Network and History
There are 44 national Helsinki Committees in Europe, Central-Asia and North America.The Helsinki movement originates in the international co-operation that developed between the USA and the western countries in Europe on one hand, and the Soviet-Union on the other, in the 1970s. This co-operation, which in reality was a series of conferences concerning security and co-operation, was called the Helsinki process.
Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe
The conferences were organised to be a multilateral forum for dialog between "the East" and "the West". It was initially the Soviet-Union that proposed to establish the forum, because it wanted to get legitimacy from the western states for the communist regime in Eastern Europe, but also to get the opportunity to influence the political development in Western Europe. The western states, including USA and Canada, on the other hand, had other motives. These states worked for a closing down of the "Iron Curtain" in Europe and a more transparent eastern bloc with an increased focus on and respect for human rights.
After two years of preliminary negotiations the state leaders met in Helsinki in 1975. The conference resulted in the "Helsinki Declaration", which was one of the first international agreements that linked issues concerning peace and security with respect for human rights. The agreement that was agreed upon in the Helsinki Declaration shows a balance between acceptance of the status quo while ensuring opportunities for change. The principles encompass issues like territorial integrity and inviolability of frontiers, but also respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It was agreed upon that states could not reject inquiries concerning human rights violations by appealing to the respect for internal affairs. The states decided also that they wanted to continue to co-operate on issues regarding security, economy and human rights.
The Helsinki Declaration played an important role during the Cold War. Even if it was "just" a political declaration and not a judicial treaty, it was generally regarded as politically binding because it was ratified by consensus and signed by the participatory countries top leaders. The years after 1975, there was to be serious backlashes of problems and tensions between the East and the West. In this period, the Helsinki Declaration played an important role for the opposition movements in Eastern Europe. The Declaration had an important symbolic impact and they used it as a tool in their struggle for a better society in which human rights would be respected by all. The Helsinki-Declaration's ten principles are:
- 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
- Non-intervention in internal affairs
- Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief
- Equal rights and self-determination of peoples
- Co-operation between States
- Fulfilment in good faith of obligations under international law
The human rights committees emerge
The first Helsinki Committee was established in Moscow in 1976. Twelve courageous men and women challenged the authorities and demanded improved conditions and respect for human rights. The primary concern of the "Moscow Helsinki Group" was to monitor and report on the Soviet Unions implementation of the Helsinki Declaration. The Soviet authorities were hostile towards the Moscow Helsinki Group, and the members were harassed, arrested and banished. But the word spread about the Committee and soon there were established Helsinki Committees and dissident movements in several countries in Eastern Europe. The most well known dissident group was probably Charta 77 in Czechoslovakia. In spite of extensive harassment and prosecution, the dissidents were able to challenge the existing atmosphere of fear in the Eastern European societies, and advance moral standards which were to be essential for the peoples support in the struggle for democratic development.
In order to support the Helsinki Committees struggle for democratic development processes in the East, Helsinki Committees were also established in Western Europe, the USA and Canada. One important task, also for these committees, was to monitor their own governments in the implementation of the Helsinki Declaration. Sister committes emerged in Norway (1977), the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Belgium, France, Canada, in addition to Helsinki Watch in the United States, the forerunner of the well known Human Rights Watch.
In 1982, the committees agreed that they needed closer cooperation, and establised a federation called the International Helsinki Federation (IHF). The idea was that such a federation would strengthen the network between existing committees, aid the establishment of new ones and support all committees in their daily work. Until fall 2007, the IHF was administred by a secretariat in Vienna. Unfortunately, IHF was forced to close down following bancruptcy, but a cooperation between Helsinki Committees prevails.
The OSCE Human Rights Documents
The multilateral co-operation through the CSCE continued throughout the 1980's and made strides after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In 1994, the constituent states agreed to institutionalise the co-operation and consequently established the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE now has 55 member states in Europe, Central Asia and North America. From 1975 until today, the CSCE/ OSCE has developed several documents that define the state obligations in relations to human rights. The most important documents are:
- The Helsinki Declaration (1975)
- The Vienna Document of 1989
- The Copenhagen Document (1990)
- The Paris-Charter for a new Europe