, the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries on the other, and neutral and non-aligned states — signed the Helsinki Final Act, or the Helsinki Declaration, which embodied the concept of comprehensive security in Europe.
Although it lacked the status of an international treaty, the declaration played a significant role in bridging the West and the communist bloc through deepened dialogue and paving the way for an end of the Cold War.
As the crisis over Ukraine continues, threatening the peace and order in Europe, it is all the more important for the parties involved — as well as other nations, for that matter — to give serious thought to the spirit and principles incorporated in the document and behave accordingly.
The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which produced the document, had a pre-history. In the early 1950s, the Soviet Union proposed creating an all-European security conference.
Following a similar call by the Warsaw Pact countries in the mid-1960s, the Finnish government invited all European countries, the U.S. and Canada to send representatives to Helsinki. After roughly three years of efforts, representatives from the 35 countries (not including Albania) hammered out the arrangements and the framework for the conference in July 1975.
The document is made up of three components, or baskets. The first basket contains a Declaration on Principles Guiding Relations between Participating States, covering political and military aspects of security.
Its 10 points include “sovereign equality, respect for the rights inherent in sovereignty,” “refraining from the threat or use of force,” “inviolability of frontiers,” “territorial integrity of states,” “peaceful settlement of disputes” and “nonintervention in internal affairs.”
It has been said that the Soviet Union thought some of these principles would help it consolidate the territorial gains it made in Eastern Europe after World War II and secure its sphere of influence and control.
But importantly, the 10 points also include “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms (including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief),” “equal rights and self-determination of peoples” and “cooperation among states and fulfillment in good faith of obligations under international law.”
The document not only helped facilitate arms reduction between the two blocs. Its civil rights portion also helped spawn democratization movements within the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries to monitor compliance to the Helsinki Accords. This led to formation of forces in these countries to end the Cold War regime from within.
The second basket of the accords covers economic and environmental aspects of security, including cooperation in the economic, scientific and environmental fields.
The third basket covers human aspects of security, such as freer movement of people, freedom of information, working conditions for journalists, and cultural and education exchanges.
The three components of the Helsinki Declaration underline the importance of tackling the issue of security by taking into consideration not only military and political aspects but also a wide range of other aspects, including economic, environmental, cultural and human rights issues.
After the Cold War was over, the CSCE adopted the Charter of Paris for a New Europe or the Paris Charter in 1990. The document made it clear that democracy and the rule of law are the common value of the participating countries.
They said that freedom and political pluralism are necessary for healthy development of market economies and reaffirmed their “commitment to settle disputes by peaceful means.”
They thus declared that “Our relations will rest on our common adherence to democratic values and to human rights and fundamental freedoms. We are convinced that in order to strengthen peace and security among our states, the advancement of democracy, and respect for and effective exercise of human rights, are indispensable.”
In 1995, the CSCE evolved into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Comprising 57 countries, including Mongolia, it is the largest regional cooperation body. Its missions include arms control, conflict prevention and resolution, democratization, environmental activities and monitoring of the human rights situations in the member states.
But the Ukraine crisis shows that the spirit and principles of the Helsinki Declaration and the Paris Charter are not prevailing in today’s Europe. Russia has shown an attitude that is not in accord with the basic values held by the West.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year, the relationship between Russia and NATO countries has deteriorated and a serious confrontation has emerged.
Although the OSCE, which is regarded as a neutral entity, is engaged in cease-fire monitoring in conflict areas in eastern Ukraine, it cannot adequately carry out the task of watching the movement of troops near the Russian border due to obstructive activities by pro-Russian armed groups.
In an event in early July in Helsinki to commemorate the 1975 Helsinki summit, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, the 2015 OSCE chairman, said that Europe is now facing the worst threat to its security since the end of the Cold War. Lamenting that the Helsinki principles have been violated, he warned that growing mistrust and tensions could increase the risk of provocation and escalation.
In this situation, the principles expressed in the Helsinki Accords such as sovereign equality, territorial integrity of states and peaceful settlement of disputes should be an important guide for all the parties involved in the Ukraine crisis.
More importantly they should learn from the perseverance the participants in the Helsinki conference exhibited in their attempt to reach mutually acceptable conclusions through dialogue. They should not hesitate to take bold and immediate action that will lead to ending the crisis.