By Alex Tiersky,
Senior Policy Advisor,
Global Security and Political-Military Affairs
What does an annual human rights dialogue have to do with peace and security? To the uninitiated, the answer may not be obvious.
The OSCE’s annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) focuses on the compliance by participating States with the Helsinki Final Act’s ten guiding principles for relations between states, including respect for human rights, and with its humanitarian commitments. Like the OSCE’s annual reviews of the security and the economic/environmental dimensions, the HDIM is a deep dive into a specific group of issues embraced by the OSCE. Yet all three of these dimensions are inextricably intertwined.
The 1975 Helsinki Final Act enshrined groundbreaking linkages between the rights of the individual and peaceful relations among states in the concept of comprehensive security. It explicitly recognized that democracy, fundamental freedoms, and the rights of persons belonging to minorities underpin regional peace and security. By signing the document, all OSCE participating States have agreed that lasting security cannot be achieved without respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions.
The Potential of Comprehensive Security
Soviet dissident groups were among the first to recognize the potential of the Helsinki Final Act’s then-revolutionary linkages. According to Yuri Orlov in Ludmilla Alexeyeva’s memoir “Thaw Generation,” the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group observed that the act represented “the first international document in which the issue of human rights is discussed as a component of international peace,” empowering dissident groups to hold their own authorities to account for human rights violations by way of other governments’ assessments.
American presidents have repeatedly underlined the significance of the comprehensive concept of security enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. President Ronald Reagan, returning from discussions with his Soviet counterpart in October 1986, made clear that progress on lessening of tensions and possible arms control agreements would require trust between the two sides, and that this trust was in turn predicated on the Soviet government’s record on meeting human rights commitments:
“… I also made it plain, once again, that an improvement of the human condition within the Soviet Union is indispensable for an improvement in bilateral relations with the United States. For a government that will break faith with its own people cannot be trusted to keep faith with foreign powers.”
President George H.W. Bush in 1992 underlined that in the act, “participating States recognized respect for human rights as an ‘essential factor’ for the attainment of peace, justice and cooperation among nations.”
President Barack Obama in 2015 hailed the act’s central conviction that “the security of states is inextricably linked to the security of their citizens’ rights.”
The concept of comprehensive security also lay behind the establishment of institutions such as the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which is tasked by the participating States with helping governments to meet their commitments to human rights and democracy. ODIHR describes its mission as “a cornerstone of the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security.”
Similarly, OSCE field missions helping OSCE participating States to strengthen their democracy and thereby their security through the implementation of the OSCE commitments in areas ranging from minority rights to media freedom.
The relevance of human rights to building and upholding both internal and international peace has also been a reoccurring theme in the work of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. For example, in June 2017 the rapporteur of the OSCE PA Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions urged OSCE “governments to prioritize commitments to protect fundamental human rights and freedoms of every individual in addressing such pressing issues as countering violent extremism.”
Comprehensive Security and the Helsinki Commission
The comprehensive concept of security also inspired today’s U.S. Helsinki Commission. The commission has heard on numerous occasions from serving government officials just how crucial the relevance of human rights within states is to security among states.
For instance, at a Helsinki Commission hearing while serving as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Philip Gordon emphasized, “The OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security offers a vehicle for engagement across the political, military, economic, and human rights dimensions. … one of the most important features of the OSCE is that it recognizes that security is not just about what happens between states or beyond borders, but what happens within them.”
At the same hearing, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner underlined, “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms within states is an essential element of security and prosperity among states. This principle lies at the core of the OSCE. Without a vigorous Human Dimension, the Helsinki Process becomes a hollow shell.”
Helsinki Commissioners consistently emphasize the linkages between the various dimensions of security in all aspects of their work, including efforts to condemn torture; defend the rights of a free press; protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in the fight against terrorism; or underline the importance of individual liberty and the rule of law as the foundations of the NATO alliance.
In 2017, all Senate members of the Helsinki Commission jointly introduced a introduced a bipartisan resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act and its relevance to American national security. As Chairman Roger Wicker observed, “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty.”