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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 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.

  • Report: the Oslo Seminar of Experts on Democratic Institutions

    From November 4-15, the CSCE Seminar of Experts on Democratic Institutions met in Oslo, Norway, pursuant to a mandate contained in the 1991 Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Accordingly, experts discussed means and ways for "consolidating and strengthening viable democratic institutions." During the course of the Seminar, participants met in three closed study groups in which they considered constitutional and electoral frameworks, as well as comparative human rights legislation. In this context, numerous experts participated in the Oslo Seminar, contributing expositions on the differences among their various democratic traditions and often describing their national experiences in these areas. In addition, contacts among experts, non*governmental organizations, and government representatives in the margins of the meeting contributed to the overall work of the Seminar.

  • The Moscow Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE

    In accordance with the mandate of the Vienna Concluding Document, the 38 states participating in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) met in Moscow from September 10 through October 4, 1991, for the third meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension (CHD, or CDH from the French acronym) of the CSCE. The first meeting of the Conference was held in Paris from May 20 through June 23, 1989, and the second was held in Copenhagen from June 5 through 29, 1990. The meetings of the CHD address the full range of human rights and humanitarian concerns associated with the Helsinki process.

  • Geneva Meeting on National Minorities and Moscow Meeting on the Human Dimension

    The hearing will focus on two important CSCE meetings, the Geneva Experts Meeting on National Minorities.   The Geneva meeting which recently ended was mandated to discuss national minorities, the meeting had three components: exchange of views on practical experience; review of the implementation of relevant CSCE commitments; and consideration of new measures. The distinguished speaker will outline the major points of the Geneva meeting and how the United States can best utilize its success while moving towards the upcoming human dimension meeting in Moscow.

  • CONFERENCE ON SECURITY, STABILITY, DEVELOPMENT, AND COOPERATION IN AFRICA

    This hearing focused on successes of the Helsinki process in guiding Eastern Europe towards democratic governance and how a similar framework could work in Africa. The joint hearing emphasized the need for expedient action for the continent or risk unmanageable stagnating crises. Many former oppressive regimes in Eastern Europe draw parallels to similar governing system in the African continent, such systems lack rule based institutions, political enfranchisement, and civil protections. The Commissioners and the distinguished panelists discuss what measures African countries are taking in their democratization process and what the additional actions should be.

  • Democratic Developments in Albania

    Beginning at the Copenhagen Human Dimension Meeting in June 1990, Albania has been granted observer status at CSCE meetings. Albania would like to move beyond its current observer status and become a full participant in the process. The Commission delegation had stated when it left after its first visit that it needed to see significant improvements in Albania s human rights performance before we could support Albania’s membership in the CSCE. There is no question that the situation has remarkably improved as of last year, a fact which we on the Helsinki Commission have welcomed and have even complimented the existing government for moving in what we consider the right direction. A key question now, in addition to that of CSCE membership, is how the United States can best develop these bilateral relations to the benefit of democracy in Albania.

  • Final Resolution Concerning the Establishment of the CSCE Parliamentary Assembly

    The delegations of the Parliaments of countries participating in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, meeting in Madrid, on April 2nd and 3rd 1991 --- Considering the provisions of the Paris Charter for a New Europe which, in recognition of the important role that parliamentarians can play in the CSCE process, calls for the establishment of a CSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

  • The Charter of Paris for a New Europe

    We, the Heads of State or Government of the States participating in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, havae assembled in Paris at a time of profound change and historic expectations. The era of confrontation and division of Europe has ended. We declare that henceforth our relations will be founded on respect and co-operation. Europe is liberating itself from the legacy of the past. The courage of men and women, the strength of the will of the peoples and the power of ideas of the Helsinki Final Act have opened a new era of democracy, peace and unity in Europe. Ours is a time for fulfilling the hopes and expectations our peoples have cherished for decades: steadfast commitment to democracy based on human rights and fundamental freedoms; prosperity through economic liberty and social justice; and equal security for all our countries. The Ten Principles of the Final Act will guide us towards this ambitious future, just as they have lighted our way towards better relations for the past fifteen years. Full implementation of all CSCE commitments must form the basis for the initiatives we are now taking to enable our nations to live in accordance with their aspirations.

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