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Great Seal logo Harold Hongju Koh, Assistant Secretary of State
for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Remarks at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Washington, DC, August 8, 2000
Blue Bar rule

The Helsinki Final Act: 25 Years After Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

It's a great pleasure to be here and have the chance to honor one of the great diplomatic achievements of the past generation -- the Helsinki Final Act, which was signed 25 years ago last week.

Let me first begin by thanking my hosts, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for inviting me to speak today, and for all that they have done over the years for the people of central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Indeed, I am sure that most of the people in that region heard about Helsinki's human rights provisions from RFE and RL long before they heard about them from their own governments. And they must have liked what they heard, too, because when the Cold War ended and our government was thinking about closing RFE/RL, it was countries like the Czech Republic that convinced us of their importance.

If RFE/RL no longer broadcasts to Poland and Hungry, it's not because the work they did there was ineffective. On the contrary, the message they carried there played a vital role in keeping hope alive until they finally got the chance to manage their own affairs.

Today, RFE/RL broadcasts to the Balkans, Russia, Belarus, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. These are all areas of critical concern to the United States and to the State Department. Even in the most difficult environments, human rights and democracy are making inroads. Your broadcasts and information service help get our message through, informing people about things their governments would prefer them not to know -- about freedom of expression, ethnic tolerance, democracy, good governance, and the steady growth of human rights throughout the world.

At the same time, RFE/RL has also become one of the best sources of information about central and eastern Europe, Russia, and the other republics of the former Soviet Union. We receive your products at my office, and they provide us very useful and timely information.

My task today is to honor Helsinki and give you a brief overview of our policies in the countries that signed the Final Act. While my comments here are on-the-record, I would prefer to answer any questions you might have afterward off-the-record.

It took the 35 nations of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe almost 2 years to come to agreement on the Final Act. The document reflects a long and complex effort to balance the interests of NATO, the Warsaw Pact, and the neutral and nonaligned nations of Europe that belonged to neither block, yet profited from NATO's strength and Europe's overall stability and prosperity.

Like Caesar's Gaul, the Final Act was divided into three parts, or "baskets." The first of these was considered the most important at the time, for it dealt with security issues -- arms control, confidence- and security-building measures, and borders. The second endorsed a long list of ambitious-sounding but modest technical agreements, wherein NATO hoped to teach the Soviet bloc something about economics and environmental protection, the Warsaw Pact countries hoped to learn something about our technology, and the central Europeans hoped to strengthen ties between the people of each bloc through travel and exchanges.

Almost unnoticed was Basket III, the one that dealt with human rights.

To judge from the New York Times, the Final Act itself was not of transcendent importance. Their August 1 report from Helsinki just barely made the front page -- down in the far right corner below the fold, just above a small article which noted that Jimmy Hoffa was missing and that "the police were considering the possibility of foul play."

The Times' article focused on the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, and his warning that "no one should try to dictate to other people on the basis of foreign policy considerations." Brezhnev's remarks were put in the context of "a long Soviet effort to convene a European conference that would recognize the permanence of the postwar borders of Europe, including the Soviet Union's expanded frontiers and a divided Germany." Indeed, much of the conventional wisdom of the time seemed to suggest that the Soviet bloc had won a victory in Helsinki by getting the West to agree to the borders that the Soviets had imposed at the end of World War II. Some victory.

The following day the New York Times focused on President Ford, quoting him as saying: that "peace is not a piece of paper" and later that détente was an "evolutionary" process. And if you compare what he said to what Brezhnev said, you'll find that Ford's comments were on the money.

One of the first things you notice about the Final Act when you look at it today, is that five of the countries that signed it no longer exist. This was obviously no final act for Czechoslovakia, the two Germanies, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Yugoslavia. Together these five are now 24 different countries -- one Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the former Soviet Republics, and the five states of the former Yugoslavia.

Early in the Final Act the participating states "declare their determination to respect and put into practice" a series of 10 principles. The sixth of these is entitled: "Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief." This pledge to honor religious belief was one of the most important concessions that the West managed to wring out of the Soviets at the time, although, of course, every member of the United Nations is supposedly committed to honoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose provisions for religious freedom are crystal clear.

Outside of this and a mention to "national minorities," the Final Act contained few other specific references to universal human rights. The document did call on the signatories to "act in conformity with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" and to "recognize the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms," however. This was enough. The camel's nose was under the tent. Within half a generation, the rotten edifice of the Warsaw Pact would crumble.

The process that the CSCE launched has been of immense importance to hundreds of millions of people. If not fully appreciated at the time, it ought to be today. The Final Act may well be the single most important international agreement of the last half-century.

As President Clinton said last week: "The United States takes pride in remembering our role as one of its original signatories -- a ringing call for freedom and human dignity that played a decisive role in lifting the Iron Curtain and ending the tragic division of Europe."

From the human rights standpoint, Helsinki gave life to a wonderful generation of visionary activists, Andre Sakarov, Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, Yuri Orlov, Sergiy Kovalev, and many others -- men and women whose energy, talent, and determination helped transform half a continent. By giving human rights and democracy advocates and the organizations they created the standing to speak out on human rights, the Helsinki process proved yet again the prodigious power that lives within ideas.

We all owe a great debt to people like Max Kampelman for having had the foresight and tenacity to insist on including universal human rights in the Final Act.

Another reason for Helsinki's success is that the CSCE did not fold its tents and go home after the Final Act was signed. Indeed, the CSCE -- now known, of course, as the OSCE -- stayed active through the early '80s and help father the great arms control agreements of the second Reagan and Bush administrations that helped hasten the end of the Cold War. Since then, the OSCE has transformed itself into a major player in the Balkans and an important component of the European and Eurasian security and human rights infrastructure.

Today, the OSCE has field activities in a dozen and a half member countries, while the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the High Commissioner on National Minorities, and the Special Representative on Freedom of Media are playing increasingly important roles. And every week, the OSCE permanent representatives meet in Vienna to discuss specific human rights developments. If progress sometimes seems slow, we need only to consider how short a time 25 years can be. The record of the Helsinki Final Act is proof of how much can be achieved in a quarter century. At the same time it stands as a challenge to each of us in the human rights community, for there is an awful lot of work that must be done the farther we move south and east.

As the events since Helsinki have proved, security is not just about arms control and military confidence-building measures, important though they are. The human dimension is at least as important. As we have seen time and time again over the past quarter century, empowering people to enjoy their universal human rights is absolutely fundamental to building strong and stable democratic countries. And that is the best kind of security.

Indeed, that was the premise of a conference I attended in late June, one that may, over time, do for democracy the world over, what the Helsinki Final Act did for human rights in Central and Eastern Europe. I'm speaking of the Community of Democracies conference in Warsaw where Secretary of State Albright and high-level representatives from over 100 other countries met and endorsed a broad statement of principles about democratic governance.

Like Helsinki, the Warsaw Final Declaration did not generate much press; such conferences seldom do. But it does commit the 106 nations that endorsed it -- about half of whom hail from OSCE countries -- to a very forward-leaning set of "core democratic principles and practices."

Like the Final Act, the Warsaw Final Declaration looks back to the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it looks forward, too, to a time when all the countries that endorsed it give democracy and human freedom the respect they need to flourish. That would be a huge achievement. Perhaps, if we do our work well, the year 2025 will see us celebrating both Helsinki and Warsaw.

Let me turn now to the present and give you a brief overview of our policies and concerns in the area that was covered by the Helsinki Final Act.

We can divide them into three broad categories: the countries that have made significant progress since 1975; those that have made some progress, however uneven; and those that still have quite a ways to go. Not surprisingly, I'll probably have the least to say about the first and the most about the third.

Basically, the reunification of peaceful, stable, prosperous, and democratic Germany in NATO and in Europe was a spectacular achievement, worth every penny the Cold War cost us. That Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have been able to join NATO and are on course to enter the European Union -- and that others in central and eastern Europe are on that course as well -- is such a positive development that we often take it for granted. We should not. There was nothing preordained about it. We may have helped them, but the people in central and eastern Europe themselves are the ones who chose the path of democracy, free markets, and human rights. Our job now is to help them complete the transition.

The central and east Europeans have played a very active and positive role in promoting democracy and human rights in recent years. Poland, of course, hosted the Community of Democracies conference in June. For the past 2 years, Poland and the Czech Republic have sponsored the Cuba resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights. Romania did an excellent job at the Commission this year, as well, sponsoring a very successful resolution on democracy and good governance. Slovakia, too, has made rapid progress in the past few years.

More remains to be done, however, especially with respect to tolerance for ethnic and religious minorities. While much progress has taken place, we continue to be disturbed by the discrimination and violence that Roma faces. Immigrants from North Africa, Turkey, and the former killing fields of Bosnia and Kosovo also face discrimination in much of Western Europe. We have problems in our own country over the treatment some immigrants receive, but that is no excuse. Everyone who cherishes democracy must speak out whenever democratic values, tolerance, and human rights are threatened.

Now let me turn to Southeast Europe and jump right into the category three countries. First, Serbia: From a human rights point of view, Serbia is a catastrophe. The Milosevic regime and the conspicuous absence of democratic government in the country remain the greatest threats to the stability in the Balkans and, indeed, the entire European Continent. Belgrade has perverted constitutional government, repressed free expression, sheltered indicted war criminals, enriched itself, and impoverished and brutalized its own people.

The way Milosevic rewrote the Yugoslav Constitution clearly demonstrates his hostility to anything even remotely resembling democracy. For the people of Serbia, the choice, unfortunately, boils down to this: It's either Milosevic or democracy. The upcoming elections should be their chance to choose. Whether it will or not is another matter.

The Serbian police are responsible for many violent human rights abuses. The judicial system is corrupt and subject to intimidation and influence by the Milosevic regime. Judges that attempt to apply the law find themselves without a job, as the recent dismissal of 16 Serbian judges for "political activities" attests.

At the same time, Serbia's independent media has all but been shut down. Those that remain in operation -- and I recall that RFE/RL's request to renew its operations there has been denied -- must either submit to Milosevic's pressure or face fines, seizures, denial of licenses, and a decidedly hostile media law.

But even within this kleptocratic culture, there are many who have the courage to stand up for what they know is right -- students, activists, journalists, and ordinary citizens. These are the members of the new Helsinki generation. They need our support every bit as much as the Havels and the Sakharovs did 25 years ago.

Conditions in Kosovo remain difficult, to say the least. But if there's one lesson we should have learned since World War II, it's that it takes time to rebuild a society that has been brutalized the way Kosovo was. We who are the heirs to Helsinki must stay the course, and we are. I was there a month ago, when our Operation Quick Start program delivered a huge batch of critical supplies -- computers, printers, fax machines, photocopiers, telephones, metal detectors, and vehicles -- to 50 courts in Kosovo that Serbian forces had stripped bare when they pulled back last summer.

The question of missing and detained persons is the single-largest human rights issue in the minds of the people there. There's no question that this will bedevil them for many years to come. We are pleased that a special ombudsman for human rights has been appointed.

Despite our sympathy for all that the people of Kosovo have endured since Slobodan Milosevic came to power, we cannot allow Kosovo's Serbian and Roma population to be threatened, intimidated, or abused. Human rights are universal, and the Kosovars must respect them, too. To that purpose, we must call on all parties there to refrain from inflaming the situation through hate speech or vituperative media broadcasts. We also strongly believe that the elections scheduled for October should take place on schedule.

Similarly, we look forward to the November elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The United States is deeply concerned about the situation in Montenegro. As Secretary Albright said when she met with Montenegrin President Djukanovic in Rome last week, we intend "to stay in very close touch in the coming weeks." The U.S. strongly supports the Djukanovic government, as witnessed by the more than $60 million we have given Montenegro so far this fiscal year. We certainly hope that our friends and allies will make their support for Montenegro equally clear and unambiguous.

The picture in Croatia is much more hopeful with respect to human rights and democracy. While the government that was elected this winter faces difficult political and economic challenges, it appears headed in the right direction. We were particularly pleased that government has made it legal for all people, regardless of ethnic background, to return to their homes, a move that has helped spark the return of 25,000 individuals so far this year.

The human rights situation in Belarus continues to deteriorate, as the country sinks lower and lower into authoritarianism and self-isolation. Our primary goal in Belarus is to reverse this trend and help the country move toward democracy, respect for human rights, and a market economy. Holding free and fair parliamentary elections would be an important first step. The United States strongly supports the OSCE Troika's conditions for monitoring these elections. To date, however, the Lukashenko government has made no meaningful progress toward meeting these conditions.

In the meantime, the government has systematically harassed and restricted the opposition and the media alike. Peaceful demonstrations have met with violent crackdowns. Political opposition figures have been detained, convicted in show trials or "disappeared." Just last month a journalist named Dmitry Zavadskiy also met this latter fate. The actions of the Government of Belarus contravene both the spirit and the letter of the Helsinki Final Act, obligations that they accepted willingly when they joined the CSCE. A number of countries have made some progress, however limited.

The election of Russian President Putin was considered to be generally free and fair. But the situation in Chechnya remains extremely troubling. We continue to receive credible reports that Russian forces there have engaged in indiscriminate use of force, extrajudicial killing, torture, and rape. Chechen fighters likewise have engaged in torture and killing of prisoners and those believed to be collaborating with the Russians. Tactics used by both sides have only aggravated the situation, with no real end in sight. We continue to believe that the OSCE and other international organizations can and should play a meaningful role in helping the two sides resolve their differences peacefully, and we continue to call on the Russian Government to permit the OSCE Assistance Group to return to the region expeditiously. We will also continue to call on the Russian Government to implement the resolution of the UN Commission on Human Rights calling on the government to establish a broad-based independent commission of inquiry and to facilitate visits by Special Rapporteurs. In addition, we also remain concerned about harassment of the media in Russia.

Ukraine's progress has been uneven as well. Of particular concern have been government restrictions on the media, especially in the run-up to the 1998 parliamentary and 1999 presidential elections.

Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia all have made some progress in the years since they gained their independence. Armenian elections have not met OSCE standards yet, but last year's parliamentary elections did mark some forward movement toward that goal. While Azerbaijan's 1992 presidential elections did meet the standard, none since that time have done so. Backsliding has occurred the past few weeks on parliamentary election preparations, and we hope that the government will revise the Central Election Commission and election laws consistent with the ODIHR's'recommendations. Unfortunately, even Georgia showed some backsliding in this year's presidential race.

At the same time, Azerbaijan continues to arrest people for participating in political demonstrations and to keep tight restrictions on the media. On a more positive note, however, the government has recently made significant strides in support of religious freedom.

As Secretary Albright made clear when she visited there this spring, the United States retains a sharp interest in the Central Asian republics. It is our sincere hope that they will begin to move toward more democratic governments soon, and that in the near future the people there can enjoy their universal human rights more fully. For that to happen, however, these countries must come to terms with the concept of political pluralism. Tolerance for the political opposition is one of the bedrock principles of human rights, democracy, and the Helsinki and OSCE process.

Specifically, we call on the Government of Uzbekistan to extend to the International Committees of the Red Cross an invitation to visit the country's prisons. The government should also review the convictions of human rights defenders Ismail Aydlov and Mahbuba Kasimova and grant them clemency. We want to see human rights NGOs have the right to register and operate freely in the country.

We call on the Government of Kazakhstan to implement the OSCE's recommendations in light of last year's flawed presidential and parliamentary elections and to take steps to ensure freedom of speech and that the press are respected.

Kyrgyzstan was once the most democratic of the Central Asian republics. Unfortunately, the country has slipped backward in recent time. The OSCE made a series of recommendations following the flawed parliamentary elections in February. We call on the government to implement them in full before the upcoming presidential elections are held.

Obviously a speech like this cannot really do justice to the Helsinki Final Act or the countries -- and their successor states -- that took part in it. Perhaps that is as it should be. Helsinki itself was part of a process, a dynamic that had its origins in the yearnings of the human heart for justice, freedom, and the right to live a life of human dignity. Helsinki drew from the great documents of human rights -- the Magna Charta, the Declaration of Independence, the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- and built on mankind's long, slow work to make them living documents, so that people everywhere might know their rights and freedoms. The forces that Helsinki launched have been working their way through the international system for 25 years. Hundreds of millions of people are better off because of it. But another 100 million are waiting for their freedom, too, and I fear it may take another 25 years before they have it.

We still have work to do. That's Helsinki at 25.

[end of document]

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