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On “Reviving the Helsinki Spirit”

31 July 2020

Throughout its history, Europe has had many crises and has been able to find peaceful solutions. Many people, especially among the younger generations, are unaware that the 1975 Helsinki Accords solidified peaceful coexistence on the European continent. The Helsinki Accords formed a concrete and detailed framework for security and cooperation between nations based on respect for human rights, national sovereignty, and non-violent resolution of inter-state conflicts. Strategies developed and deployed during that era could be applicable to the current concerns and helpful in advancing positive and lasting change throughout the continent. The Helsinki Process enormously boosted the nascent human rights movement, making human rights a cornerstone of international politics. Today revisiting the Helsinki Process and its effect on the development of civil society could jump-start the development of much needed innovative solutions and ideas.

The socio-political situation on the European continent has reached a critical phase. There are tensions between Russia and its neighbors, the principles underlying the EU are being challenged by members such as Poland and Hungary, and in Western Europe populism and nationalism are challenging the concept of a multi-national approach to cooperation as the basis of peace and prosperity in the region.  Further, the COVID-19 crisis has created a new reality on the ground, which has exacerbated this ongoing negative shift. Issues previously seen as more subtle and addressable in the long term— e.g.  the nature of the political union or fundamental freedoms in society— have become prominent and urgently need to be resolved. In particular, the challenges to European unity and civil rights are intense.

To respond to this situation, a new initiative has been created, through a partnership of civil society and research organizations, which aims to stimulate positive outcomes for contemporary European democracy. Through revisiting the 1975 Helsinki Accords, and drawing on the lessons learned from the Helsinki Process, the initiative will assist in reinvigorating political life on the continent. This program is called “Reviving the Helsinki Spirit”. While division and polarization have become the norm in nearly every county in Europe— albeit to varying degrees— this program aims to counter this trend. It will work towards fostering positive strides to shift the balance in a favorable manner.

This partnership and program have been developed between the Netherlands Helsinki Committee and the Andrei Sakharov Research Center for Democratic Development (ASRC) based at the Vytautas Magnus University in Lithuania. The goal is to undertake a five-year educational and public outreach program leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Accords.

Focusing on creating new intergenerational links, this program will home in on exploring the past to provide clues for developing innovative solutions to three contemporary themes:

Digital Space: Where is the real citizen engagement?
Environmental Challenges:  How can we sufficiently resolve this issue and how does this relate to the broader European neighborhood – the ‘non-EU’ Europe?
Equality and Identity: To what extent is the European idea still alive and supported by the general public?

The mission of the program is to bring the values and principles of the Helsinki Accords back to the forefront of society and politics, so we all live in countries based on respect for human rights, national sovereignty, and the non-violent resolution of inter-state conflicts.

Such an agenda would connect generations; by examining the threats of the past and seeing how solutions can be applied to the problems we face today. The ultimate aim is to have informed stakeholders help devise a new agenda and to develop a road map demonstrating how to activate civil society on the three main topics of the program.

The 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Accords marks an important re-evaluation point for the OSCE and broad range of civil society organizations, and the outcomes of this program work towards to strengthen this process/milestone. Read more about the programme here.

Robert van Voren, Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies and Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas (Lithuania)

About the author

Robert van Voren is a Sovietologist and Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies and Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas (Lithuania)/ He is also Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Starting in 1977, he became active in the Soviet human rights movement. In 1980, he co-founded the International Association on Political Use of Psychiatry and became its General Secretary in 1986. Van Voren holds a number of positions on boards of organizations in the fields of human rights, mental health and prison reform. He has written extensively on Soviet issues, the Second World War, and issues related to mental health and human rights. More than a dozen of his books have been published.