At the opening of the 1980 Madrid Conference to review the 1975 Helsinki Final Act (which was signed 35 years ago, on August 1, 1975), a message was read by NGOs from a tiny scrap of paper with miniscule handwriting. It had been smuggled out of a Soviet labor camp from physicist Yury Orlov, a founder of the Moscow Helsinki Watch group and the Helsinki citizens’ movement worldwide.
"I'm sewing bags on the machine," Orlov wrote, describing his forced labor in the camp. "I am convinced that our sacrifices are not in vain."
Orlov's movement was revolutionary in our time precisely because it did not use or advocate violence, and ultimately was part of what led to the largely peaceful change of the communist regimes across the region. Limitations Of New Technologies
The sacrifices that he and his colleagues throughout the former Soviet Union made were considerable -- more than 50 men and women in the Helsinki groups were willing to serve long labor camp and internal-exile sentences, and others faced exile abroad for many years for their brave work in making good on the Final Act’s promise to citizens that they could “know and act upon their rights” and monitor their countries’ own pledges.
Today, we take it for granted that even in the most oppressive countries, citizens trying to record and transmit human rights violations are increasingly able to get the word out to their own public and to concerned people abroad, aided by new technologies like the laptop and mobile phone and platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Yet these technologies outstrip the ability of governments and citizens to encourage and maintain the kind of civil societies where they can work positively.
More news and more views delivered on more technical gadgets have not led to more tolerance and peace
There was an eerie scene at the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in June: while thousands of people were fleeing their burning homes and the killing of their relatives in Osh with nothing but the clothes on their backs, many were still clutching cell phones in their hands showing pictures of atrocities.
The quintessential Helsinki act -- sending information across frontiers upon which many of the other pledges hinge -- is far less than a problem than it was in Soviet times, when Orlov had to scratch out his note of hope in tiny writing to smuggle it out. But the decision-makers at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who were tasked with responding to the messages from the refugees' mobile phones were sadly disconnected and took far too long to agree to send even 52 unarmed police from the ranks of people they had been spending millions to train at various OSCE seminars for decades.
More news and more views delivered on more technical gadgets have not led to more tolerance and peace. A Soviet bureaucrat looking at the carnage from ethnic cleansing and civil wars in the Helsinki territories and the various "frozen conflicts" since the break-up of the Soviet Union might diabolically say of his government’s policies to control media -- "We told you so."
Yet, in fact, extremism is only bred by the suppression of basic rights of association and expression -- the denial of media to minorities in their own languages, the refusal to register civic and religious organizations, and the killing of journalists and human rights monitors uncovering corporate corruption and government complicity in abuses. The hand of Josef Stalin pressed onto the map of Eurasia continues to divide and conquer ethnic communities; it will be the legacy of Helsinki's freedoms, and not of Soviet-style control, that ultimately resolves these conflicts. Back To Human Rights Basics
Seemingly having given up on the struggle for these basic rights, the vast and sprawling OSCE institution that was created to realize the hopes of people like Orlov is increasingly ineffective. Symptomatic of OSCE's limp actions were two roundtables on interethnic relations in Osh and a workshop on policing in multiethnic communities held in Bishkek only a few weeks before the conflict broke out in the south.
The contrast between the virtuality of countless seminars attended by "resolutionaries" and the grim reality of the pogroms could not be more palpable.
The recent announcement of an OSCE summit planned for October that was issued by Kanat Saudabayev, the OSCE chairman in office from Kazakhstan, and his statement marking the 35th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act are tours-de-force in how to get through press releases without actually saying the words "human rights." To be sure, multilateral organizations need summits if they are to retain their purpose of dialogue and cooperation. Yet the "space and community of security" invoked by Saudabyaev appears to have been sanitized of human rights, an essential part of the concept of human security without which no state is secure.
Western governments appear reluctant to insist vocally on an integrated approach linking human rights progress with security. Doing so means resolving such cases as that of Yevgeny Zhovtis, the leading human rights advocate of Kazakhstan, sentenced to exceptionally harsh punishment for vehicular manslaughter, before the October summit in Astana. It means insisting upon a robust civil society component of the implementation meeting, which should be held in Vienna well before the summit.
Looking over the 35 years of Helsinki history, we see the spirit has diluted from the once vibrant all-purpose citizens’ groups that tried to make rights a reality in their communities. Human rights groups are victims of their own success, with the institutionalization -- and bureacratization -- of human rights as a profession, translating it into numerous separate agencies, issues, and procedures. That's to be expected, but it's part of why human rights as a nonviolent civic cause has lost its attraction to young people.
Today, a young Canadian endorses the anarchists’ rampage at the G20 summit in Toronto and meets my expression of concern about violence with a sneer -- "That Joan Baez stuff doesn't work anymore." A young Kazakh public relations expert can reply to my protest about the closure of newspapers with a cynical shrug that "plurality breeds confusion."
It is precisely because of the loss of faith in these nonviolent human rights ideals among the young that we older Helsinki watchers have to rededicate ourselves to the very basics -- freedom of the media and freedom of association -- at a time of the proliferation of single issues and increasingly exotic rights. Progressives demand a focus on a right Nature violates every day it doesn't rain -- the right to water. Yet authentic citizens' environmental groups to track the effect of hydropower stations on water flow and the fair regional use of water, as well as free media required to report accurately on the issues when outrageous state propaganda flourishes are key to resolving such matters, as well as many other intractable OSCE issues.
The Helsinki anniversary, and the fresh wounds in Kyrgyzstan, compel citizens and governments to rededicate themselves to the basics: An international human rights movement focusing on the right of association and free media that refrains from advocating or excusing violence is a precondition for improved government response.Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer based in New York who writes on human rights issues in Eurasia. Her blog on OSCE can be found here. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.