The Helsinki Final Act was not a formal treaty. It was an international agreement to which countries were bound politically but not legally. The act was the result of years of negotiations, first proposed by the Soviets in Geneva in 1954. Discussions commenced in earnest with the Helsinki Consultations of 22 November 1972 and the formal opening of the CSCE on 3 July 1973. The Consultations and talks that followed focused on four baskets of issues. The first dealt with ten principles guiding relations in Europe, including the inviolability of frontiers, the territorial integrity of states, and the peaceful settlement of disputes. The first basket also incorporated confidence-building measures such as advanced notification of military troop maneuvers. The second basket addressed economic, scientific, and technological cooperation among CSCE states, and the third basket concentrated on such humanitarian issues as the reunification of families, improved working conditions for journalists, and increased cultural exchanges. The fourth basket focused on follow-up procedures.
The signing of the Helsinki Final Act was initially unpopular in many Western countries because it conceded Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and formally recognized the Soviet Union's annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Yet the publication of the Helsinki Final Act in Eastern Europe spurred the formation of Helsinki Monitoring Groups, the most prominent of which was founded in Moscow by Yuri Orlov, Yelena Bonner, and nine other Soviet human rights activists. These monitoring groups called upon Eastern bloc nations to uphold their Helsinki commitments and drew international attention to their reports of human rights abuses. These groups became part of a larger political and social movement that ultimately prefigured the end of the Cold War.
The Helsinki Final Act marked the beginning of an ongoing process, known as the Helsinki Process, in which CSCE states convened periodically to review the implementation of the act and initiate further efforts to decrease East-West tensions. In 1989, as the Berlin Wall came down and the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution moved into high gear, many East European reformers, including Czechoslovakia's Václav Havel, cited the Helsinki Process as a key part of their success in throwing off the yoke of communist totalitarianism.
Sarah B. Snyder
Maresca, John J. To Helsinki: The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 1973–1975. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1985.