Members of the U.S. Congress created the Helsinki Commission in response to activists in the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe who saw the Helsinki Final Act as a new opportunity to press governments to improve their human rights records and allow, despite Europe’s division, expanded contacts between people.
Public Law 94-304 of June 3, 1976, established the Helsinki Commission, authorizing and directing it “to monitor the acts of the signatories which reflect compliance with or violation of the articles of the Final Act…with particular regard to the provisions relating to human rights and Cooperation in Humanitarian Fields.” The mandate extends to other areas covered by the Final Act, including economic cooperation and the exchange of people and ideas between participating States.
Defining security in a uniquely comprehensive manner, the Final Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, among them respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Commission was founded to strengthen the legitimacy of human rights monitoring; to defend those persecuted for acting on their rights and freedoms; to ensure that violations of Helsinki provisions were given full consideration in U.S. foreign policy; and to gain international acceptance of human rights violations as a legitimate subject for one country to raise with another.
Promoting basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, along with other humanitarian concerns, has been the cornerstone of the Commission’s work and remains central to its mandate. The end of the Cold War has allowed for the expansion of commitments to new areas, such as free and fair elections and the rule of law, while regional conflicts have required intense focus on more robust U.S. and international policy responses to serious violations of a broader range of Helsinki principles, such as territorial integrity and sovereignty. Challenges common to most participating States also gained more prominence in Commission work, such as trafficking in persons, manifestations of anti-Semitism, and the treatment of Roma as well as new or other growing minorities in Europe. The Commission has also increased activity in the other fields, such as promoting energy security, protecting the environment and combating corruption through economic transparency, as well as dealing with weapons proliferation, supporting conflict resolution initiatives and combating terrorism.
While its mandate covers all OSCE participating States, the Commission pays particular attention to those where severe and persistent violations of human rights and democratic norms occur. In practice, this has traditionally meant a focus on Russia and the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, which had been ruled as one-party, communist states or were a part of such a state, and have subsequently undergone political transition with varying degrees of success and completion. Improvements in a number of countries have allowed the Commission to shift more attention to shortcomings and setbacks in the records of other countries, including long-standing democracies like the United States and in Western Europe. In recent years, the Commission has also expanded focus on Partner States and even beyond, as the challenges OSCE countries confront come increasingly from outside the region and the OSCE is viewed as a potential model for increasing stability in other regions of the world.