Update: 19.08.2011

The Helsinki Final Act

On 1 August 1975, the 35 Heads of State and Government of the 35 member states signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE, since 1995 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE).

The signing of the Helsinki Final Act is considered to be a historic breakthrough at the height of the Cold War: For the first time, the leading nations of the West (including the US) and the Eastern Bloc (including the Soviet Union) signed a comprehensive accord, expressing their willingness for cooperation in various topics and spheres of activity.

Ten principles

In the Final Act’s catalogue of principles (the so-called «Helsinki Decalogue») the member states defined ten basic rules that should guide their future relations. Principle VII states, among other points, the following on the importance of human rights:

«The participating States recognize the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for which is an essential factor for the peace, justice and wellbeing necessary to ensure the development of friendly relations and co-operation among themselves as among all States».

By acknowledging the universal significance of human rights they were declared to be a legitimate subject of international relations and thus no longer classified as internal affairs of states. But there was a conflict of norms on the horizon since Principle VI also postulated the non-intervention in internal affairs. As a result, the Soviet Union and its allies repudiated Western criticism after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act.

Three «baskets»

In the Helsinki Final Act, the work of the CSCE was split up into three «baskets», which have remained intact as the three «dimensions» forming the basic structure of the OSCE:

  • 1st basket: Confidence-building measures and certain aspects of security and disarmament
  • 2nd basket: Cooperation in the field of economics, science and technology and the environment
  • 3rd basket: Cooperation in humanitarian and other fields

The topics of the third basket

Besides the ten principles, the so-called third basket of the Helsinki Final Act also addresses certain human rights and humanitarian issues. The norms contained in the third basket are worded rather vaguely and mainly consist of declarations of the intention to do or at least favourably review something. This basket deals with the following four international and inter-societal sectors:

  • Human interaction
  • Freedom of information / Freedom of the press
  • Cooperation and exchange in cultural issues
  • Cooperation and exchange in educational issues

The topics of the third basket, above all human interaction and freedom of information, ranked among the most controversial of the whole CSCE process. Both during the drafting phase of the provisions as well as during the Review Conferences the third basket represented the main issues in the ideological conflict between East and West. It was on these issues that the different societal concepts of the two political camps displayed the greatest divergence, thereby increasing tensions between the blocs, putting the CSCE process’ robustness to the test more than once.

On the importance of the Helsinki Final Act

Although the Helsinki Final Act did not represent a treaty under international law, it was a political agreement that formed the basis for mutual controls and requests on the observance of the obligations contained in it. The Helsinki Final Act defined the concept of international security very broadly. This allowed for the creation of various civil society Helsinki committees in several countries. It also strengthened the basis of the Western countries when calling for respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in the dialogue with the Eastern Bloc countries during the CSCE Review Conferences. In addition, civil rights groups in the Eastern Bloc countries referred to the Final Act in order to strengthen their positions.


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