The Helsinki Accord, or the “Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe”, was signed by 35 leaders from Europe and North America in Helsinki on August 1, 1975. It marked a period of “détente” or reduction of political and military tension between the East and West during the Cold War.
Human rights as an afterthought
The main focus of the Helsinki Accord was clearly on security measures, which were designed to reduce the risk of war in Europe, but almost as an afterthought it also contained provisions concerning human rights. These provisions happened to turn the Helsinki Accord into one of the most important human-rights documents of its time, as they were formally binding to all Western as well as Soviet-block countries (except Albania, which at the time subsisted in total isolation).
Sharpened by dissident ingenuity
On the face of it, the Helsinki Accord might have seemed like a completely toothless document, with no legal provisions for punishing transgressions. But in reality it became a most effective weapon in the hands of the dissidents in the Soviet block countries. The dissidents formed committees “for monitoring the observance of the Helsinki Accord” in their respective countries, pointing out human-rights violations. Because the dissidents were only following the provisions of the Helsinki Accord, which had been signed by their own governments as well, the totalitarian authorities could not as simply pack the dissidents off to the GULAG, as they had habitually done previously.
Smart bomb for Sacharov
One of the most notable wielders of the Helsinki Accord weapon or “bomb” was the Soviet nuclear scientist and “father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb” Andrei Sakharov, who together with his wife Yelena Bonner was at the forefront of the dissident’s fight for human rights in the Soviet Union, winning the Nobel Peace prize in 1975.
After a series of similar conferences in various cities, the Helsinki Accord was later transformed into a permanent organization, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe).