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Javier Rupérez

Ambassador, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (1996-1998)

The Helsinki Final Act does not enjoy now the limelight in the public interest it used to attract in the seventies and the eighties. Some circles even think the usefulness of the document and its offsprings has come to an end. A perfunctory look at the realities of 21st century Europe, as shown from daily events and news, should suffice to support the opposite view. After all, the Helsinki Final Act from its very beginning states the common objective of “promoting better relations among themselves, [the Participating States], and ensuring conditions in which their people can live in true and lasting peace free from any threat to or attempt against their security”.

Right After the War

No Peace Treaty was signed to certify an end to World War II in Europe and validate the territorial changes it caused on the continent. Hasty military arrangements taken by the victorious powers against the defeated axis – Germany and its allies in the conflict - soon became the only point of reference: the war had barely finished when the coalition of the victorious split into two hostile and irreconcilable camps: on the one side, the Unites States and its European democratic allies and on the other, the Soviet Union and its reluctant partners on the western side of its already expanded borders. Germany was to remain divided along the same ideological and territorial lines, while Berlin became the symbol of and the challenge for the allies-turned-enemies on the brink of confrontation. Despair among the Europeans replaced elation when Stalin refused to rule out a push further west, both in territorial and political terms. At the same time, the Americans soon declared their readiness to “bring the boys back home” and the phantom of hunger and misery was nothing but a reality to the west of the Rhine River. As early as the 5th of March 1946, in Westminster College, at Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill, no longer the British Prime Minister, addressed the situation in dramatic tones: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an "Iron Curtain" has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.”

The United States of America early on understood the plight of the Western European nations. The introduction of the Marshall Plan in 1947 contributed decisively to the reconstruction of the impoverished European economies, including that of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1949, the foundation of NATO as a military alliance gave reassurances to the Western European democracies about Washington’s engagement in the defense of Europe. In 1957 the Treaty of Rome gave birth to the European Community, made possible by the postwar reconciliation of Germany and France. The basis for reinforced cooperation among the European democracies and the powerful links they developed across the Atlantic with the Unites States of America and Canada gave a new sense of confidence to the western nations. The continent was divided along ideological lines and the dangers of conflict had not disappeared but the Western European capitals could now confront the challenge with strength: they were no longer lame or isolated. The creation of the Warsaw Pact in 1955, a Soviet outfit more attuned to keep Moscow’s doubtful allies in line than to offer a real counterweight to NATO, did nothing but transmit the Soviets’ uneasiness: things had reached a stalemate whose only issue was a war without winners. That, in a nut shell, was the Cold War.

A Change of Tactics, If Not Strategy

Winston Churchill´s speech in Fulton

Although during the fifties the Soviet Union was not shy in boasting and proclaiming the “inevitable” triumph of Marxism Leninism over the West’s “decadent” capitalism, the sixties showed a mellowing of its belligerent rhetoric. New realities on the ground forced a change of tactics, if not strategy. Western Europe, together with the USA and Canada, was there to stay and the times dictated accommodation more than confrontation. “Détente” was Moscow’s catchword for the moment as the search for a revised “European Security Architecture” became the mantra obsessively guiding Soviet diplomacy. It was not difficult to find out why: further territorial gains were no longer feasible, political gains by the communist parties in Western Europe had been thwarted by the electorate and what remained was to try and solidify the real state acquisitions. The revolutionary USSR became the strongest conservative spokesman for the post war European “status quo”. And what it needed was the formal recognition by the international community of the legality of the new European borders, with a special emphasis on the division of Germany. The Soviet approach to European Security, which surely enough was obediently followed and echoed by Moscow’s satellites, soon evolved into a formal call for a regional conference dedicated to the matter. It responded to the traditional socialist preference for facade over substance. And it was duly amplified by the “progressive” media terminals in the West, always ready to accept at face value what seemed to be a generous offer by Moscow to lay the foundation for a permanent “peace”.

The Western response was cautious and muted. Neither the Europeans nor the Americans had any plan to reshape the post-World War II map but they did not see any need to give it any further consistency. The two Germanys were there to stay, they thought, and their only serious concern in the central European lands was how to ensure freedom of access to West Berlin. Besides, the Soviets could never be taken at face value and the Westerners’ needs for peace and security were duly guaranteed by the presence on the continent of American troops and weapons, including a significant nuclear arsenal. Prosperity became widespread in the lands laid barren by the war and economic cooperation among the European democracies as designed by the nascent integrated institutions in Brussels were enjoying success and traction. What was the point in discussing “peace” Soviet-style at a pompous and empty Conference?

However, the Soviet initiative became a significant part of East-West diplomacy during the second half of the sixties. Moscow’s insistence on the Conference convinced the West that something of significance might be obtained in return and they concentrated their attention on respect for human rights and related issues, fields where the socialist camp was in serious fault. Moreover, the countries not included in any of the opposing “blocs”, in a variety of hues ranging from the pro-West “neutrals” to the socialist-leaning “non aligned” had shown an early interest in the idea. They thought they had much to gain and nothing to lose from a relaxation of tensions between the two superpowers and their followers. Paramount among them was Finland, who had almost miraculously managed to resist the Soviet aggression during the war. That country subsequently was forced to navigate between the demands of their powerful and not always friendly neighbor, with whom they shared a two thousand kilometers long border, and the national desire to live independently according to the principles of western democracy. This balancing act was derisively and unjustly branded as “Finlandization” in some quarters, while in truth it showed the Finnish people’s determination to stick to their values while pragmatically dealing with the surrounding reality. Finland was the indispensable go-between to facilitate the convening of the Conference, and along the way invested huge human and material resources to make it happen. On November 22, 1972, at the University Center of Dipoli, on the outskirts of Helsinki, thirty three European countries plus the USA and Canada gathered for the officially named “Helsinki Consultations on the Question of a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe”.

“Blue Book”

Germany, zones of occupation, 1946

The Dipoli “Blue Book” containing the “Final Recommendations” for the organization and content of what would become the CSCE, set the tone for the negotiations to follow. Moscow had expected and desired a short event, ideally lasting no more than a month and ending with some fanfare by Christmas 1972. It lasted until June 1973. The agenda for the negotiations covered three well detailed chapters – “baskets” in CSCE parlance - which included “questions related to the security in Europe”, “economy, science, technology and the environment” and “humanitarian and other fields”. The Conference was to organize its discussions in three stages –ministerial, committees and an eventual summit - of which only the dates for the first two were known: July and September 1973. The Heads of State and Government of the Participating States gathered in Helsinki to give their approval to the Helsinki Final Act during the first days of August 1975. A timetable suited the achievement of a substantive result, in broad lines much more consistent with the West’s than with the socialists’ aspirations. In fact the closing document could be construed as recognizing the postwar territorial realities in Europe and was presented as a victory by the Soviets and those in the West critical of the real or supposed weakness of the Western governments in their dealings with Moscow. But the language of the agreement was carefully crafted and added nothing to the situation which had not been previously accepted by the international community and dictated by international law. What was new, and rarely if ever achieved in bilateral and multilateral relations of the sort encompassed by the CSCE, was the language and directions dedicated in the first and in the third “basket” to human rights and their respect as a fundamental part of the overall peace and security. The USSR got its right to borders, but by agreeing to discuss its obligations derived from the dignity of the human person, it set into motion a political and ideological movement which eventually would be a significant factor in its demise. There were very few who, defying conventional wisdom, pointed out the basic Soviet mistakes during the negotiations. They were right. They understood well that the shortcomings of the Soviet perception of reality, that is the preeminence of the “magical thinking” – where words define reality - over bread and butter issues affecting millions of oppressed and underfed citizens, had blinded the Soviet leadership. Moscow soon understood the severity of its mistakes and tried to correct them by playing vigorous defense. The CSCE Belgrade meeting held in 1977-1978, the first held after the Helsinki Summit, saw a distrustful and negative USSR, unwilling to accept any progress on what had already been approved. It was already too late. The Helsinki Final Act was marching on.

The Helsinki process

To properly understand the significance of the CSCE, then and now, one has to underline the method used to achieve the written agreements. Each negotiation piece was started with a thorough “review” of the participants’ behavior in that particular field. That “sine qua non” requirement on the part of the West, as a matter of principle hotly disputed by the socialists, developed into a healthy and frank discussion on each other’s merits on the road to European and international security. While diplomatic civility was never abandoned, the sometimes acrimonious recrimination allowed participants to show clearly and without veils what each of them considered to be the state of play and the necessary measures to improve it. For good reason, those heated exchanges were not open to the media, which occasionally got juicy snippets of what was going on behind closed doors. Instead, the value of the exercise was immeasurable and should be maintained for whatever future lies ahead for the CSCE/OSCE. It was and must remain a good example of what regional arrangements should do to remain relevant to the rights and interests of the members. Nothing is to be gained by ignoring problems or by refusing to name names. The Helsinki process was the first in this regard: diplomacy is not about empty words but about harsh realities. The Final Act could not have been negotiated otherwise.

Is a text approved almost forty years ago under premises and circumstances vastly different from today’s still valid? The response should be an unqualified yes. Gone are the Cold War, the “détente”, the “different social, economic and political systems”, all of which framed the negotiations and the resulting agreement. Not completely gone, though, are the tensions stemming from the past and the subsequent need to reshape day to day the old and new demands for stability, justice and peace on the Old Continent. Recent events in Ukraine, just to mention one case among others, have shown the continued relevance of the Act whose inspiration is to be found in the Charter of the United Nations and related documents, in particular the UN 1970 “Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States”. From that point of view, the Helsinki Final Act did not create or revise the basic tenets applied to the conduct of international relations as they were known then or now. In particular, the ten “Principles Guiding the Relations Among Participating States” - for short the “Helsinki Decalogue”- which appear at the beginning of the document, and of which they constitute the backbone, are a reformulation of well trodden legal mandates presented and drafted in accordance with the prevailing needs and objectives of the negotiators. It is worth recalling the points where the political needs of the place and time were reflected.

The USSR won the principle on the “Inviolability of Borders”. For Moscow that was the keystone to the whole exercise. There was nothing new about this: the use of force to change the frontiers of a State had been long understood as a major violation of international law, but the Soviets did not dither. It was going to be a “clean”, separated principle dedicated to the matter or nothing. They did all they could to present the principle, according to the rules of “magical thinking”, as a triumph of their wishes: Germany would remain forever divided along the lines drawn immediately after the war.

Helsinki Principles

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library
U.S. President Gerald R. Ford signs the Helsinki
Final Act in Helsinki, 1975

The “Inviolability of Borders” was for a long time the stumbling block at the Geneva negotiations, only solved by an ingenious drafting twist: the logical consequence to the inviolability, i.e. that “borders could be changed by peaceful means and by agreement”, was to be placed within the principle on “Sovereign equality, respect for the rights inherent in sovereignty”. Little did the Soviets know nor has the Westerners expected that German reunification was around the corner. Nobody could claim a violation of the precepts of the Helsinki Final Act when that took place. Because no one could deny the foresight of the document when it recognized “the right [of the Participating States] to belong or not to belong to international organizations, to be or not to be a party to bilateral or multilateral treaties including the right to be or not to be a party to treaties of alliance; they also have the right to neutrality”. The break up of the USSR and Yugoslavia brought the total membership of the now OSCE from the 35 signing members in 1975 to 57 at present. Both NATO and the EU have significantly increased their membership as well. It is worth remembering that the Helsinki’s Decalogue first principle, the one about “Sovereign equality”, wisely showed the way to the still unknown future when it stated: “The participating States will respect each other's sovereign equality and individuality as well as all the rights inherent in and encompassed by its sovereignty, including in particular the right of every State to juridical equality, to territorial integrity and to freedom and political independence. They will also respect each other's right freely to choose and develop its political, social, economic and cultural systems as well as its right to determine its laws and regulations. Within the framework of international law, all participating States have equal rights and duties. They will respect each other's right to define and conduct as it wishes its relations with other States in accordance with international law and in the spirit of the present Declaration.”

Dialogue on the OSCE Decalogue, Interview with
Spencer Oliver, the OSCE Parliamentary
Assembly Secretary General

The third fundamental element on which the Helsinki Final Act was built is the seventh principle, whose title contains already a full program: “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief”. In the delicate balancing game during the whole negotiations, this part of the text embodied the basic demands put forth by the Western democracies. With the enthusiastic support from the Holy See, who audaciously put forward and finally obtained the various references to religious freedom, the CSCE endorsed a forward looking statement where respect for fundamental rights is not only preached but also placed in the context of their bilateral and multilateral relations. The document reads: “They will constantly respect these rights and freedoms in their mutual relations and will endeavor jointly and separately, including in co-operation with the United Nations, to promote universal and effective respect for them”. In some respects that was a breakthrough: human rights were no longer a matter for purely domestic policies to decide but something upon which everyone was invited to opine and eventually demand. The rest, together with the detailed third basket on “cooperation in the humanitarian field” is history. And good history. The last four decades of the European nations cannot be written without reference to the positive impact the Helsinki Final Act had on them.


The Helsinki Final Act does not enjoy now the limelight in the public interest it used to attract in the seventies and the eighties. Some circles even think the usefulness of the document and its offsprings has come to an end. A perfunctory look at the realities of 21st century Europe, as shown from daily events and news, should suffice to support the opposite view. After all, the Helsinki Final Act from its very beginning states the common objective of “promoting better relations among themselves, [the Participating States], and ensuring conditions in which their people can live in true and lasting peace free from any threat to or attempt against their security”. There does not seem to be any dissenting view to that. And if properly followed by each and every of the present 57 OSCE Participating States, the document soon to become forty years young, could very well be the path to another forty years of improved security and cooperation in freedom and justice for all the citizens of Europe, the United States of America and Canada. Not a small achievement.

Ambassador Javier Ruperez was a member of the Spanish Delegation during all the phases of the initial CSCE (1972-1975) and participated actively in the negotiation and drafting of the Helsinki Decalogue. He was the Spanish Ambassador to the Madrid Session of the CSCE (1980-1982) and President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (1996-1998). He was also Spanish Ambassador to NATO (1982-1983) and to the USA (2000-2004). Between 2004 and 2007 he was Assistant Secretary General and Executive Director for Counterrorism at the UN Security Council in New York. He was the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Spanish House of Deputies between 1996 and 2000.

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