Forty-five years ago on June 3, 1976, over the strong, and thankfully unsuccessful, objection of Henry Kissinger’s State Department, a bill creating the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, commonly known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, was signed into law. For more than 35 of those 45 years, I had the privilege to work for this small U.S. government agency located on Capitol Hill, which promotes peace, security, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The work was meaningful and fulfilling, and reflected many of the values I was raised with, including in my grade-school through grad-school Catholic education.
The Helsinki Commission derives its name from the 1975 Helsinki Final Act (heretofore referred to as the Final Act), when leaders of 35 countries, including the Soviet Union, agreed on a broad range of measures designed to enhance security and cooperation. One of the most consequential agreements of the last half of the 20th century, it included provisions to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and to expand contacts between people.
The Final Act launched what is often called the Helsinki process – initially called the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The Helsinki process played a key role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and restoration of the independence of the countries dominated by Moscow. Soon after, CSCE evolved into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has expanded to now include 57 participating states.
How does the Helsinki Commission fit in to this larger Helsinki process? Members of Congress almost immediately saw the opportunity presented by this milestone agreement to press the Soviet and other Communist governments on human rights. A mere month following the Final Act’s signing, Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.) introduced legislation creating a commission to monitor and encourage compliance by all signatory countries with the Final Act, especially its human rights and humanitarian provisions.
The makeup of the Commission was quite unusual for a federal agency, as it had members from both the legislative and executive branches: not only Senators and Representatives from both parties, who constituted the majority of Commissioners, but also representatives from the State, Defense and Commerce Departments. This structure has served the Commission well throughout its history and has made it more impactful than if it had been wholly in one branch of the government.
The Kissinger State Department strongly opposed Rep. Fenwick’s legislation because they saw the conduct of foreign policy within the purview of the Executive Branch, and felt that such a Commission would step on their turf. Moreover, human rights were rather low on the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities at the time. But with strong support from Soviet Jewry, Baltic, Ukrainian and other Central and East European groups, Congress overwhelmingly voted for the Commission’s establishment.
Led during the Cold War by House and Senate chairs and co-chairs of the Commission – Reps. Dante Fascell (D-Fla.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) – it became a leading voice in calling attention to human rights violations in the Soviet bloc. Not surprisingly, the Soviets and their allies were not pleased.
The Commission’s professional, non-partisan staff wrote numerous public reports, speeches and Congressional resolutions, and organized many Congressional hearings and briefings. In addition to raising public awareness, the Commission encouraged our own government to make human rights a centerpiece of foreign policy in general and, more narrowly, in our relations with the Soviet Union and the other communist countries of Eastern Europe. For instance, we pushed the State Department to become more assertive in discussing specific instances of rights violations, including “naming names” of individual cases of political prisoners. After a while, some of our more cautious European allies began to follow suit.
In addition to our work in Washington, Congressional Commissioners and Commission staff, including myself, were integral members of official U.S. delegations to the CSCE/OSCE. We served alongside the State Department and other agencies to multi-year conferences of the then-35 Helsinki signatories in Belgrade (1977-1978), Madrid (1980-1983), and Vienna (1986-1989), as well as to meetings of limited duration in Budapest, Ottawa, Bern, Paris, Copenhagen and Moscow in the 1980s and early 1990s. These conferences were the principal diplomatic forum for calling out the Soviet Union and its allies for their egregious suppression of rights and freedoms. Various communities, including representatives from the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States and Canada – most notably the Human Rights Commission of the World Congress of Free Ukrainians – would travel to these meetings to advocate on behalf of their brethren.
A key focus of Commission activity in its first decade was defending Soviet prisoners of conscience and other dissidents, with special attention to the Helsinki Monitoring Groups that were formed in Moscow, Ukraine, Lithuania, Armenia and Georgia and several affiliated Soviet groups. These courageous citizen groups pressed the Soviet government to live up to the human rights commitments that they had freely undertaken in the Helsinki Final Act. The Ukrainian Helsinki Group was the largest and most repressed of these groups. The Commission, with the active support of the Ukrainian American and Lithuanian American communities, did much to draw attention to the Ukrainian and Lithuanian monitors, because at the time the focus of the U.S. government and the media was directed more on what was happening in the Soviet capital, Moscow, and not on the non-Russian republics.
The Commission also devoted considerable attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry and on religious rights, including those of Pentecostals, who constituted a disproportionate number of Soviet prisoners of conscience. The Commission was very much in the forefront on advocating for the legalization of the then-banned Ukrainian Catholic Church.
Another issue which took up considerable Helsinki Commission effort during the 1970s and much of the 1980s was what was then called human contacts. People living in the Soviet bloc, especially the Soviet Union, were denied the right to reunite with their relatives in the West. Among my first jobs at the Commission was to manage case lists of thousands of individuals denied this fundamental right – mostly Soviet Jews and Romanians. My colleagues and I also worked on cases of Soviet citizens who were not even allowed to reunite with their spouses in the United States – in some instances after multi-decade absences – or to even visit their families.
The Helsinki Commission was a staunch advocate for human rights in Poland, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries, and in particular speaking out in defense of Poland’s Solidarity movement and Czechoslovakia’s Charter ’97. We also spoke out on issues that received little international attention at the time, and have been all but forgotten now. One that I worked on was the Bulgarian Communist government’s brutal attempts in the 1980s to forcibly assimilate its Turkish minority. Various Commission delegations, Congressional hearings and reports helped shine the light on this egregious violation of the Final Act.
In my next column (Part 2), I will discuss the Commission’s work starting from the late 1980s, as the Soviet empire began to unravel, to the present day.