The actual twenty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Helsinki Final Act is lost amidst the lull of the summer vacation period. But for residents and observers of the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia, where contemporary human rights conditions are similar to those under Soviet rule in 1975, the Final Act merits respectful remembrance and careful evaluation of its effectiveness in promoting civil society.
Known formally as the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), the Helsinki Final Act was a product of the Cold War agenda. The conference process opened in Helsinki in November 1972, continued sporadically in other European capitals, and concluded in Helsinki on August 1, 1975. Each separate meeting resulted in documents that, although non-binding, articulated unprecedented consensus on a broad range of international issues, among them human rights.
Perhaps the most important legacy of the Helsinki Final Act especially in considering the Caucasus and Central Asia was the creation of an institutional framework that evolved into the fifty-four-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Today, the OSCE is the western world's largest intergovernmental organization.
Human rights activities comprise much of the OSCE's work in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The organization has observed elections in all of the eight regional countries, and this year completed opening permanent offices or missions in all eight capitals. Since its inception, it has monitored and evaluated human rights conditions in the region, utilizing internal reporting mechanisms. It has also assumed direct humanitarian work, most notably in Tajikistan, where for a period in the 1990s it bore primary responsibility for the welfare of refugees and the internally displaced.
The Helsinki Final Act's ideological legacy was to affirm the idea that human rights, economics, and security are intrinsically linked. This concept of linking "baskets" of interests traditionally considered separate is the cornerstone of today's human rights advocacy, used by governments, intergovernmental bodies, non-governmental organizations, and corporations alike.
The concept of linkage has, over time, become so much the norm that it is now standard operating procedure for North American and European diplomats to raise human rights concerns at the same meetings where they negotiate, for example, international loans. The "profits and principles" debate and the need for "socially responsible investment" are also common watchwords now in the international business community.
The Helsinki process has changed the nature of human rights advocacy fundamentally. However, the pact has had less of an impact in preventing, mitigating, and remedying actual human rights violations. As Aaron Rhodes, Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation, told the EurasiaNet, "It is a tired cliché that the political context in which civil society groups seek to use the Helsinki documents to improve human rights protections has changed. But in many ways it has not changed, or not changed anywhere near enough."
Underscoring the shortfalls of the Helsinki process is the fact that virtually all of the elections in the Caucasus and Central Asian states since the Soviet collapse in 1991 have, to a certain degree, been rigged. Some have been outright farces. Meanwhile, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have unilaterally granted themselves unlimited presidential powers. Torture and ill-treatment are rampant in prisons, police lock-ups, and the army. Judicial rulings are rarely independent of bribes or political influence.
In addition, government critics and free speech proponents remain under attack in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Political opposition figures, journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders are arbitrarily arrested, beaten, threatened, harassed, fined, and slandered with impunity. Names of human rights defenders like Ramazan Dyryldaev, Mikhail Ardzinov, and Aslan Ismailov are today deserving of recognition in the same manner that diplomats recognized Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Orlov a quarter century ago. Sadly, this is not the case.
If these and other leading human rights defenders from the region are relatively unknown, the government leaders who today are responsible for violating their human rights are not. In 1975, Saparmurad Niyazov was well on his way up the ranks of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan, Eduard Shevardnadze had been First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Georgian Communist Party for three years, and Heidar Aliev had already led Azerbaijan for six years.
In an interview with EurasiaNet, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of the International League for Human Rights, declared that the Helsinki accords are "very much relevant" today. However, she noted, the years of western efforts to secure human rights protection in the Caucasus and Central Asia can only be assessed as "a failure." Part of the failure, she says, is the result of the west's fear of antagonizing Russia. Part, however, is a wariness of fighting. "We need to confront these little police states
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.