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The Helsinki Process and the OSCE

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has its origins in the early 1950s, when the Soviet Union first proposed the creation of an all-European security conference. In the mid-1960s the Warsaw Pact renewed calls for such a conference. In May 1969, the Government of Finland sent a memorandum to all European countries, the United States and Canada, offering Helsinki as a conference venue. Beginning in November 1972, representatives from the original 35 nations met for nearly three years to work out the arrangements and the framework for the conference, concluding their work in July 1975.

On August 1, 1975, the leaders of the original 35 participating States gathered in Helsinki and signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Also known as the Helsinki Accords, the Final Act is not a treaty, but rather a politically binding agreement consisting of three main sections informally known as "baskets," adopted on the basis of consensus. This comprehensive Act contains a broad range of measures designed to enhance security and cooperation in the region extending from Vancouver to Vladivostok.

  • Basket I - the Security Dimension - contains a Declaration of Principles Guiding Relations between participating States, including the all-important Principle VII on human rights and fundamental freedoms. It also includes a section on confidence-building measures and other aspects of security and disarmament aimed at increasing military transparency.
  • Basket II - the Economic Dimension - covers economic, scientific, technological and environmental cooperation, as well as migrant labor, vocational training and the promotion of tourism.
  • Basket III is devoted to cooperation in humanitarian and other fields: freer movement of people; human contacts, including family reunification and visits; freedom of information, including working conditions for journalists; and cultural and educational exchanges. Principle VII and Basket III together have come to be known as the "Human Dimension."

Since 1975, the number of countries signing the Helsinki Accords has expanded to 57, reflecting changes such as the breakup of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

Institutionalization of the Conference in the early 1990s led to its transformation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, effective January 1995.

Today, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is engaged in standard setting in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. In addition, the OSCE undertakes a variety of preventive diplomacy initiatives designed to prevent, manage and resolve conflict within and among the participating States.

The OSCE has its main office in Vienna, Austria, where weekly meetings of the Permanent Council are held. In addition, specialized seminars and meetings are convened in various locations and periodic consultations are held among Senior Officials, Ministers and Heads of State or Government.

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  • The Future of Chechnya

    Former senatosr and commissionesr chaired this hearing, which focused on the efforts of the citizens in Chechnya to free themselves from Russian power. Russia’s “transgressions” against the Chechnyan populace entailed lack of recognition of international principles. More specifically, the 1994 OSCE Budapest Document, with which the Russians agreed, stipulates that each participating state will ensure that its armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with the provisions of international law. Moreover, even when force cannot be avoided, each state will ensure that its use must be commensurate with the needs.  At the time of this hearing, anywhere between 30,000 and 80,000 people had been killed because of the conflict in the territory, and tens of thousands of men, women, and children had been driven from their homes. In addition, there had been a cease-fire in Chechnya. However, the dangers had not recently ended.

  • U.S. Statements on the Human Dimension, 1996 OSCE Vienna Review Conference and Lisbon Summit

    This compendium of statements illustrates the U.S. perspective that one of the key and distinguishing features of the OSCE is the interlocking framework of critical, politically binding commitments which provide a common set of principles to which all participating States can aspire. The OSCE draws its real strength and practical flexibility from participating states' commitments to the values of the original Helsinki Act, rather than from a legalized, treaty-based institutional structure. A fundamental strength of the OSCE is the review process, which provides a regular opportunity to assess a participating states' efforts to further the realization of the Helsinki Accords within its own borders, and in its relations with other OSCE states. The OSCE is increasingly a pillar of European security. By facilitating honest implementation review the OSCE can strengthen security links based on common values.

  • Report: US Helsinki Commission Delegation to Georgia and Azerbaijan

    From April 22-26, 1996, Commission staff attended, along with 30 media professionals, the International Conference on Conflict in Trans-Caucasus [sic] and the Role of Mass Media, held in Kobuleti, Ajaria (an Autonomous Republic in Georgia). The conferences organizers were the OSCE Office of Democratic Institu- tions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Mission to Georgia, the Council of Europe and the Tbilisi-based Black Sea Press Information Agency. The project was co-sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, through the Eurasia Foundation. Participants came from Baku, Tskhinvali (South Ossetia), Stepanakert (Nagorno-Karabakh), Tbilisi and Yerevan. Organized by the ODIHR as a follow-up to the 1995 Human Dimension Implementation Review Meeting in Warsaw, the conference was one in a series on the role of the media in conflict situations and in systems undergoing the transition from communism. The stated aim of these conferences is to develop aware- ness of and working recommendations for the journalists working in conflict regions on the role the media can play in preventing and resolving conflicts. A secondary goal is to give journalists from states or regions in conflict the opportunity to meet, discuss common problems and establish personal contacts to promote the exchange of information. Other scheduled conferences examine the role of the media in the former Yugoslavia (June 1996) and the situation of the media in Uzbekistan (October 1996). One important reason conference organizers chose Kobuleti was that Ajaria has managed to avoid the destruction and disruption visited upon the rest of Georgia in the last several years by ethnic conflicts and by gangs of marauding criminals associated with various paramilitary groups. Under the iron grip of Aslan Abashidze, the Chairman of Ajarias Supreme Soviet, Ajaria has been relatively calm, and has taken in refugees from Georgias ethnic-separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since these conflicts are technically unre- solved, Tbilisi, the capital, would have been problematic for Abkhaz and South Ossetians, whereas Ajaria seemed a more neutral site.

  • Summary of the OSCE Rule of Law Seminar

    From November 28 to December 1, 1995, the participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) convened a seminar on the rule of law. The meeting was organized by the Warsaw-based OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Thirty-eight of the 53 fully participating States attended, along with representatives from two Non-Participating Mediterranean States, six international organizations, and 25 non-governmental organizations. Over the course of two days, a number of emerging democracies described the constitutions and other legislative provisions that had been adopted in their countries to provide for the rule of law, at least on paper. Western participants, for their part, generally spoke of the specific and concrete challenges faced in their countries in actually implementing safeguards for the rule of law. In general, the participation of East-Central European and former Soviet countries—most of which attended this meeting—was more active than at the 1991 Oslo meeting, and Western participants, for their part, avoided the West-West bickering that marred the earlier seminar. At the end of the meeting, the rapporteurs produced summaries of the discussions.

  • The OSCE at Twenty: Its Relevance to Other Regions - Part 3

    This two day briefing was a response to legislation that called for the CSCE to conduct an analysis of the OSCE’s strengths and weaknesses and to ascertain the feasibility of creating similar institutions in other geographic regions. The briefing was divided into six panels. This third section, entitled “Africa: Conflict, Compromise, and Managing Chaos”, was moderated by Ambassador Chester Crocker, former Secretary of State for Africa. Here, panelists identified corruption, weak governance, and ethnic strife as key challenges that could be addressed by an OSCE-like organization. Gabriel Negatu, director of the Federation of African Voluntary Development Organizations, stressed that African governments have to strike a balance between human rights concerns, economic development, and stability. He noted, however, that NGOs had largely been shut out of the multilateral problem solving process. Panelists envisaged a greater role for NGOs, civil society, and business associations in the problem solving process. One suggestion included persuading companies doing business in Africa to develop a code of conduct in conjunction with such organizations as the Africa Business Council.

  • The OSCE at Twenty: Its Relevance to Other Regions - Part 4

    This two day briefing was a response to legislation that called for the CSCE to conduct an analysis of the OSCE’s strengths and weaknesses and to ascertain the feasibility of creating similar institutions in other geographic regions. The briefing was divided into six panels. This fourth panel, entitled “Trade + Democracy = Security & Human Rights?” dealt with Latin America, and was introduced by Senator Bob Graham. Mr. Graham cited three aspects of the Helsinki process with particular relevance in Latin America: the role of NGOs in building civil societ, linkage between security, economics, and human rights; and multilateralization of issues. He believed an OSCE-like process could help counter threats to democratic governments including growing inequality within and between states, unchecked population growth, drug trafficking, and government repression.

  • The OSCE at Twenty: Its Relevance to Other Regions - Part 5

    This two day briefing was a response to legislation that called for the CSCE to conduct an analysis of the OSCE’s strengths and weaknesses and to ascertain the feasibility of creating similar institutions in other geographic regions. The briefing was divided into six panels. This fifth panel focused on the Middle East, and framed the discussion on Middle Eastern security as being closely tied to European security by virtue of their geographic proximity. Ambassador Basheer noted several qualitative differences between Europe and the Middle East in terms of the nature of grievances, which in the Middle East often include complicated territorial issues. He noted that NGOs might play a particularly useful role in mediating such conflicts, especially where parties refuse to engage on a government-to-government level. One notable example of this included Israel’s refusal to engage with regional governments on nuclear weapons proliferation. 

  • The OSCE at Twenty: Its Relevance to Other Regions - Part 6

    This two day briefing was a response to legislation that called for the CSCE to conduct an analysis of the OSCE’s strengths and weaknesses and to ascertain the feasibility of creating similar institutions in other geographic regions. The briefing was divided into six panels. This sixth panel dealt with future prospects for multilateralism. Drawing from conclusions in previous panels, Professor Zartman stressed that the CSCE model could not be a template imposed on other regions without consideration for regional mores and traditions. He argued that there was no “rich culture” of the respect for human rights outside of Europe. Professor Buergenthal, however, believed that multilateralism was in the interest of the vast majority of states, especially smaller ones. International law and consensus-based decision making procedures coupled with wide ranging membership acts as a hedge against power politics, he argued, which works to the benefit of many states. Ultimately, panelists were optimistic about the future of multilateralism, but conceded that the development of new international organizations across the world would have to develop in a manner that was attuned to the region’s specific resources and needs.  

  • The OSCE at Twenty: Its Relevance to Other Regions - Part 1

    This two day briefing was a response to legislation that called for the CSCE to conduct an analysis of the OSCE’s strengths and weaknesses and to ascertain the feasibility of creating similar institutions in other geographic regions. The briefing was divided into six panels. This first panel assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the OSCE model. Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith opened the discussion by pointing to the OSCE’s success in impacting upon multilateral processes in Africa and the Middle East. Most panelists believed that there was a large gap between what the OSCE could do and what its members would allow it to do, especially in areas related to security. As such, they felt that procedural mechanisms were vital to the OSCE because they allowed for the maintenance of equal footing among nations through, among other things, consensus based decision making and rotating chairpersons. An important achievement of the OSCE was, according to the panelists, the linkage between human rights, security, economic, and other issues. They also noted that a key element in the OSCE’s development was the cold war tension, which yielded self-enforcing agreements between states. In this regard, it was pointed out that similar models with non-legally binding provisions might be hard to develop in regions lacking such tension.

  • The OSCE at Twenty: Its Relevance to Other Regions - Part 2

    This two day briefing was a response to legislation that called for the CSCE to conduct an analysis of the OSCE’s strengths and weaknesses and to ascertain the feasibility of creating similar institutions in other geographic regions. The briefing was divided into six panels. This second panel, entitled “Asia: Market Driven Reform or Repression?” was introduced by Congressman Jim Lightfoot. Rep. Lightfoot believed an OSCE-like process should be considered in Asia and that an organization like the Helsinki commission be created to monitor such a process. Other panelists generally agreed that while the OSCE model held some insights for Asia, including an enhanced role for NGOs, it would be difficult to envision its effectiveness in the vast and varied Asia-Pacific region. Mr. T. Kumar of Amnesty International added that it would be helpful to have a more institutionalized role for NGOs, as they have often become victims themselves when confronting rights abuses. On security matters, the panelists agreed that further development of the ASEAN process would be beneficial in maintaining both bilateral and multilateral ties to the U.S. Finally, in the economic sphere, Mr. Kamm of Market Access Ltd. argued that the promotion of human rights has positive implications for productivity, and that it would thus be in the interest of businesses to establish a human rights protection regime.

  • Religious Liberty in the OSCE: Present and Future

    Speaking on behalf of Congressman Christopher H. Smith and Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, chairman and co-chairman of the Helsinki Committee, the Committee’s Director for International Policy, Samuel G. Wise, addressed the improvements made by the countries of the OSCE in religious liberty since the demise of communism. Observed deficits in this particular subject were also evaluated, including acts of OSCE governments perpetrating religious intolerance and discrimination against people of faith by passing laws favoring certain religions, turning a blind eye to harassment, and establishing bureaucratic roadblocks to prevent religious minorities from practicing their faith. Each panelist – including Dr. Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow of Political Theory for the Institute for Christian Studies; Dr. Khalid Duran, Senior Fellow for the Institute for International Studies; and Micah Naftalin, National Director for the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews – spoke to the overall factors affecting religious freedom in the OSCE, including: respect for other freedoms such as freedom of speech and religion, ethno-cultural tensions, and the relevance of old prejudices. These ideas were presented in the context of moving towards a more comprehensive respect for religious freedom among OSCE member states in the future.

  • Prosecuting War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia: an Update

    This memorandum is part of a continuing series of reports prepared by the staff of the Helsinki Commission on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. In the summer of 1991, Members of Congress and representatives of non-governmental organizations began to call for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal that would hold those responsible for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia personally and individually accountable for their actions. As atrocities mounted over that summer and information about concentration camps became public, these calls began to reverberate at on-going meetings of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) then being held in Prague, Vienna and Helsinki.

  • Report on the March 5, 1995 Parliamentary Election in Estonia and Status of Non-Citizens

    The election on March 5, 1995, for Estonia'’s national parliament, the Riigikogu, were conducted normally, without any serious violations of the election law or international standards. A seventeen-member delegation of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCEPA) concluded that the election was “free and fair.” The OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) reported that “[the election was] carried out in accordance with the principles contained in the electoral law and there are no major matters which the representatives wish to highlight.” ODIHR has submitted several suggestions to the Riigikogu and the National Electoral Committee for improving technical aspects of the process. Political party structures are noticeably undeveloped in the northeast, and in none of the polling stations were any local observers encountered. Discussions at the National Electoral Commission in Tallinn and with local precinct officials revealed some disagreement about the procedure for admitting local observers, around 700 of whom had registered with the National Electoral Commission prior to the election. In any case, the lack of local observers probably indicated general confidence by the citizenry that the government was capable of holding an orderly and honest election without the need for monitors. Checks with other international observers indicated that the only local observers noted were in Tallinn, and precious few of these.  

  • Nagorno-Karabakh

    In this briefing, which CSCE Staff Director Samuel G. Wise chaired, the focus was on the conflict that had then recently transpired between the countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan. More specifically, the two countries had had a territorial dispute regarding the area of Nagorno-Karabakh. This dispute had manifested itself into all-out violence that had claimed around 15 million lives at the time of the briefing, as well as creating well over a million refugees. The briefing was the fifth in a series of briefings and hearings that the Helsinki Commission had held since 1988 regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. Fortunately, also at the time of this briefing, there had been very few armed clashes for a couple of months, and the warring factions had observed an informal cease fire. Actually, just three days prior to the briefing, the Defense Ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh jointly noted the success of the cease fire and looked forward to a more comprehensive resolution of the conflict. With this decrease in violence, attention had shifted to the international diplomatic plane. The CSCE and the Russians had put forward at least somewhat similar cease fire plans, albeit with competition for adherence. The ultimate end of both approaches was a broader agreement about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and making peace in the region. The purpose of the briefing, then, was to discuss the possible framework of a political settlement.

  • CSCE Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues

    Against a backdrop of savage conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nagorno Karabakh, and Georgia, attendant refugee crises throughout the region, and a wave of sometimes violent racism and xenophobia even in long-established European democracies, the participating states of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) met in Warsaw, Poland in 1993 for the first biannual Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues As specified by the 1992 Helsinki Document, the meeting included a thorough exchange of views on the implementation of Human Dimension commitments, consideration of ways and means of improving implementation, and an evaluation of the procedures for monitoring compliance with commitments. The dramatic unfolding over the course of the meeting of the showdown within the Russian government-- culminating in the shelling of the Russian Parliament building by government troops-- served as a sober reminder to participants of the vulnerability of democracy in transition and the importance of shoring up Human Dimension compliance.

  • The CSCE's High Commissioner for National Minorities

    The CSCE created the post of High Commissioner on National Minorities at its July 1992 summit meeting in Helsinki, in response to the emergence of minority-related unrest as one of the main sources of conflict in Europe. Originally proposed by the Netherlands, the proposal received wide support as an innovative approach to national minority problems unleashed by the disappearance of superpower confrontation in Europe. Some of the most innovative aspects of the original proposal for a High Commissioner were substantially watered down in response to individual state's concerns. The High Commissioner may not become involved where armed conflict has already broken out or in areas already under consideration by the CSO, unless the permission of the CSO is given. Communication with or response to communications from organizations or individuals who practice or publicly condone terrorism is prohibited, as is involvement in situations "involving organized acts of terrorism." Former Dutch Foreign Minister Max van der Stoel was appointed the first High Commissioner in December 1992; his office began to function in January 1993, with premises donated by the Dutch government and a staff of three diplomats seconded from the Dutch, Polish and Swedish foreign ministries.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Delegation to Romania, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Vienna

    The Commissions Delegation's visit to Romania, the first since April 1990, had two main objectives. The first was to assess, though meetings with a broad spectrum of non-governmental and official actors, Romania's current level of democratic and market reform. The second was in recognition of Romania's critical role in the effort to enforce U.N. sanctions against Serbia and Macedonia, and the broader political strategic role of Romania in the Balkans. The delegation also traveled to Macedonia to complete the itinerary of a visit to the area in November 1992, which had to be cut short because of inclement weather conditions. Indeed, the signs of the oncoming winter which the Commission saw at that time led it to raise concern over the deteriorating condition which Macedonia and the tens of thousands of Bosnian refugees residing there faced. The April 1993 visit afforded a useful opportunity to see firsthand the extent to which the country had satisfactorily coped with these deteriorating conditions and the prospects generally for the stability and democratization of an independent Macedonia. The delegation then visited Kosovo to observe firsthand the volatile situation there. The situation is a matter of considerable international concern given the chances for the war in nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina to have a spillover effect in which the tension exist between the Serbian authorities and th majority Albanian population could erupt into violence, either by intent or by spontaneous incident. The delegation wanted to hear the views of the authorities as well as of the leaders of the Albanian community, and to raise its concerns, particularly to the authorities regarding human rights. Finally, the delegation wanted to learn about the activities of the CSCE mission of Long-Duration based in Kosovo to monitor developments in the area and to ease tension in society. The delegation finished its trip in Vienna, Austria to meet with the U.S. delegation to the CSCE. Vienna is becoming the CSCE's operational center, with the Conflict Prevention Center, which provided logistical support to the missions as well as the ongoing arms control and security forum, the Forum on Security Cooperation (FSC), and regular meeting of the participating States.  

  • Report: Beyond the CSCE's Institutional Development

    Although some early proposals conceived of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe as an international institution with headquarters, secretariat, and treaty, the CSCE emerged from Helsinki in 1975 as an, amorphous process, moving from conference to conference with no fixed address or schedule. For fifteen years, its reView conferences and experts meetings succeeded in focusing, attention on a range of inter-related problems ftom human rights to the environment to threatening military maneuvers, operating, oa the principle that these and other elements, of security could not, be treated separately. However, the end of the bipolar security "system'' that had characterized the Europe in which CSCE was created led many of its participants to look to the CSCE as a , new over-arching "system" within which its members could improve both their security and cooperation. As such, they pleaded for more structure and permanence for its activities, as well as a larger role for it in addressing the challenges of the time. The Paris Summit of November 1990 endowed the CSCE with its first permanent institutions:, the CSCE Secretariat, Conflict Prevention Center, and Office of Free Elections, later expanded to the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. These three institutions, minimally funded and staffed, were created to give the CSCE process some visible permanence and to assist the regular political consultations set up at the same time. The consultations process envisioned meetings of CSCE heads of state or government every two years; foreign minsters annually, plus possible meetings of other ministers; and senior officials three to four times per year. The CSCE Secretariat was set up in Prague to organize these meetings; the Conflict Prevention Center in Vienna to give institutional support to risk reduction efforts; and the Office of Free Elections in Warsaw to assist the transition to democracy across the continent. In April 1991, parliamentarians from the participating States took up proposals from the summit and formed a CSCE Parliamentary Assembly, to meet once a year to further security and cooperation in Europe, reviewing CSCE implementation and activities.

  • Helsinki Document: The Challenges of Change

    The Heads of State or Government of the States participating in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe returned to the birthplace of the Helsinki process, to give new impetus to our common endeavor through the Helsinki Summit Declaration. 

  • The Helsinki Follow-Up Meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation on Europe

    The end of the Cold War posed new challenges to the CSCE, with increasing intensities of ethnic conflict raging around the Yugoslav region. The European Community was struggling with uncertainty under a less-than-effective presidency, and a questionable state of unity following the Danish rejection of the Maastricht Treaty; thus, a need was felt for a US presence in Europe. This record of the Helsinki Follow-Up meeting in 1992 shows that the even reaffirmed, but did not complete, the CSCE's transition from process to structure. The network of CSCE bodies and work methods described in the beginning sections of the Helsinki Decisions was greatly developed and clarified from its Paris genesis. Some effort was also made to integrate existing structures and past practices. Notably, the CSCE took as its central concept for the future the US-proposed theme "managing change." While the United States put this forward as a response to percieved European negativism and tendancy to paint the future in apocalyptic colors, requiring only conflict-orientated responses, it was also telling that the United States and others were ready to see the CSCE as a key instrument for the management of inevitable change, rather than looking past the CSCE in efforts to maintain the status quo.

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