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Post-World War II international concern for human rights has been evident at the global level outside the United Nations as well as within it, most notably in the proceedings and aftermath of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), convened in Helsinki, Finland, on 3 July 1973, and concluded there (after continuing deliberations in Geneva) on 1 August 1975. Attended by representatives of 35 governments that included the NATO countries, the Warsaw Pact nations, and 13 neutral and nonaligned European states, the conference had as its principal purpose a mutually satisfactory definition of peace and stability between East and West, previously made impossible by the Cold War. In particular, the former Soviet Union was concerned with achieving recognition of its western frontiers as established at the end of World War II (the Second World War having ended without the conclusion of an omnibus peace treaty). The West, with no realistic territorial claims of its own, sought concessions primarily in relation to security requirements and human rights, largely in that order.
The Final Act of the Conference, the importance of which is reflected in its having been signed by almost all of the principal governmental leaders of the day, was the result of protracted diplomatic negotiation. Comprised of four key sections (or "baskets")--"Questions Relating to Security in Europe"; "Co-operation in the Fields of Economics, of Science and Technology, and of the Environment"; "Co-operation in Humanitarian and Other Fields"; and "Follow-up to the Conference"--it begins with a Declaration of Principles Guiding Relations Between States in which the "Participating States" solemnly declared "their determination to respect and put into practice," alongside other "guiding" principles, "respect [for] human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief" and "respect [for] the equal rights of peoples and their right to self-determination." It was hoped that this would mark the beginning of a liberalization of authoritarian regimes.
From the earliest discussions, however, it was clear that the Helsinki Final Act was not intended as a legally binding instrument. "Determination to respect" and "put into practice" were deemed to express moral commitments only, the Declaration of Principles was said not to prescribe international law, and nowhere did the participants provide for enforcement machinery. On the other hand, its Declaration of Principles, including its human rights principles, always was viewed as being at least consistent with international law; and in providing for periodic follow-up conferences it made possible a unique forum or negotiating process ("the Helsinki process") to review compliance with its terms and thus created expectations concerning the conduct of the "Participating States." In these ways, it proved to be an important force in the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the transformation of Eastern Europe.
The "Helsinki process" of long-running "follow-up," "summit," and other meetings served also to establish a mechanism for the normative, institutional, and procedural evolution of the CSCE; and in the 1990s especially, many specialized meetings and seminars, including meetings and seminars on the "human dimension" (human rights, the protection of national minorities, the rule of law, and democracy), set into motion an infrastructural transformation of the CSCE that has caused it to become, at least since its adoption of the Charter of Paris in 1991, an operational institution rather than merely a forum for discussion, negotiation, and verbal confrontation. At the 1994 Budapest Summit Meeting, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) was renamed the "Organization on Security and Co-operation in Europe" (OSCE), and its principal organs and bureaus now include, in addition to a Parliamentary Assembly, a Ministerial Council (the OSCE's central governing body), a Senior Council, a general secretariat, and a Permanent Council (the OSCE's regular body for consultation and decision-making), an Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw, a Conflict Prevention Centre in Vienna, a High Commissioner on National Minorities in The Hague, and a Court of Conciliation and Arbitration in Geneva. More and more these instrumentalities are being pressed into service to alleviate major deprivations of human rights, particularly those that arise from ethnic conflicts. In addition, the Vienna Human Dimension Mechanism established in 1989 and the Moscow Human Dimension Mechanism established in 1991 provide a preliminary structured means of raising and seeking to resolve disputes about violations of human rights commitments, including the possibility of on-site investigation by independent experts. However, while thus helping to facilitate the implementation of human dimension commitments, all of these instrumentalities and mechanisms bespeak an essentially interstate process; neither individuals nor non-governmental organizations have access to them except indirectly as suppliers of information and conveyors of political pressure. They thus contrast markedly with the individual complaint procedures that are available within the United Nations and in regional human rights systems.