Helsinki Accords Offer Terms for International Cooperation

With the Helsinki Accords, signatory states made a statement of principles concerning their relations with one another and the according of rights to people within their territories.

Summary of Event

The Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (1975) (CSCE) was signed on August 1, 1975. This agreement, known as the Helsinki Accords, provided the capstone for a series of promising international developments in the early 1970’s and was the formal culmination of the effort to achieve détente between the Soviet Union and its bloc and the West. Helsinki Accords (1975)
Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (1975)
Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
[kw]Helsinki Accords Offer Terms for International Cooperation (Aug. 1, 1975)
[kw]International Cooperation, Helsinki Accords Offer Terms for (Aug. 1, 1975)
Helsinki Accords (1975)
Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (1975)
Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
[g]Europe;Aug. 1, 1975: Helsinki Accords Offer Terms for International Cooperation[02010]
[g]Finland;Aug. 1, 1975: Helsinki Accords Offer Terms for International Cooperation[02010]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Aug. 1, 1975: Helsinki Accords Offer Terms for International Cooperation[02010]
[c]Human rights;Aug. 1, 1975: Helsinki Accords Offer Terms for International Cooperation[02010]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug. 1, 1975: Helsinki Accords Offer Terms for International Cooperation[02010]
Brezhnev, Leonid
[p]Brezhnev, Leonid;Helsinki Accords
Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;Helsinki Accords
Ford, Gerald R.
[p]Ford, Gerald R.;Helsinki Accords
Gromyko, Andrei Andreyevich
Kissinger, Henry
[p]Kissinger, Henry;Helsinki Accords

In 1970, under the leadership of Willy Brandt, Brandt, Willy the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) signed agreements with both the Soviet Union and Poland recognizing the frontiers established at the end of World War II and renouncing any use of force to attempt to alter them. Brandt’s Ostpolitik
Ostpolitik (eastern policy) calmed residual Soviet fears of a German effort to reverse the results of World War II and paved the way for a broader effort toward détente in Europe. In 1971, the Four Power Agreement on Berlin Four Power Agreement on Berlin (1971) recognized the special status of West Berlin, bound to the Federal Republic but technically not an organic part of it. This ended the potential of the city to serve as a flash point between East and West. Finally, in 1972, an agreement was signed between the Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) establishing formal contacts and mutual recognition, although West Germany continued to assert the notion of one German nation divided into two German states.

The Soviet Union wished to build on its agreements with the Federal Republic and to gain a general recognition of the status quo in Europe, including both the boundaries and the political division that had resulted from World War II. In addition, the Soviets desired to cement the notion of détente, which, they hoped, would provide them with peaceful coexistence and a secure sphere in Eastern Europe. This, Soviet leaders hoped, would free them to pose as the arbiter of security in Europe and advance the Soviet Union’s ideological campaign against the United States elsewhere in the world. The Soviet leadership also desired to remove barriers to increased economic contact with the West. In 1972, U.S. president Richard M. Nixon Nixon, Richard M. had visited Moscow and signed the first treaty that resulted from the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, or SALT I; negotiations on SALT II SALT I (1972)[Salt 01]
SALT II (1979)[Salt 02] were begun, and the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) talks Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction talks had begun in Vienna. In this climate, it appeared that the resolution of outstanding problems was possible.

The Helsinki process, the concept of which had originated with the Soviets, began with preparatory talks in Helsinki in November, 1972. Despite the participants’ divergent interests, a sufficiently common basis for discussion had been worked out by the summer of 1973 to permit a meeting of foreign ministers at Helsinki to launch the CSCE formally in July. The agenda that had been developed in the preparatory meetings was adopted. To the immediate disappointment and ultimate discomfort of the Soviets, the notion of “contextual,” as opposed to “substantive,” military security was pushed to the fore. This opened the door to discussion of norms for human rights and other factors affecting the international climate. It was also agreed at the preparatory talks that all decisions would be adopted by consensus. Thus all thirty-five participating states (all the European states with the exception of Albania but including Vatican City, Canada, and the United States), it was agreed, would have the power to veto any decisions. This would promote the formulation of common interests.

The Helsinki Accords were to constitute a political rather than a legal agreement, not binding under international law. The United States, aware that there would not be any adequate mechanism for enforcement, supported this concept. The effectiveness of any agreement would depend on the willingness of the Soviet Union and its bloc to live up to the agreement.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (right) signs the pact in Helsinki as Turkish prime minister Süleyman Demirel looks on.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The negotiations took place between September, 1973, and July, 1975. The procedure provided for a cumulative agreement, which required assent on one group of issues before subsequent issues were considered. Because of the requirement of consensus, compromise was required of the participants. Both the United States and the Soviet Union ultimately agreed to provisions that were distasteful to them. The proposals and issues were lumped together into three categories called baskets.

The first basket dealt with security in Europe and resulted in the “Declaration on Principles Guiding Relations Between Participating States.” Ten principles governing interstate relations eventually won unanimous acceptance. These principles included respect for the sovereignty of all states, the rejection of the threat or the use of force, the inviolability of frontiers, the right of territorial integrity, the peaceful resolution of disputes, nonintervention in the internal affairs of other states, respect for human rights and basic human freedoms, the right of self-determination and the equality of rights of all peoples, cooperation between states, and the fulfillment of international obligations. The participants also agreed to the “Document on Confidence-Building Measures and Certain Aspects of Security and Disarmament,” which required participants to inform others of large military maneuvers or other steps that might create anxiety for other states. Malta insisted on a separate declaration on security and cooperation in the Mediterranean area.

The second basket dealt with “Cooperation in the Field of Economics, of Science and Technology, and of the Environment” and included agreements on commerce, industrial and technological cooperation, the environment, transportation, travel, and migrant labor. The third basket dealt with “Cooperation in Humanitarian and Other Fields.” Its provisions concerned contacts between people and exchanges in the areas of culture, education, and information. It supported greater freedom in the movement of people, the facilitation of the reunification of families, the lessening of impediments to the marriages of people of divergent nationalities, and the easing of restrictions on the dissemination of information.

The Helsinki Final Act of August 1, 1975, ratified the specifics contained in all three baskets. In addition to committing themselves to these provisions, the signatories of the Helsinki Accords agreed to continue the process “through exchange of views” on the implementation of the agreement and to convene meetings of the CSCE for this purpose. The mechanism for continuous consultation was particularly supported by the smaller nonaligned countries. They saw this as an opportunity to assert their interests, especially in light of the acceptance of the notion introduced by Finland of the “sovereign equality” of all CSCE members regardless of size.

The Soviet Union was initially opposed to the confidence-building measures (CBMs) in Basket 1, which called for advanced notice of military maneuvers and the exchange of observers. It was more reluctant about the provisions concerning internal human rights and the movement of people and information. It was suspicious of Western interference with what it regarded as its internal concerns and did not wish to give up even the appearance of absolute control over its internal affairs. Not wishing to sabotage détente and aware of the embarrassing inconsistency of publicly rejecting rights guaranteed by the Soviet constitution, however, the Soviets acceded to Basket 3, toward which they had many reservations, and to provisions that they found distasteful in the other two. The Soviets ultimately comforted themselves that their freedom of action would be safeguarded by the carefully construed wording of the agreement.


After Helsinki, there was genuine hope in Europe that a real relaxation of tensions was being effected. Response in the United States was less positive. President Gerald R. Ford’s staff was ambivalent, and some of its members depicted Helsinki as the brainchild of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had forced it on the president. Initially, Ford and Kissinger seemed unwilling to destabilize progressively strained relations with the Soviet Union by meddling with internal issues in its sphere. With the progressive collapse of détente, President Jimmy Carter’s administration saw exploitable possibilities in the Helsinki Final Act and the CSCE. It was assumed that the human rights provisions of Basket 3 could be used to American advantage against the Soviet Union and that aspects of Basket 1 could be used to counter the Brezhnev Doctrine enunciated at the time of the Warsaw Pact invasion of reformist Czechoslovakia in 1968.

At the CSCE meetings held in Belgrade in 1977 and 1978, the Eastern Bloc wished to elaborate the CBMs to include specific arms-control measures. The West, on the other hand, concentrated almost exclusively on Soviet and Eastern European noncompliance with the human rights statements of Basket 3. It was made clear at Belgrade, in spite of Soviet objections, that the signers of the Helsinki Final Act would be held accountable for their internal human rights practices. After Belgrade, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States further worsened with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the suppression of Solidarity in Poland. At the November, 1980, CSCE talks in Madrid, the United States did little more than attack the Soviet Union for its actions in Afghanistan and the entire Soviet bloc for the violation of human rights.

The Soviets had initially responded to American human rights concerns by releasing some prisoners and by permitting them and some others to leave the Soviet Union. The Soviets were, however, unwilling to allow the United States to pressure it too insistently. The human rights policy of the Carter administration contributed to a worsening of Soviet-American relations. The use of the human rights issue against the Soviet Union by the United States under Carter and during President Ronald Reagan’s Reagan, Ronald
[p]Reagan, Ronald;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] first term did not lead to a liberalization of Soviet policy and perhaps even resulted in a more repressive internal climate.

By late 1985, Reagan had toned down American attacks on Soviet human rights abuses. Nixon reputedly advised Reagan that a less strident stance by the United States would be more productive. Anatoly Shcharansky, Shcharansky, Anatoly a leading Soviet dissident released from prison and allowed to emigrate to Israel in 1986, supported this approach. He advocated continued publicity concerning Soviet human rights abuses and the raising of human rights issues with Soviet authorities. Along with public pressure on the Soviet Union to live up to the promise of Helsinki, he endorsed the notion of quiet diplomacy rather than strident and counterproductive high-profile attacks.

When Mikhail Gorbachev Gorbachev, Mikhail came to power in 1985, his desire for decreased tension and better relations with the West gave new life to the Helsinki acts. Although Gorbachev expressed impatience with lecturing and moralizing by the West, his dual policy of glasnost, Glasnost or openness, and perestroika, Perestroika or restructuring, required at least a formal semblance of living up to the requirements of Helsinki. The Helsinki Final Act set a standard against which Soviet intentions and practices could be judged, for the Soviets had themselves assented to its principles.

With the collapse of Communism in Europe in the early 1990’s, the CSCE process was reorganized and reconfigured into a full-blown intergovernmental organization, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), headquartered in Vienna and Prague. The OSCE, now composed of fifty-six countries, actively addressed the security issues arising out of the creation of new states in Eastern Europe and the “Near Abroad” as former Soviet republics gained independence, often with destabilizing civil wars. OSCE programs have helped to address the humanitarian needs generated by such conflicts and to promote and advance human rights in the troubled region. Helsinki Accords (1975)
Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (1975)
Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations

Further Reading

  • Ford, Gerald R. A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. In his autobiography, Ford describes the ambivalence toward the Helsinki Accords on the part of many of his advisers and the opposition of many U.S. politicians, including Ford’s Republican challenger for the presidency, Ronald Reagan.
  • Garthoff, Raymond L. Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994. Survey by a scholar of the Soviet Union and former diplomat who helped to negotiate SALT I provides a clear summary of the Helsinki Accords and places the agreement in the context of U.S.-Soviet relations.
  • Kavass, Igor I., Jacqueline Paquin Granier, and Mary Frances Dominick, eds. Human Rights, European Politics, and the Helsinki Accord: The Documentary Evolution of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, 1973-1975. 6 vols. Buffalo, N.Y.: W. S. Hein, 1981. Invaluable collection of the most important discussions, statements, and agreements of the preparatory conferences and the final session at Helsinki.
  • Luxmoore, Jonathan. The Helsinki Agreement: Dialogue or Delusion? London: Alliance Publishers for the Institute for European Defence & Strategic Studies, 1986. Critical assessment of the Helsinki Accords asserts that the agreement did not live up to initial expectations that it would be an important step toward further détente and openness, nor did it fulfill later limited expectations that it could be utilized as a focal point for Western unity and as a forum for the measurment of international behavior against asserted standards.
  • Maresca, John J. To Helsinki: The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 1973-1975. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1985. A member of the U.S. delegation to the CSCE provides an account of the whole negotiating process leading to the final Helsinki Accords.
  • Mastny, Vojtech. Helsinki, Human Rights, and European Security: Analysis and Documentation. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1986. Comprehensive survey of the Helsinki process is organized in a thematic form. Includes statements and assessments by participants and observations by competent journalists who covered the semipublic CSCE meetings. Features an excellent introduction.
  • Sarotte, M. E. Dealing with the Devil: East Germany, Détente, and Ostpolitik, 1969-1973. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Presents an engaging look at both public and secret negotiations between East and West Germany during the Cold War.
  • Thomas, Daniel C. The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights, and the Demise of Communism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. Argues that human rights norms established at Helsinki had a greater effect in ending the Cold War than geopolitical or economic factors.

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