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Signing Ceremong for the Helsinki Final Act


U.S. President Gerald R. Ford signs the Helsinki Final Act in Helsinki, Finland (August 1, 1975). Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library


The origins of a European security agreement can be traced back to the 1950s, and the desire of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or Soviet Union to legitimize its incorporation of once sovereign nations (i.e., the Baltic States) following World War II.   The United States, which was never willing to recognized the incorporation of the Baltic States, had no interest in such an endeavor, and the proposal languished.  In the 1960s and 70s, the Western European states were seeking a way to have their voices heard in the power struggle that divided their continent.  They were also looking to improve the human rights situation in Eastern European nations, and allow for the free movement of people and ideas across borders.  To them a European security agreement would provide that opportunity, and so the movement for an agreement gained support and the work began.  All these items would be discussed and debated in the working phase of the Conference on Security and Cooperation Europe (CSCE).  This phase lasted from September 1973 to July 1975, and culminated in a document referred to as the Helsinki Final Act (View).  The non-binding agreement, signed by 35 heads of state or government from European nations, U.S., and Canada, covered the following concepts:

  • Sovereign equality, respect for the rights inherent in sovereignty
  • Refraining from the threat or use of force
  • Inviolability of frontiers
  • Territorial integrity of States
  • Peaceful settlement of disputes
  • Non-intervention in internal affairs
  • Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms (including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief)
  • Equal rights and self-determination of peoples
  • Co-operation among States, and Fulfillment in good faith of obligations under international law.

And, although the treaty was non-binding, it included a follow-up mechanism, and developed into an international organization, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  The OSCE’s Web site provides an excellent overview of the history of the Helsinki Final Act and the CSCE / OSCE, and includes conference documents.

This Web site explores the Ford administration’s role in the Helsinki Process and the establishment of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation Europe (or, U.S. Helsinki Commission). It also examines the implementation and legacy of the Helsinki Final Act as it relates to human rights in Eastern Europe. The text is supplemented with content from a digital library, which draws on materials from the collections of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library (Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA) and the Open Society Archives (Budapest, Hungary).

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