The Soviet Dissidents Who Used a Non-Binding International Accord to Fight for Freedom

In 1975, the U.S. Canada, and most European states—the Soviet Union included—signed the Helsinki accords, which, although meant to foster détente between the Eastern bloc and the West, also included an agreement to respect universal human rights. A year later—40 years ago yesterday—a group of Soviet dissidents founded the Moscow Helsinki Group to hold their government accountable for its violations of these rights. Natan Sharansky, one of the group’s founders, reflects on what it and other similar organizations achieved, and the lessons for today’s Western leaders:

Step by step . . . our struggle gained momentum. . . . [A] powerful network of governmental and non-governmental monitoring groups was created, and as a result the Soviet Union was effectively cornered—it could not simply impose its own interpretation of Helsinki’s [human-rights provisions] on the rest of the world. This non-binding agreement thereby became one of the strongest weapons haunting the regime until its death.

Today, as many in the West push for conciliatory agreements with regimes no less oppressive than the USSR, it is worth recalling that the KGB and the philosophy of Realpolitik were not the only opponents we faced in our struggle back then. Another major obstacle was the peace movement, those thousands of well-meaning Westerners demanding to remove American missiles from Europe and to appease the Soviet Union in the name of avoiding war. . . . Make sure the Helsinki process avoids nuclear war, they said, and then we can speak about the rights of Soviet citizens.

Our answer to these unsophisticated idealists was equally clear: the highest human value is not peace simply, but peace in conditions of freedom. If peace were the ultimate good, dictatorships would exist forever, because no one would endanger his life fighting for basic rights. . . .

If we remember one lesson on the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Group, then, let it be this: we should not be led into complacency by agreements that promise peace with dictatorships without demanding internal change. If we don’t continue standing up for dissidents and for the shared values they represent, we will soon find ourselves as much at the mercy of their oppressors as they are.

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More about: Cold War, History & Ideas, Human Rights, Natan Sharansky, Soviet Union, U.S. Foreign policy

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More about: Iran nuclear program, Iran sanctions, U.S. Foreign policy