Helsinki 1975: Détente and Human Rights in the CSCE Process

New IEG open access publication “On site, in time”Bernhard Gißibl’s entry on the CSCE process.

“On site, in time” takes a look at events that took place in European locations and that exemplify how difference and inequality were negotiated in Europe.The 60 articles depict strategies that were developed to promote, present, preserve, mitigate or abolish difference. Such strategies may include discussions, peaceful solutions and aid as well migration, mission and protest or even exclusion, war and destruction.

Cross-posted from:

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.”

In addition, the Act defined four specific areas that were later called “baskets”. The first basket contained arrangements and measures for military confidence building; the second required the signatory states to cooperate in terms of the economy, science and technology, as well as environmental protection and conservation. The third basket defined cooperation in the area of so-called “humanitarian” work – from strengthening human contacts and facilitating information exchange and the work of journalists to collaborating in culture and education. Finally, the fourth basket regulated the aftermath of the conference, in particular through a review of the implementation at follow-up conferences.

Helsinki: Process, myth, and impact (significance)

Although the Cold War would again take a turn for the worse, the dialog initiated in Helsinki continued. The CSCE process was not only realized in subsequent conferences and cross-national expert discussions. Bilateral government negotiations and international forums and organizations such as the United Nations, international journalists’ organizations or transnational networks of scientific peace research also oriented themselves toward the provisions of the Final Act. Finally, “Helsinki” was seized on by social movements and NGOs, and, not least, ecclesiastical actors and organizations addressed the issue of the freedom of the church and of religion.

The Helsinki Final Act is not easy to evaluate as many of its thematic areas and developments had already had considerable momentum. Nevertheless, the Helsinki Final Act was a central instrument of a multilateral détente, which was increasingly shaped by European initiatives. Of course, there is no direct path between Helsinki and the Eastern revolutions of 1989/1990. Certainly, the CSCE presented an organizational structure and a political program that would prove useful in overcoming the centralist dictatorial structures in Eastern Europe. That said, the extent to which it was used to positive effect depended on the political and social constellations and learning processes.

The Helsinki Final Act had its strongest impact on human rights groups on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In Western Europe, non-governmental organizations such as “Amnesty International” reported on repeated violations of human rights in Communist Eastern Europe. In the US, the human rights group “Helsinki Watch” was formed in 1978 following the CSCE process. Renamed “Human Rights Watch,” it is currently one of the largest human rights organizations worldwide.

As for “Helsinki effects” in Eastern Europe, the actual publication of the text of the Helsinki Final Act was crucial. Throughout Eastern Europe and in nearly every society, so-called “Helsinki groups” were formed, beginning with the establishment of the “Moscow Helsinki Group” in Moscow (1976). Within a year, other groups followed in LithuaniaUkraine, and Georgia, along with Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, and various Polish civil rights groups. Here, too, Helsinki was occasionally invoked for already existing human rights activities. Moreover, by appealing to the Final Act and human rights, it was possible to pursue different interests and concerns, from individual emigrations to overall civil rights reforms.

“Helsinki” permanently changed people’s expectations. Government security forces responded to this with fierce repression. It was only in conjunction with Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika that the effect of the CSCE process could fully develop. “Helsinki” not only contributed to weakening the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The civil rights groups, whose members were called “dissidents” in the West, called for the commitments that their governments had already accepted. These “dissidents” were, in turn, supported by Western activists and media. These civil rights groups played a significant role in the breakthrough of human-rights policy in the 1970s.

(translated by Christopher Reid)

Further Reading

Oliver Bange / Gottfried Niedhardt (eds.), Helsinki 1975 and the Transformation of Europe, New York-Oxford 2008.

Katharina Kunter, Die Kirchen im KSZE-Prozess 1968–1978, Stuttgart 2000.

Matthias Peter / Hermann Wentker (eds.), Die KSZE im Ost-West-Konflikt. Internationale Politik und gesellschaftliche Transformation 1975–1990, Munich 2012.

Sarah B. Snyder, Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War. A Transnational History of the Helsinki Process, Cambridge 2011.

Daniel C. Thomas, The Helsinki Effect. International Norms, Human Rights, and the Demise of Communism, Princeton 2001.


  1. For text and assessment of the Final Act, see Mechthild Lindemann: Schlußakte der Konferenz über Sicherheit und Zusammenarbeit in Europa (KSZE) in Helsinki, 1. August 1975, in: 100(0) Schlüsseldokumente zur deutschen Geschichte im 20. Jahrhundert, URL: (09.13.2016).


Bernhard Gißibl, Helsinki, in: On site, in time. Negotiating differences in Europe, ed. for the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG) by Joachim Berger, Irene Dingel and Johannes Paulmann, Mainz 2016. URL:, URN: urn:nbn:de:0159-20161103178.

This text is licensed under: CC by-nc-nd 4.0 international – Attribution, NonCommercial, NoDerivative Works.

Image Credits

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-P0805-314 / Sturm, Horst / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Cite this blog post
Johannes Paulmann (2017, December 12). Helsinki 1975: Détente and Human Rights in the CSCE Process. Europe Across Borders. Retrieved May 27, 2024, from

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