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Twenty-Five Years of the Helsinki Commission

  • Hon. Steny H. Hoyer
    US












House of Representative

107th Congress, First Session

Mr. Speaker, twenty-five years ago this month, on June 3, 1976, a law was enacted creating the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. We know it as “the Helsinki Commission.” One of the smallest and most unique bodies in the U.S. Government, it perhaps ranks among the most effective for its size. I have been proud to be a member of the Commission for the past 16 years. When President Gerald Ford signed, in Helsinki in 1975, the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, he said that “history will judge this Conference not by what we say here today, but by what we do tomorrow–not only by the promises we make, but by the promises we keep.” That piece of rhetoric has not only been repeated in various forms by every United States President since; it has continually served as a basis for U.S. policy toward Europe. Credit for this fact, and for the Commission’s establishment, first goes to our late colleague here in the House, Millicent Fenwick, and the late-Senator Clifford Case, both of New Jersey. Observing the foundation of human rights groups in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to monitor and, it was hoped, to encourage their governments to keep the promises made in Helsinki, she and other Members of Congress felt it would be good to give them some signs of support.

 

Keep in mind, Mr. Speaker, that this was in the midst of detente with Moscow, a polite dance of otherwise antagonistic great powers. It was a time when the nuclear warhead was thought to be more powerful than the human spirit, and the pursuit of human rights in the communist world was not considered sufficiently realistic, except perhaps as a propaganda tool with which to woo a divided European continent and polarized world. The philosophy of the Commission was otherwise. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is, as the Helsinki Final Act indicates, a prerequisite for true peace and true security. As such, it is also a principle guiding relations between states, a legitimate matter for discussion among them. This philosophy, broadened today to include democratic norms such as free and fair elections and respect for the rule of law, remains the basis for the Commission’s work.

 

Of course, the Commission was not meant to be a place for mere debate on approaches to foreign policy; it had actually to insert itself into the policy-making process. The Commission Chairman for the first decade, the late Dante Fascell of Florida, fought hard to do just that. It was, I would say, a bipartisan fight, with several different Congresses taking on several different Administrations. Moreover, it was not just a fight for influence in policy-making; it was a much tougher fight for better policies. The Commission staff, led during those early years by R. Spencer Oliver, was superb in this respect. It knew the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It worked with non-governmental organizations to increase public diplomacy and, subsequently, public support for In 15 years at the East-West divide, the Commission also championed policies, like the Jackson-Vanik amendment, linking human rights to trade and other aspects of U.S. bilateral relationships. The concept of linkage has often been chastised by the foreign policy establishment, but it comes from the passion of our own country’s democratic heritage and nature. With persistence and care, it ultimately proved successful for the United States and the countries concerned.

 

The Helsinki Commission also became the champion of engagement. Commission members did not simply speak out on human rights abuses; they also traveled to the Soviet Union and the communist countries of East-Central Europe, meeting dissidents and “refuseniks” and seeking to gain access to those in the prisons and prison camps. At first, the Commission was viewed as such a threat to the communist system that its existence would not be officially acknowledged, but Commissioners went anyway, in other congressional capacities until such time that barriers to the Commission were broken down. The Commission focus was on helping those who had first inspired the Commission’s creation, namely the Helsinki and human rights monitors, who had soon been severely persecuted for assuming in the mid-1970s that they could act upon their rights. Ethnic rights, religious rights, movement, association and expression rights, all were under attack, and the Commission refused to give up its dedication to their defense. Eventually, the hard work paid off, and the beginning of my tenure with the Commission coincided with the first signs under Gorbachev that East-West divisions were finally coming to an end. Sharing the chairmanship with my Senate counterparts–first Alfonse D’Amato of New York and then Dennis DeConcini of Arizona–the Commission argued against easing the pressure at the time it was beginning to produce results.

 

We argued for the human rights counterpart of President Reagan’s “zero option” for arms control, in which not only the thousands of dissenters and prospective emigrants saw benefits. They were joined by millions of everyday people–workers, farmers, students–suddenly feeling more openness, real freedom, and an opportunity with democracy. Dissidents on whose behalf the Commission fought–while so many others were labeling them insignificant fringe elements in society–were now being released and becoming government leaders, people like Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek and Czech President Vaclav Havel. The independence of the Baltic States, whose forced incorporation into the USSR was never officially recognized by the United States, was actually reestablished, followed by others wishing to act upon the Helsinki right to self-determination.

 

Of course, Mr. Speaker, those of us on the Commission knew that the fall of communism would give rise to new problems, namely the extreme nationalism which communism swept under the rug of repression rather than neutralized with democratic antiseptic. Still, none of us fully anticipated what was to come in the 1990s. It was a decade of democratic achievement, but it nevertheless witnessed the worst violations of Helsinki principles and provisions, including genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and brutal conflicts elsewhere in the Balkans as well as in Chechnya, the Caucuses and Central Asia, with hundreds of thousands innocent civilians killed and millions displaced. Again, it was the Commission which helped keep these tragedies on the U.S. foreign policy agenda, holding hearings, visiting war zones and advocating an appropriately active and decisive U.S. response. In the face of such serious matters, too many sought to blame history and even democracy, equated victim with aggressor and fecklessly abandoned the principles upon which Helsinki was based. Again the Commission, on a bipartisan basis in dialogue with different Administrations, took strong issue with such an approach. Moreover, with our distinguished colleague, Christopher Smith of New Jersey, taking his turn as Chairman during these tragic times, the Commission took on a new emphasis in seeking justice for victims, providing much needed humanitarian relief and supporting democratic movements in places like Serbia for the sake of long-term stability and the future of the people living there.

 

In this new decade, Mr. Speaker, the Commission has remained actively engaged on the issues of the time. Corruption and organized crime, trafficking of women and children into sexual slavery, new attacks on religious liberty and discrimination in society, particularly against Romani populations in Europe, present new challenges. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, the latest Commission Chairman, has kept the Commission current and relevant. In addition, there continue to be serious problem areas or widespread or systemic violations of OSCE standards in countries of the Balkans, Central Asia and the Caucuses, or reversals of the democratization process as in Belarus. The Commission was born in the Cold War, but its true mission–the struggle for human rights, democratic government and the rule of law–remains as important now as it was then. It remains an essential element for true security and stability in the world, as well as, to paraphrase Helsinki, for the free and full development of the individual person, from whose inherent dignity human rights ultimately derive.

 

To conclude, Mr. Speaker, I wish to erase any illusion I have given in my praise for the Helsinki Commission on its first quarter of a century that it had single-handedly vanquished the Soviet empire or stopped the genocidal policies of Slobodan Milosevic. No, this did not occur, and our own efforts pale in comparison to the courage and risk-taking of human rights activists in the countries concerned. But I would assert, Mr. Speaker, that the wheels of progress turn through the interaction of numerous cogs, and the Commission has been one of those cogs, maybe with some extra grease. The Commission certainly was the vehicle through which the United States Government was able to bring the will of the American people for morality and human rights into European diplomacy. To those who were in the Soviet gulag, or in Ceausescu’s Romania as a recent acquaintance there relayed to me with much emotion, the fact that some Americans and others were out there, speaking on their behalf, gave them the will to survive those dark days, and to continue the struggle for freedom. Many of those voices were emanating in the non-governmental community, groups like Amnesty International, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch. Through the Helsinki Commission, the voice of the United States Congress was heard as well, and I know that all of my colleagues who have been on the Commission or worked with it are enormously proud of that fact.

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