Signed on 1 August 1975 following the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe which was launched in 1973, the Helsinki Accords establish the inviolability of European frontiers and reject any use of force or intervention in internal affairs. From the outset, they urged the 35 signatory States, comprising the United States, Canada, the USSR and all European countries except Albania, to comply with human rights.
1970-1973 – From preparations to the opening of the first Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Helsinki
The early 1970s saw a period of “détente” in East-West relations. These reduced tensions led to dialogue, a spirit of compromise and cooperation to overcome the ideological tensions resulting from the Cold War. On 3 July 1973, 35 countries, including the United States, the USSR and all European countries except Albania thus met in the capital of Finland, a country chosen for its neutrality. The Helsinki Conference convened under the name of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) to serve as a multilateral forum for dialogue and negotiations between East and West.
Three different issues were addressed during the discussions held in Helsinki and Geneva:
- military and security issues,
- economic issues,
- creating relationships between people beyond borders and efforts to reunite families in a divided Europe.
This “third basket” primarily met the wish of the Western States to include the issue of human rights in discussions. The issues of fundamental freedoms, such as the freedom of movement of ideas and persons, were also for the first time included in diplomatic negotiations.
After months of negotiations, an agreement was reached. The Helsinki Accords, or the “Final Act” of the Helsinki Conference, which were signed on 1 August 1975 following the CSCE, establish the inviolability of European frontiers, reject any use of force or intervention in internal affairs and urge the signatories to respect human rights. With this third component, the Helsinki Accords provide a more solid foundation for defending the rights of dissidents who can call on their States to meet their international commitments.
The Act sets out ten fundamental principles guiding the relations between participating States:
- 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 among States
- Fulfilment in good faith of obligations under international law
While not legally binding, the “Helsinki Decalogue” is a set of political commitments and principles, including refraining from the use of force and the inviolability of frontiers, which remain the cornerstone of security in Europe. By including respect for human rights in the 10 principles, the Helsinki Accords remain an essential text in the “détente” of the 1970s.
Read the Helsinki Final Act
The Helsinki Accords and their 10 principles also determine the CSCE’s scope of action. The signing of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe in December 1990 gave the CSCE institutional status, and it became the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) at the Budapest Summit in December 1994.
The OSCE was created on 1 January 1995. Headquartered in Vienna, it comprises 57 participating States and is the only forum for Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian dialogue, “from Vancouver to Vladivostok”, in the areas of security (conflict prevention and conventional arms control, confidence- and security-building measures), respect for human rights (fundamental freedoms, rights of national minorities) and dialogue on economic issues.