When the Helsinki Final Act (HFA) was signed in Helsinki, Finland in 1975, it enshrined among its ten Principles Guiding Relations between participating States (the decalogue), a commitment to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion" (Principle VII). In addition, the HFA included a section on cooperation regarding humanitarian concerns, including transnational human contacts, information, culture and education. The HFA and subsequently adopted OSCE agreements are not treaties and are therefore viewed as political commitments, not legal obligations.
The Role of the Helsinki Commission: The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission) is a U.S. Government agency, established in 1976 pursuant to Public Law 94-304. It is mandated to "monitor the acts of the signatories which reflect compliance with or violation of the articles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, with particular regard to the provisions relating to Cooperation in Humanitarian fields[i.e., the human dimension]." (Emphasis added.)
Since 1990, the Helsinki Commission has particularly focused on restrictions on the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly; the treatment of persons belonging to ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities, including Roma; human rights violations in conflict settings and the prevention of torture. In addition, the Commission has monitored aspects of the transition to democracy, including challenges to the rule of law, free and fair elections, and the impact of corruption on the human and other dimensions of the OSCE.
What is the "Human Dimension"? "The Human Dimension" was a term coined during the drafting of the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document. This term was designed as a short-hand phrase to describe the human rights and humanitarian provisions of the agreements concluded within the framework of the Helsinki process. In addition, since 1989, this term has embraced the more recently adopted "democratization" commitments of the OSCE, summarized below.
Consensus: All of the agreements of the Helsinki process have been adopted on the basis of consensus; i.e., each participating State has agreed to every provision in each OSCE document.
Universality: Each participating State is equally bound by each document. All countries which joined the Helsinki process after 1975 have pledged, as a condition for membership, to "accept in their entirety all commitments and responsibilities contained in these documents and [. . . ] to act in accordance with their provisions."
Establishing Common Standards on Human Rights: Through the negotiation of successive agreements, the OSCE participating States gradually expanded the body of shared commitments. It was often the case, however, that Soviet-bloc countries might concede to a provision in principle, only to undermine it through the operation of national laws, rules, or regulations. The 1989 Vienna Concluding Document stated, "In this context, [the participating States] confirm that they will respect each other's right freely to choose and develop their political, social, economic and cultural systems as well as their right to determine their laws, regulations, practices and policies. In exercising these rights, they will ensure that their laws, regulations, practices and policies conform with their obligations under international law and are brought into harmony with the provisions of the Declaration on Principles and other CSCE commitments." (Emphasis added.) By 1990, as the Iron Curtain began to fall, the OSCE Heads of State and Government declared in the Charter of Paris for a New Europe: "We undertake to build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations." (Emphasis added.)
Two OSCE documents enshrined the practice of raising human rights concerns. First, the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document committed each participating State (1) to respond to requests for information and to representations from any other participating State on specific cases or broad situations relating to commitments in the human dimension; (2) to meet bilaterally with participating States requesting such a meeting to examine these cases or situations; (3) to bring these cases and situations to the attention of the other participating States; and (4) to provide, if it deems necessary, information on what has transpired under the first two points at OSCE meetings.
Further establishing the OSCE commitments as the basis for bilateral and multilateral dialogue, the 1991 Moscow Concluding Document stated: "The participating States emphasize that issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of international concern, as respect for these rights and freedoms constitutes one of the foundations of international order. They categorically and irrevocably declare that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension of the CSCE are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned." (Emphasis added.)
Summary of OSCE Commitments to Build, Consolidate and Strengthen Democracy
Democracy and the Rule of Law
The OSCE participating States have identified the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms as one of the basic purposes of government and reaffirmed that recognition of these rights and freedoms constitutes the foundation of freedom, justice and peace.
They have acknowledged that democracy is an inherent element of the rule of law.
They have declared that the elements of justice which are essential to the full expression of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings include (in addition to protections of civil and political rights):
a form of government that is representative in character, in which the executive is accountable to the elected legislature or the electorate;
the duty of the government and public authorities, which are not above the law, to comply with their constitution;
a clear separation between the state and political parties; in particular, political parties may not be merged with the state (the "no establishment clause" for political parties);
military forces and police under the control of, and accountable to, the civil authorities;
independent judges and impartial operation of the public judicial service.
Free and Fair Elections
The participating States have declared that the will of the people, expressed through periodic and genuine elections, is the basis of the authority and legitimacy of government.
To that end, they will respect the right of individuals and groups to establish freely political parties and organizations and enable them to compete with each other on a basis of equal treatment before the law and the authorities;
Recognizing that the presence of observers, both foreign and domestic, can enhance the electoral process, they agreed to invite governmental and non-governmental observers for national elections.
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The panel of the Commission hearing on the Armenian Genocide: Van Z. Krikorian (L), Taner Akçam, Kenneth V. Hachikian (C), Karine Shnorhokian, and Elizabeth H. Prodromou (R). (April 2015)