Those sweeping words and the many thousands that followed became enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. The document, signed by 33 European nations, the U.S. and Canada, was an agreement to work together on common problems, from reuniting families to conducting research on permafrost, from forecasting earthquakes to forewarning about military maneuvers. Ten years later, the assessment of those noble pledges has soured. Said Secretary of State George Shultz at last week's commemorative session in the Finnish capital: "The most important promises of a decade ago have not been kept."
The Helsinki commitments covered a multitude of human endeavors, but the pledges on guaranteeing basic human rights have become the most contentious. It is here that the Final Act has fallen significantly short of its goal, largely owing to noncompliance by the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. Exasperation over Western scrutiny of Soviet behavior was recently expressed by Yuri Zhukov, a columnist for the Soviet newspaper Pravda, who said that "it has been hammered into the minds of the people in the West for ten years" that the Final Act amounts merely to a declaration on human rights.
The Soviets have good reason to try to deflect attention from their record. Nearly all the groups that sprang up behind the Iron Curtain to monitor compliance with the Helsinki accords have been crushed. By 1982, 17 of the 20 members of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group had been imprisoned, forced to emigrate or exiled within the Soviet Union. The remaining three reluctantly disbanded the organization, admitting, "The group cannot fulfill its duties." The New York City-based Helsinki Watch Committee this month cited estimates that as many as 10,000 political prisoners still languish in Soviet jails and labor camps.
Nonetheless, the Helsinki human rights declarations have produced benefits. A temporary relaxation of barriers to Jewish emigration allowed tens of thousands of separated families to be reunited. Worldwide concern over the fate of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Andrei Sakharov, now 64, prompted the image-conscious Soviets last week to release a ten-minute color videotape showing the physicist, apparently in good health, and his wife Yelena Bonner. Said a French observer: "If you don't think the accords matter to the Russians, then just watch television." A senior Western diplomat in Moscow concurred: "These agreements give us the basis to go in and discuss human rights issues with the Soviets. [They] no longer challenge our right to raise the issue. In Eastern Europe, it has been used as a handle for loosening up conditions in some areas, such as family reunification. In that sense, it has worked."
Other areas of the Helsinki agreement have promoted trade and scientific and technological cooperation, and strengthened confidence-building measures, like prior notification of NATO and Warsaw Pact military movements involving more than 25,000 troops. The signatories also recognized the inviolability of postwar European borders, conceding to the Soviets their own sphere of influence.