Actualizing the Helsinki Accords

By Metta Spencer, in Signs of the Times: Resources for Social Faith, United Church of Canada, 1984.
Dr. Spencer describes the positive potential of the Helsinki process.

The crowning accomplishment of the brief period of US/ USSR detente was a 1975 agreement called the” Helsinki Accords.” It represented the commitment of 35 nations (the NATO countries, plus the Warsaw Pact countries, plus all other European nations except Albania) to negotiate solutions to a number of thorny problems left unresolved after World War II. These problems were categorized into three “baskets”.

Basket I included such security concerns and such principles as the obligation to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms; the principle of coexistence; a pledge that frontiers should be changed only by peaceful means and that states should cooperate and refrain from intervention in the internal affairs of other nations. Basket II comprises a commitment to economic, technical and scientific cooperation, and includes problems of trade and the environment.

“Basket III deals with human contacts-such as emigration rights. cultural and educational exchange. and the free movement of people. ideas and information.

The Accords caused great joy at the time they were made, since they represented binding commitments on the part of the European nations. as well as the US and Canada, who participated in the talks because they were members of NATO. Unfortunately, the optimism was unfounded, since detente was already deteriorating by the time the agreement was reached, and many of its pledges have never been actualized.

A number of self-appointed committees have functioned as “Helsinki Watch” groups, attempting to hold the USSR to its promises on human rights matters, and to focus world attention on Soviet shortcomings. So far, the extensive publicity on human rights has generally led people to assume that the Helsinki process deals only with human rights issues, which is far from the case.

Nevertheless, Helsinki resulted in the establishment of a series of follow-up meetings to occur over many years, during which time the nations would work out and implement the specifics of the initial agreements. It also established that negotiations were to depend on consensus instead of majority vote. This means that every new agreement must be approved by all member nations.

The first of these follow-up meetings, held in Belgrade in 1977-78, failed completely. The spirit was bitter and no new proposals were introduced.

Prospects Unfavourable

Another series of meetings began in Madrid in the fall of 1980. Again, the prospects were most unfavourable, but no one walked out and some other Central European countries (Romania. Austria, Yugoslavia and West Germany) kept the negotiations alive by pressing for agreement on at least some of the issues under consideration.

Thc neutral countries- notably Yugoslavia, Finland, Swedcn, Austria and Switzerland-played an extremely important role as brokers in the Madrid negotiations, and, despite the extreme tension between the NATO and Warsaw Pact alliances, ultimately produced a document in July 1983, which all the participating nations agreed to sign.

The agreement has kept the last vestiges of detente alive, and as a result it may be revived, to the benefit of humanity-especially if the peace movement exerts pressure in the right way.

There will be additional meetings for consideration of particular points in the years ahead. For example, experts on Human Rights are slated to meet in Ottawa in 1985.

In March 1984, Dr. Spencer added an update to her article for Signs of the Times.

The current phase of the negotiations began in Stockholm last January, when most European and North American foreign ministers convened to initiate the conference on confidence-building measures. The long conference will have two phases. The confidence-building and security discussion will take three years at a minimum and more. probably six. If the first phase succeeds, the second phase will focus on disarmament.

On January 24, 1984, 16 NATO nations tabled their initial proposal. The gist of the proposals is a set of binding military disclosures. Both sides would exchange military information about the location, structure. and planned manoeuvres of their forces in the European area. Inspections by outside observers would be arranged. The theory of this initiative is that such disclosures would reduce mistrust on both sides and lay the groundwork for the eventual restraint of military activities and for weapons reduction.

Neither the non-aligned countries nor the Warsaw Pact countries have yet submitted their proposals. The Warsaw Pact nations have alluded to proposals they previously made in Prague. These are expected to include no first-use of nuclear weapons, a non-aggression pact, a chemical weapons-free zone, and a nuclear weapons-free zone.

The Western response to these proposals is certain to be guarded since N A TO regards the proposals as unenforceable and lacking provisions for verification. They note that th~ Soviet Union has not designated any nuclear-free zone on its own territory. They further object that empty declarations such as they deem the Warsaw Pact initiatives, may actually increase instability and distrust, since it would be easy to move nuclear weapons back into a nuclear weapons-free zone at any time.

There are still questions about the forthcoming non-aligned proposals. It is expected that at least the Finns, the Maltese, and possibly the Austrians, will call for nuclear weapons-free zones. Whether the entire group of non-aligned countries will support this proposal is uncertain. Swedish Prime Minister Olof Pal me was responsible for a report calling for nuclear weapons-free zones and is certainly promoting the idea among all the neutral countries. But he has political difficulties at home and may not be re-elected.

The Canadian peace movement overwhelmingly backs the nuclear weapons free-zones proposal and is convinced that, with political will, agreements between the two blocs could be concluded that would allow for inspection, verifiability, and mutual confidence.

Excerpt from The Peace Calendar, August 1983. Reprinted with permission.

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books