“On site, in time”: Helsinki by Bernhard Gißibl

Regarding our new IEG open access publication “On site, in time” here is Bernhard Gißibl’s article on Helsinki, in which he focuses on the CSCE process.

Cross-posted from: http://en.ieg-differences.eu/on-site-in-time/bernhard-gissibl-helsinki/

Conference diplomacy and the CSCE process (constellations)

In the history of international conference diplomacy, Helsinki symbolizes détente, cooperation, and human rights during the Cold War. The reason for this is the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), whose Final Act was signed in Helsinki’s Finlandia Hall on August 1st, 1975 by the leaders of 33 European states, the USA, and Canada.

Helmut Schmidt, Erich Honecker, Gerald Ford and Bruno Kreisky at the CSCE Summit in 1975 in Helsinki, Finland.

This initiated a dialogue and negotiation process on confidence-building measures and principles between the blocs of the Cold War, which was designated the CSCE or “Helsinki process”. At the same time, the conference location signifies the role that neutral and non-aligned countries played as catalysts, facilitators and – in the case of Finland – as intermediaries of the security conference.

Cold War and détente in Europe (differences)

The CSCE conference had its roots in the superpowers’ efforts to ease tensions in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. By the early 1970s, conditions had changed: NATO had adopted a new strategy of easing tensions (“détente”), while the Federal Republic of Germany had concluded the Eastern treaties and recognized the GDR. In July 1973, the foreign ministers of all 33 European countries (with the exception Albania), as well as the USA and Canada, were able to begin with preliminary negotiations on security and cooperation in Europe.

It is noteworthy that the conference proceedings recognized the full equality of all participating countries – irrespective of their membership to the blocs or the hegemony of the USA and the USSR as superpowers. Moreover, the conference was conducted based on the principle of consensus: Unanimity was not required for any resolutions; it was sufficient if no significant objections were made.

Between July 1973 and July 1975, diplomats and experts worked out the text of the Final Act.[1] It contained a set of principles concerning intergovernmental behaviour. Along with sovereignty and the mutual non-interference of the states, the list included in particular “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.”

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Human Rights, “Neoliberalism”, and 1989

“1989” has become shorthand both for the triumph of human rights over state-socialist dictatorship and the subsequent implementation of a “neoliberal” reform agenda. Yet the coalescence of these two phenomena in Eastern Europe twenty-five years ago is quite surprising once we focus on the prehistory of 1989. Following the crooked paths that led to the annus mirabilis is thus a great opportunity to assess the transformation of human rights discourses during the 1980s.

Twenty five years ago, on 6 February 1989, representatives of Poland’s government and of the illegal democratic opposition began negotiations on political and economic reforms. Inaugurating their meetings at a round table that had been crafted specifically for this occasion, they set events in motion that became a major catalyst for the collapse of the “Soviet bloc.” As we look ahead to a series of events celebrating “1989,” Samuel Moyn’s post from December—urging us to think about connections between the rise of human rights and of “neoliberalism”[1]—may thus prove timely because few events exemplify the coalescence of these two discourses more clearly than the end of the Cold War.

On one hand, “1989” meant an enormous boost for human rights: The collapse of the state-socialist regimes in Central Europe seemed to vindicate the so-called “dissidents”—embattled intellectuals who had spent the 1970s and 1980s in and out of prison, working unskilled jobs and drafting human rights petitions or learned essays on totalitarianism at night. The dissidents, to be sure, did not cause the collapse of Communism, but they did become the figureheads of the protest movements that toppled the regimes in Central Europe. The subsequent expansion of international human rights treaties, the democratization of many post-communist countries and their later EU accession all have dramatically increased the respect and protection of individual liberties in Europe and worldwide. Continue reading