Implementation and Legacy

Dr. Sarah Snyder discusses the effect of the Helsinki Final Act on the end of the Cold War. Courtesy University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Used under a creative commons license. See also Dr. Snyder’s 2014 lecture at UNC, available on

As was noted previously, the USSR and its satellite Eastern European nations during the Helsinki negotiations wished to give very little ground on human rights issues, and the monitoring by the Ford administration indicated that no real progress was being made in this area. It was clear that under Communist rule there would be no change in this area. Not enough pressure was exerted by the West for reforms, and the totalitarian nations saw no need to make improvements on their own. It was the threat of a Soviet invasion force entering that kept Eastern European nations’ counter-Communist revolutionary forces repressed, and in the USSR and Romania, internal measures were sufficient to quell any opposition.

In this section human rights abuses by the USSR and its satellite Eastern European nations are considered. It is important, first of all, to describe what the Helsinki Final Act requires in terms of human rights. Section 7 of the Act states:

“They will constantly respect these rights and freedoms in their mutual relations and will endeavour jointly and separately, including in co-operation with the United Nations, to promote universal and effective respect for them.

They confirm the right of the individual to know and act upon his rights and duties in this field.

In the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the participating States will act in conformity with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They will also fulfill their obligations as set forth in the international declarations and agreements in this field, including inter alia the International Covenants on Human Rights, by which they may be bound.”

It may seem redundant for a document to duplicate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but the Declaration was not enforceable, and there was no follow-up system to monitor compliance, unlike in the Helsinki Final Act. Because the Helsinki agreement included a mechanism for continuation and a forum for discussion, nations could be held to account. Although no direct sanctions were possible, it was possible to establish norms of behavior. Thus, the pressure would be psychological or social, rather than economic- or military-based. All sides agreed that violations against human rights were contrary to agreed norms. Those who violated would not be viewed as serious, responsible, dignified states, and their negotiating power would be diminished.

Since the Helsinki Final Act references the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is appropriate to use the measures required in that document to understand how Eastern European countries failed to meet human rights requirements under the Helsinki Final Act. Included below are the articles of the Declaration most egregiously violated by Eastern European nations, along with examples of the violations. For the complete text of the Declaration, visit the United Nations Web site

Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Government opponents, that is anyone who criticized the governments of Eastern European countries, often were subjected to harsh treatment during detention or imprisonment. Some countries, including the USSR and Romania engaged in the use of psychiatric treatment on sane individuals in order to quiet dissidents.

Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

In attempts to silence dissidents, arbitrary detention was also used, as was exile. Exile of dissidents was commonplace in the USSR. Individuals were sent to distant cities or work camps, where their influence on the population and access to information and foreign contacts was drastically limited.

Article 10. Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Trials were frequently closed to the public, especially if they were high profile. The outcome was pre-determined from the start since the judiciary was not independent.

Article 12. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

The individual’s right to privacy was greatly circumscribed. Searches and surveillance of government opponents were carried out. Correspondence was intercepted and telephone calls tapped.

Article 13. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Place of residence was strictly controlled in many Eastern European countries through permits. In Bulgaria, ethnic Turk zones were established. Access in and out of these zones was not permitted.

Article 14. (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. (2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Seeking asylum was often considered a crime and a betrayal of the state.

Article 15. (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Some ethnic minority populations in Eastern European counties sought to emigrate from their native land, often to a country in which they would be in the ethnic majority. Germans in Romania looked to West Germany, and Jews in the USSR to Israel. The governments made the process extremely difficult. Persons faced long delays, during which time their property was subject to confiscations and they to loss of employment. The government of West Germany paid for the release of ethnic Germans in Romania, and the question of Jewish immigration from the USSR found its way into U.S. Congressional politics.

Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Freedom of expression was also highly controlled in the Communists states, especially as it related to anything that could be construed as anti-government. In the USSR, Jehovah’s Witness adherents were subject to imprisonment for failing to serve in the military, which was against their beliefs.

Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The right to publish was limited to state-sanctioned media. Unauthorized, underground materials, known as Samizdat, were subject to confiscation.

Article 20. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Assembly and association were controlled by the government. The Moscow Helsinki Group, a peaceful non-governmental organization with the mission of monitoring the USSR’s compliance with the Helsinki Final Act, was determined by the state to be anti-government, and therefore outlawed, and its leader exiled.

Article 23. (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Employment was usually a requirement of all citizens. However, choosing one’s profession or place of employment was not always possible. Dissidents were often stripped of their position, or forced out of their profession. Unemployment was often considered a crime. A charge that was sometimes used against dissidents who were forced out of their jobs. Labor unions were also controlled by the state, and thus ineffectual in protecting workers’ rights. Hard labor work camps were a reality as well.

For more on these violations, consult the materials included in the digital library.

Communist Definition of Human Rights

The Communist Eastern European governments strongly objected to Western criticism of their human rights records. They conceived of the Helsinki principle of non-intervention in internal affairs of other countries as their shelter against criticism. This point was reiterated repeatedly, but was never taken seriously by the West, and gradually diminished. Communists governments also showcased their own laws, which allowed for great freedoms, so long as they were not used to attack Communist ideas and systems. Shortcomings in human rights in the Western nations, particularly the U.S., were also pointed out.

Internally, the Communists cited their Marxist-Leninist teachings on the relativity of human rights standards and the ability of the state to arbitrate differences to support the continuation of the Communist state, which in their mind is the best option for society. Therefore an individual’s right is secondary to general well-being of society. Intervention by outsiders, internal dissidents, human rights groups (e.g., International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, individual country Helsinki groups, and Amnesty International), and foreign governments, attempting to force the individual above society was viewed as an attack on Communism.


What, then, was the effect of the Helsinki Final Act in terms of human rights, if for many years after signing no progress was visible? Changes did begin to appear with the assent of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in the USSR. Charged with making reforms to the ailing empire in the hopes of making a turn-around in the economy, Gorbachev’s changes brought an opening for opposition, and indicated weakness, especially to the Eastern European nations within its orbit. The decline in productivity, the over-extension by the military in the arms race, the entanglements in internal affairs of independent nations brought a heavy toll on the Soviets. The only means at the disposal of the Soviet Union was to turn the focus in on itself, evidenced by the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the renunciation of the Brezhnev Doctrine (using force to maintain Communist governments in foreign lands), and seek the favor from Western nations. At this point the West’s price for cooperation was improvement in human rights. Of course Gorbachev’s goal was not end the USSR or Communism, but to preserve it.

Daniel Thomas shows that Helsinki effect made itself known through the dissident’s message reaching Communist officials, the linking of human rights with a European identity, and the international normative environment. The human rights norms affirmed at Helsinki began to work their way into Soviet Communist Party institutions, and individuals, some of whom received appointments in Gorbachev’s government, including his Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. These individuals, hearing the dissidents in their own land, who simply wanted better lives, were inclined to embrace change. Thomas continues by stating that the USSR was also interested in establishing itself as a European state, and “…the international normative environment insured that the ‘common European home’ valued by some in the Kremlin as a means to secure economic resources and by others as an alternative to cultural isolation could only be built on concrete steps to comply with the Helsinki Final Act. The reformers’ conclusion that the continued denial of human rights was both morally unacceptable and politically unsustainable thus coincided with a broader recognition among party leaders that rapprochement with Western Europe required greater respect for human rights and self-determination in Eastern Europe” (Source: Thomas, Daniel. The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights, and the Demise of Communism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 233-4.

The result was that reforms did begin, and the USSR’s hold over Eastern Europe weakened significantly. Without the threat of the use of force by the Soviet Union, the Communist governments in Eastern Europe were no longer able to repress the will of the people. And, in the USSR the time was right for the people to assert their will. The totalitarian controls collapsed and nationalist groups asserted their right to self-determination and the USSR disintegrated, and states such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan were granted independence. Although the Cold War had ended, the OSCE lives on, tacking serious issues in the Caucus Mountains region and Central Asia.

To mark the 35th Anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act, the OSCE produced two short videos on the work of the organization over the years. Watch video 1, and video 2

Next: Digital Library Interactive Map: Explore the human rights situation in Eastern European nations