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Metta Spencer — August 1983

Peace activists have been following the cruise and Pershing drama with such horrified fascination that we have failed to notice another international development that contains enormous potential: the “Helsinki process.”

What follows is a synopsis of its history and current prospects.

The crowning accomplishment of the brief period of US/USSR detente was a 1975 agreement called the “Helsinki Accords.” It represented the commitment of 35 nations (the NATO countries, plus the Warsaw Pact countries, plus all other European nations except Albania) to negotiate solutions to a number of thorny problems left unresolved after World War II. The problems were categorized into three “baskets.”

Basket I includes such security concerns and such principles as the obligation to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms; the principle of co-existence; a pledge that frontiers should he changed only by peaceful means and that states should co-operate and refrain from intervention in the internal affairs of other nations.

Basket II comprises a commitment to economic, technical and scientific co-operation, and includes problems of trade and the environment.

Basket III deals with human contacts such as emigration rights, cultural and educational exchange, and the free movement of people, ideas and information.

The Accords caused great joy at the time they were made, since they represented binding commitments on the part of the European nations, as well as the U.S. and Canada, who participated in the talks because they were members of NATO. Unfortunately, the optimism was unfounded, since détente was already deteriorating by the time the agreement was reached, and many of its pledges have never been actualized.

A number of self-appointed committees have functioned as “Helsinki Watch” groups, attempting to hold the USSR to its promises on human rights matters, and to focus world attention on Soviet shortcomings. So far, the extensive publicity on human rights has generally led people to assume that the Helsinki process deals only with human rights issues, which is far from the case.

Nevertheless, Helsinki resulted in the establishment of a series of follow-up meetings to occur over many years, during which time the nations would work out and implement the specifics of the initial agreements. It also established that negotiations were to depend on consensus instead of majority vote. This means that every new agreement must be approved by all member nations.

The first of these follow-up meetings, held in Belgrade in 1977-78, failed completely. The spirit was bitter and no new proposals were introduced.

Another series of meetings began in Madrid in the fall of 1980. Again, the prospects were most unfavorable, but no one walked out and some other Central European countries (Romania, Austria, Yugoslavia, and West Germany) kept the negotiations alive by pressing for agreement on at least some of the issues of nuclear proliferation.

The neutral countries — mostly Yugoslavia, Finland, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland — played an extremely important role as brokers in the Madrid negotiations, and, despite the extreme tension between the NATO and Warsaw Pact alliances, ultimately produced a document in July 1983, which all the participating nations agreed to sign.

The agreement has kept the last vestiges of détente alive, and as a result it may he revived, to the benefit of humanity especially if the peace movement exerts pressure in the right way.

There will be additional meetings for consideration of particular points in the years ahead. For example, experts on Human Rights are slated to meet in Ottawa in 1985.

The most immediate opportunity however, will began in 1984 in January, when a conference will convene to discuss (a) confidence-building and security measures and (b) disarmament. In practice this means that disarmament will probably not be discussed in Stockholm for many years, since the first topics will take so long

When the Stockholm meeting begins, the member nations will immediately agree over the definition of their mandate:“confidence-building measures.” The neutral countries (on the prompting of their internal movements) will say that this mandate includes the establishment of nuclear weapon free zones, and will want to discuss such proposals.

The United States will probably want to rule out the topic. However, it will be in a weak moral position as it is the only nation which blocks such a discussion as it is certain to be — unless Canada follows Reagan’s lead. Canadian peace activists must initiate a major lobbying effort to see that the nuclear weapon free zone proposals are admitted to the Stockholm discussions. It is a unique opportunity. Fortunately, this is the kind of opportunity that Mr. Trudeau may personally wish to pursue, and for which he may need strong public support. If so, it will provide an objective for the European and North American peace movements to work toward.

A second (but quite separate) opportunity may arise when the neutral countries (probably under the leadership of Sweden’s Olof Palme) propose a new standard for determining which nations should be in the negotiations in Geneva over the Pershing and cruise missiles. So far these negotiations include only the U.S. and the USSR, on the grounds that they are the actual owners of the missiles and should therefore control them. However, these is the strongest possible case for the demand of the non-nuclear countries for a voice in Geneva: The decision ought not to he made by the owners of the bombs, but also by the people who are likely to he killed by them.

If and when the European neutral countries clearly demand a seat at the Geneva negotiations, Canadians need to recognize the importance of supporting their claim.

Dr. Spencer teaches Sociology at the University of Toronto. She is also on the Board of Directors of CANDIS, and executive officer of Science for Peace. Much of the information in this article is based on Dr. Spencer’s discussions with John Ernest and Aaron Tovish at the Conference on Non-violence at Inter-University Centre in Dubrovnik in July of this year.