The Soviets, seeking formal recognition of their post–World War II borders, had sought a European security conference since 1954. West European countries had resisted such a conference, concerned that it might strengthen the Soviets' international position and potentially divide the Western alliance. By the late 1960s, however, widespread public interest in reducing East-West antagonism led West European governments to reconsider their position. Moreover, the Soviet Union removed a significant obstacle to the conference by indicating that it would not oppose American or Canadian participation.
The outcome was a complex, drawn-out period of diplomacy divided into four phases: the Helsinki Consultations to determine the timing and agenda of the conference from 22 November 1972 to 8 June 1973, the six-day meeting of foreign ministers formally launching the CSCE from 3 July to 8 July 1973, the principal negotiations of the Geneva stage from 29 August 1973 to 21 July 1975, and the final summit from 30 July 1975 to 1 August 1975 during which representatives from the thirty-five states convened in Helsinki and signed the Helsinki Final Act.
The CSCE negotiations centered around four so-called 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, while the third concentrated on humanitarian issues such as the reunification of families, improved working conditions for journalists, and increased cultural exchanges. The fourth basket focused on follow-up procedures.
The fourth basket extended the CSCE by stipulating that a follow-up meeting be held in 1977 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, to assess the progress made toward fulfilling the terms of the Helsinki Final Act. The principal accomplishment of the Belgrade meeting (4 October 1977–9 March 1978) was the initiation of a process of review whereby countries that did not meet the terms of the Helsinki agreement, particularly its human rights provisions, could be held publicly accountable. Such reviews were held in a number of subsequent meetings that became known as the Helsinki Process. Despite the value of the follow-up meetings, however, some policymakers were concerned that the often acrimonious nature of the review process threatened the central goal of the CSCE, namely the reduction of tensions in Europe.
The Madrid review meeting (11 November 1980–9 September 1983) made little further progress in decreasing East-West tension or improving human rights, largely because of external events such as the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981 and the Soviet downing of KAL Flight 007 on 1 September 1983. The Vienna meeting from 11 November 1986 to 19 January 1989 produced significant accomplishments related to human rights issues, especially the right of people to emigrate, religious tolerance, the upholding of the rights of national minorities, and the removal of restrictions on foreign broadcasting. The Vienna meeting exemplified how the CSCE successfully linked human rights with other elements of East-West relations, and the agreement there to hold a conference on human rights in Moscow signaled the extent to which the Helsinki Process had encouraged and facilitated progress on these issues in states such as the Soviet Union.
The emphasis on the protection of human rights, as pursued by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the neutral and nonaligned countries through the Helsinki Process, ultimately paved the way for the political and social transformations in Eastern Europe that marked the end of the Cold War. The CSCE summit meeting in Paris (19–21 November 1990) recognized, for the first time, the fundamental political and social changes that had occurred in Europe in the fifteen years since the signing of the Helsinki Final Act. In Paris, the leaders of the CSCE nations, including a now-reunified Germany, signed the Charter for a New Europe, recognizing the end of confrontation in Europe and, as the charter proclaimed, a new era of "democracy, peace, and unity."
Beyond the influential review meetings, the CSCE encouraged regular East-West engagement, forging connections that bridged some of the deep divisions in Europe with targeted discussions on issues such as scientific cooperation, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and security in the Mediterranean. These talks, known as experts' meetings, maintained connections between Western and Eastern countries. In addition, neutral and nonaligned CSCE signatories often played an important role in brokering compromises between the two sides.
Sarah B. Snyder
Thomas, Daniel C. The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights, and the Demise of Communism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.