The Helsinki Accords and the Path to Arms Control

by Nazia Sheikh

The Helsinki Final Act was signed in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, on August 1, 1975. This historic victory of collaboration over war laid the groundwork for the end of the Cold War. The document was a revolutionary approach to bilateral and multilateral ties, also addressing comprehensive security concerns. Its signatories acknowledged that human rights concerns are directly related to political and military challenges and that this connection is essential to maintaining peace and security. Arms control accords served as the foundation for a new comprehensive security paradigm, balancing strategic security interests and displacing hostility with security cooperation. Therefore, with the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE, renamed OSCE in 1995) serving as its central organization, arms control helped to facilitate the political shift towards a cooperative security regime in Europe.

Under the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the leaders of 35 states including those of members of NATO, the Warsaw Pact, and the non-aligned states vowed to engage in constructive communication. Former Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Lamberto Zannier write in his article that “to go beyond merely “détente” to true “rapprochement,” there is a push to bridge the East-West split”.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), was founded in the 1990s as a result of this commitment and is currently the largest regional security organization in the world by Chapter VIII of the United Nations Charter. The Security Council has the duty under UN Charter 8 to promote the development of peaceful resolution of local issues through regional bodies or arrangements, either at the request of the concerned states or upon the Security Council’s recommendation. The Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and the Vienna Document, two important international arms control accords, were reached through OSCE procedures and channels, demonstrating the OSCE’s critical role in European arms control.

The Vienna Document on Confidence and Security-Building Measures is the main source on CSBMs. Through transparency and verification procedures including the armed forces and important equipment systems, it fosters confidence and predictability. As part of the comprehensive and cooperative OSCE concept of security, disarmament, confidence and security-building are essential components of arms control, as recognized by the Framework for Arms Control, which was agreed upon in 1996. Arms control pledges and obligations are woven together by the Vienna Document, the Open Skies Treaty, and the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). As together, they lower the likelihood of a significant war in Europe and increase military stability, predictability, and transparency in theory. Furthermore, the CFE Treaty stipulates restrictions on Europe’s major weapons systems, which paved the way for the 1990s disarmament campaign.

Although the Cold War did not end with the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, it did represent a radical shift in that direction toward transparency and cooperation. It was then agreed upon by the participating States to exchange military data and to keep each other informed on troop movements, military drills, and activities. As well as signatories understood that real security entailed more than just a lack of conflict; it also meant economic prosperity, environmental preservation, and adherence to fundamental freedoms and human rights. Helsinki accords marked the start of a discussion process for peace that has been persistently and patiently pursued and has become a signature of the OSCE.

The Helsinki Act, the founding document of the OSCE, lays forth the “need to contribute to reducing the dangers of armed conflict and of misunderstanding or miscalculation of military activities which could give rise to apprehension, particularly in a situation where the participating states lack clear and timely information about the nature of such activities.” Information exchanges, methods for compliance and verification, and various forms of military cooperation are examples of such confidence- and security-building measures CSBMs.

Helsinki Accords had both immediate and long-term effects. The Helsinki Accords guaranteed peace and cooperation among the European nations in the short term. An increase in collaboration and a reduction in tension between the two European power blocs was made possible by the evolution of trust, confidence, accommodation, and goodwill among the 35 signatories of the Helsinki Final Act. Long-term effects of the Helsinki Accords included agreement on military and security issues, particularly those concerning Central Europe, the institutionalization of the Helsinki process, and the organization of follow-up conferences.

Regarding Europe, the Helsinki process made sense only when all of the continent’s nations as well as the US and the USSR agreed to eliminate barriers that had impeded genuine collaboration in the region for many years. Regardless of their political and social structures, the goals and recommendations in all four baskets of the Helsinki Final Act (The Helsinki Accords addressed four main areas of concerns, one of which was the scheduling of follow-up sessions. The three baskets were centered on human rights, economics, and security) aimed to foster meaningful and successful cooperation among the European nations.

Furthermore, since 2014, the OSCE has played a significant role in resolving the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The Minsk Agreements were created in the Trilateral Contact Group, which included participation from Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE. The TCG signed the Protocol on a Ceasefire and the Initiation of a Political Process to Resolve the Crisis on September 5, 2014, in Minsk. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine would oversee border and ceasefire monitoring, as per the plan. Once again in Minsk, on September 19, 2014, a Memorandum outlining the procedures for implementing the cease-fire obligations specified in the Minsk Protocol was signed.

Maintaining the OSCE will enable it to continue performing a valuable purpose in the future. The situation in Ukraine has illustrated the comparative advantages of the OSCE when Russia and the West are adversaries or support opposing sides in a conflict, but they still have a common interest in minimizing risks and preventing escalation. The OSCE provides the best structure for handling crises in these kinds of circumstances. The OSCE would be a strong contender to assist in monitoring implementation of the accords that bring an end to the war and when Russia and Ukraine find a political settlement, a scenario that regrettably looks far off right now. Real and long-lasting stability in the OSCE region can only be ensured by concerted efforts by the UN, EU, NATO, Council of Europe, and other organizations. More generally, whatever the outcome of the situation in Ukraine, Russia and the West will need to figure out how to live peacefully.


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