Arthur C. Helton Memorial Lecture: The Legacy of the Helsinki Accords

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Secretary General, Amnesty International; Former Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, United Nations (20162021) (speaking virtually)

Founder and Editor-at-Large, PublicAffairs; Author, Would You Believe...The Helsinki Accords Changed the World?: Human Rights and, for Decades, Security in Europe; CFR Member

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Former UN Secretary-General's Special Expert on UN Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials (20122018); Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues (19972001)


James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance, Council on Foreign Relations; Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs (20092013)

Panelists discuss the history and legacy of the Helsinki Accords, the 1975 agreement that concluded the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and human rights concerns today.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

BRIMMER: Good morning. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations meeting, the annual Arthur C. Helton Memorial Lecture. Thank you for joining us today, including the 150 members who are joining us via Zoom. Today’s lecture is on the legacy of the Helsinki Accords. I am Esther Brimmer, and I will be presiding over today’s meeting.

Arthur C. Helton was director of peace and conflict studies at a senior fellow for refugee studies and preventative action here at CFR. This lecture is dedicated to Arthur’s lifetime mission of serving the world’s humanitarian and refugee crises. And I’d particularly like to welcome Jacqui Gilbert, his wife, and all of Arthur’s friends here in the room and online joining us today.

We have a distinguished panel for our conversation and I’d like to introduce our guests. Joining us virtually is Dr. Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, former special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions at the United Nations. On my immediate left is Peter Osnos, founder and editor-at-large of Public Affairs, and author of the newly published, Would You Believe…The Helsinki Accords Changed the World?: Human Rights and, for Decades, Security in Europe, and a CFR member. And on my far left, David Scheffer, senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, and former UN secretary-general special expert on UN assistance to the Khmer Rouge trials, and former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues.

So I will begin with questions with our guests and in half an hour we’ll open the floor to all of our members for questions and answers. So, Peter, if I may turn to you first, congratulations—

OSNOS: Done. (Laughter.)

BRIMMER: —on the publication of your new book. The very title draws us into the topic. Would You Believe…the Helsinki Accords Changed the World, Advancing Global Human Rights and, for Decades, Security in Europe. What made the Helsinki Accords distinctive?

OSNOS: Well, thank you. Thank you very much, Esther. I will say that when I saw the list of registrants yesterday—by the way, we were on one of those trains where the fire started on the Amtrak and so on. So the fact that we’re here is a tribute to Uber. (Laughter.) When I looked at the list of registrants, I said this is the largest gathering of people who actually know what the Helsinki Accords is since the summit itself in 1975. So I’ll be very succinct. The Helsinki Final Act was the consequence of what was essentially a moment in the Cold War called détente, in which it was thought that you could actually have some negotiation between East and West.

The Soviets had always wanted to fix the borders of Europe after World War II. And that had never happened. There was no peace treaty. And the West thought that they could take advantage of détente by introducing issues of cooperation, which in fact were human rights. And those two things came together. And finally at the end of—in August of 1975 an agreement was reached and signed at summit level. And, at the time it was signed, everybody kind of assumed that it was meaningless. The Wall Street Journal told Jerry Ford not to go. William Safire said, “rescind it immediately,” in the Times. There was no momentum on behalf of the accords, which is why its trajectory is so interesting. Because it did really make a chance.

I’ll give you just one small example. Embedded in the language were words that made it possible to reunite Germany. The language in the accords is what actually made it possible. No one knew that at the time. Secondly, it led to the creation of something called Helsinki Watch, first in Moscow and later in New York. And that evolved into Human Rights Watch, which has now got six hundred—roughly six hundred people working for it, $150 million endowment, and so on. So you cannot say that this agreement was meaningless when in fact it was tremendously impactful. And on the principle of man bites dog is a more interesting story than dog bites man, I wrote the book. (Laughter.)

BRIMMER: What can we learn from the Helsinki framework?

OSNOS: Well, one thing you can learn from the Helsinki framework is that stuff surprises you. Don’t assume automatically that the conventional wisdom of the moment is right. Remember, if anybody in 1975 had said at the summit, you know, in sixteen years there’s going to be no USSR, they probably would have been hospitalized. The truth is, things surprise. And we have to accommodate that. I don’t think anybody understood in ’75 exactly what would happen when the Soviet Union dissolved. But you went out in August and said, this is fun for Washington.

Do you know who one of the most significant figures in the creation of the human rights movement in the world was? Millicent Fenwick. Remember her? The congresswoman from New Jersey, smoke a pipe? After the accords, she was in Moscow. She met with a bunch of dissidents. And she said, have you people read this thing? It says here you can hold them to account on human rights. Really, they said? And they later created the Moscow Helsinki Group. And the funny thing about it is when Millicent Fenwick was with this kind of delegation, the first thought was that she was the secretary. That would not happen today. Anyway, for those of you who remember Millicent Fenwick, she was the Katharine Hepburn of Congress, is what she was called. Anyway, so surprises do come from unexpected places. And that’s what makes it interesting and that’s what makes it significant.

BRIMMER: David, let’s pick up on this point that Peter has just made, that the accords helped frame discussion of human rights afterwards. David, how do you see the impact of the Helsinki Accords on concepts of human rights after their conclusion?

SCHEFFER: Esther, thanks. And it’s a great privilege to be before you today. Helsinki was essentially a booster shot for the relevance of the UN Charter on the European continent. When one reads the Helsinki Accords, which took two years to negotiate, it’s a much more elaborate, more specific, quite articulate rendering of the fundamental principles that were embodied in the UN Charter in 1945 in San Francisco. And then it was applied very specifically to the thirty-five countries that signed it in 1975, under the Helsinki Accords.

That booster shot took a while to take effect, but it ultimately had a long-term very beneficial outcome. Not only in civil society, with the Helsinki Watch which became the ever-present Human Rights Watch, but also it imbued the dissident movements throughout Eastern Europe and in Russia itself. And it had the strength, frankly, of very fundamental principles underlying it, of which the negotiators in the Helsinki Accords had the benefit of expanding upon, of entrenching in the European continent.

And it was not just these countries. I think it deeply influenced the movement towards the strengthening of the European community and to the European Union. And the tremendous human rights foundation that underlies the European Union itself is influenced by the Helsinki Accords. You know, the principles that so many stood for in the 1990s in Europe, as Europe was being torn apart by the ethnic conflict in the Balkans, rested on an understanding of the Helsinki Accords. So that long-term impact was there.

And I think it’s worth recognizing that, yes, there are surprises in politics, but sometimes these sort of quasi-normative documents, which is what Helsinki Accords were. It was not a treaty. It was a signed declaration, essentially, by thirty-five countries, which ultimately morphed into a quasi-normative and ultimately normative context in terms of the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, enforcing it. All were strengthened by the Helsinki Accords.

Just as, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. At that time, it was just a declaration. It was just countries signing off on it in the General Assembly. Nonbinding. And yet, over the decades it achieved quite a normative value. And of course, it underpinned treaty law—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. All underpinned by this declaration, but ultimately became normative. And I think a quite similar pattern developed with Helsinki on the issue of human rights.

Of course, when it comes to security, there’s a different story.

BRIMMER: Thank you, David.

Dr. Agnès Callamard, joining us from Amnesty International, from your perspective how does the legacy of the Helsinki Accords inform advocacy for human rights today?

CALLAMARD: Thank you very much for inviting me to joining you. If by “today” you mean 2023, one year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, if by “today” you mean a world where democracy and democratization are moving backward—there is a report published today that says that we are back to the 1986 situation when it comes to democracies around the world. So if you—by “today” you mean the breaking down of our international system, the climate crisis, rising inequality, distrust, trade wars, the armament race, I would say that we need—we need much more than the Helsinki Accord.

They are still—you know, some of the principles actually will and still inform the way we work. I mean, the booster shot that was referred to, the dissident movement, the creation of some of the most effective human rights organization, that is part of the legacy. And that is what we are building on. We are building on issues related to freedom of expression, freedom of the press, you know, the right to disagree with your government, elections—all of which have formed part and parcel of the way the Helsinki Accord have been implemented, in particular today we’re seeing.

So I don’t want to suggest that it does not impact where we are. What I want to highlight, though, is that the state of the world right now is really at such a level of disfunctioning and existentialist crisis that we really need more than that legacy and this knowledge in order to get us out of, you know, where we’re going to, the travel—the direction of travel, which is increasingly looking like an abyss. So that is—and, you know, as I was preparing for discussion today, I came across this report published by V-Democracy, which I would like to encourage people to read it. And it makes for a staggering read, to think that we are back to 1986 in terms of the numbers and the heads of democracies around the world. So the conversation today could not be more timely.

BRIMMER: Indeed. It could not be more timely. And where we’d like to develop both these points is understanding how have institutions and frameworks been used in times of huge transition, and what can we—what might we draw on today? So let me follow up on this—your first point.

Dr. Callamard, could you see a Helsinki-type of process or framework to deal with the outcome of accountability for human rights in the war in Ukraine now?

CALLAMARD: Helsinki 2.0? Yes. I mean, it has been—you know, it has been discussed, including by the Finnish president in July 2021. And it has also been suggested in the aftermath of the first invasion of Ukraine, in 2014. So within the—I’ll say the community of state, there is certainly a realization that something like the Helsinki spirit needs to be revived.

From my standpoint, in the aftermath of one year of war crimes committed by Russia, in addition to the crime of aggression, I am a little bit more concerned about some dimension of Helsinki, you know, because it’s clear that borders were traded for dialogue. And I honestly do not see any possibility of this happening right now. And first of all pragmatically, and secondly at a principle level. If we are talking about the borders of the—you know, the borders of Ukraine, the borders of Moldova, the borders of Georgia, if we are talking about unfreezing the frozen conflict to return to a border situation that is acceptable to the people then, yes, it’s possible.

But, you know, so from that standpoint I think it raises a lot of red flags. From the standpoint of the other pillars of Helsinki, absolutely. Human rights, you know, the right of minorities, elections, freedom of expression, freedom of the press. All of the civil society which really made the OSCE a very interesting body, yes, yes, and yes. But can we have that and, you know, this trading borders for dialogue? I think it will be extremely difficult.

BRIMMER: David, I’d like to turn to you to look specifically at how the Helsinki process contributed to the concept of a crime of aggression. And then, Peter, we may want to talk also about how it’s been used in other important transitions, including the end of the Cold War. So, David, the crime of aggression.

SCHEFFER: Esther, let me take the audience back to the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 which, again, [was a binding] treaty. It was simply a declaration by sixty countries, including Russia at that time—or, the Soviet Union, at that time. Stating that war of aggression, as it was defined in that pact, should no longer be part of state policy in order to resolve conflicts and deal with international politics. Well, of course, we all saw that that failed to be the guiding principle, because we all—the world slipped into World War II, egregiously.

But in hindsight now, when we look back at the Kellogg-Briand Pact, it did establish the principle, which was then19 articulated in UN Charter and, in the most recent articulation, in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. All of that goes back to Kellogg-Briand to give us an understanding of what the crime of aggression actually is. So it had its value, Kellogg-Briand.

In the case of Helsinki, we can go back and see a very well-articulated expression of normative values on the nonuse of armed force—not to use it to, you know, jeopardize the territorial integrity of states, et cetera. At the time, in 1975, that was seen as the give to Brezhnev and the Soviets, because the Soviet Union would then remain intact. And at that point, Ukraine, Belarus, et cetera, were all part of the Soviet Union. So that was the deal.

But frankly, it has morphed since then, particularly as it evolved with the end of the Cold War. You had the Charter of Paris at the end of 1990 articulating very strong principles with respect to the non-use of force, and then the creation of the OSCE from the cooperation for security—the CSCE, the Conference for Cooperation and Security in Europe became the organization—it became an institutional structure in 1995 to actually push forward a lot of these principles, dispute resolution, et cetera.

But all along in that process, those principles were building, so that—I agree with Agnès that Ukraine demonstrates sort of should we have a Helsinki two concept on board—under discussion? But I would also argue that by the time we came to both the Crimea invasion in 2014 and then the 2022 invasion, we knew what the guardrails were. I mean, the fact that the guardrails were violated by Russia doesn’t mean that the guardrails are somehow a failure, that they somehow are a defective expression of normative values in the world.

In fact, I would argue that the strong reaction to Ukraine’s—or, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates the strength of not only the UN Charter, which has been what we’ve talked about the most in the last year, but frankly we should talk a little bit more about Helsinki over the last year and the strength of the principles that are in Helsinki, which were violated by Russia. Because the reaction of the world has really been one of sympathetic embrace of what is actually articulated in Helsinki, and the Charter of Paris, et cetera.

BRIMMER: Peter, you’ve seen diplomats and statecraft turning to the Helsinki Accords at times of great change. The end of the Cold War is an example, grappling with the challenge of accountability in Ukraine is another. What do you see—what’s your perspective on the legacy of Helsinki?

OSNOS: Well, I was going to say, listening to the two other panelists, that I’m—even though I made myself a student of the Helsinki Accords and other things—I’m a journalist. And I see an arc. Yes, the current situation involves all the negatives that have been described. There’s no question. I give you almost any period in history which is analogous. It is true that from the signing of the Helsinki Accords until Putin invaded, basically the borders in Europe held. We’re now back to the—not 1986—we’re back to the nineteenth century, you know, in which one country will invade another country simply because they want the land, or they want to take it over.

What Helsinki did was establish a norm—not a normative, because I don’t know exactly how to define that—but a norm of Europe. Remember, the Balkan Wars never spilled beyond the borders of the Balkans. They were internal. He nibbled at Georgia, Putin. He nibbled a little here, and then he—but it wasn’t until 2022 that every one of the principles included in the Final Act were violated by Putin. What we’re dealing with now is, in a sense, a nineteenth century despot, a twentieth-century despot, who simply does what he wants to do. But the accords caught the moment in which things began to change.

I think we—and we were talking about this on the phone. I said, one of the reasons why a Helsinki Watch in New York was created in the way that it was, was because of the effect of the antiwar and civil rights movements in America, had established a way for public gathering on issues of consequence. Every member of that early group of the Helsinki Watch in New York came out, in one way or another, of the civil rights movement or the antiwar movement.

We have changed the way the world functions. Have we made it a better world? (Laughs.) Well, not yet. But we have changed the way the world functions because we have, for example, made a much greater effort to include all kinds of people. But we haven’t changed the basic reality of human nature, which is if you put a Putin in charge in the Kremlin and he wants Ukraine, he’s going to go for it. And no matter what kind of diplomatic agreement you have, you’re always going to be—this country is now dealing with, you know what we’re dealing with. But it’s not the first time we’ve had to deal with it in American society, polarization and so on, a gilded age.

There’s a certain kind of momentum in history which I’ve come to understand does repeat. It doesn’t necessarily look the same, but it does rhyme. So what I’d say what the Helsinki Accords did was frame things in a way that they had not been previously framed, enabled both on the security side for the borders, essentially, to hold. I think the reunification of Germany, which no one thought was possible, was possible. And create this global human rights movement. I mean, think of it. Amnesty was the first. But Amnesty wrote letters on behalf of political prisoners.

What Human Rights Watch started doing was research—I was the foreign editor of the Washington Post. And if somebody sent us a thing from a human rights group, we never took it seriously because it was advocacy. But what Human Rights Watch did was develop the whole way in which you investigate human rights abuses wherever they are, and as a result of the quality of your investigation you can advocate. Everybody in the world now takes human rights investigation by Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty, and a few other organizations, seriously because of the nature, the quality, of the research, which I would call investigation, and therefore advocacy.

None of that existed. So we are moving forward in a variety of ways. But let’s face it. We’re still humans. (Laughs.) And there will be people among us who are aggressive and subversive and repressive, and all the other things. But process is part of it. And that’s why it’s a story. It’s an arc. And very few people will recognize, until hopefully they confront it in a book, just what that arc was, and why it mattered. And I should also say that Susan and I—my wife—we had a very deeply emmeshed personal relationship to this thing.

We were in Moscow. I knew every one of the dissidents. You know, I knew Sakharov, and Yelena Bonner, and the Sharanskys, and the Orlovs. My wife’s father, Susan’s father, was the American delegate to the Helsinki Accords, while also being ambassador to Czechoslovakia. We knew everybody who started the Helsinki Watch groups in New York. I was on the board. Susan was the press director. I decided, as a writer, that there was story I could tell because I had so many different connections to it. And I was going to write it, even though I had no illusions that there would be long lines in front of Barnes & Noble. But it’s an important story simply because it’s so little understood and known.

BRIMMER: It’s fascinating to look at the layers of organization and planning that then become part of creating a web of human rights observers. And to take a—as you say—an accord, created in 1975, long before the cellphone, and realize that in an era where it is—we can see immediately what’s going on in the ground, not only in Ukraine but in many places around the world where there are serious human rights abuses, and immediately share that, is extraordinary. And I would argue, you can go back to—all the way back to the early nineteenth century antislavery movement as the first international effort of looking at domestic initiatives. But moving forward to an era where we can stand and show you what’s going on is extraordinary.

In a few minutes, I’m going to open questions to our members, but I guess maybe I’d turn to you for any further comment you’d like to share with us at this time before we open up for general questions.

CALLAMARD: I think the reaction I would like to offer maybe is I do like the image of the arc. My only issue probably with it is that I’m not at all convinced that the solution to the multiplicity of intertwined crises that we are confronting can be found in what we did in the past. I think the past does teach a lot of lesson, and that we will be very wise to learn, and then properly and effectively. But I also feel that the world of 2023 is so inherently different, if only because of the climate crisis—if only because of the climate crisis, if only because of the multiplicity of actors who are now prepared to act much more strongly and effectively, if only because the human rights movement has morphed into, you know, a much larger, much bigger, much global, much universal movement, you know, particularly integrating economic and social rights, and so on and so forth.

So, you know, I’m no more convinced that the solution are always Helsinki 2.0, for a variety of reasons. But I do think that, yes, the boundaries issues, the territorial integrity issue is superbly important. But my reading of Helsinki was that it traded a little bit around that. And that is, you know, one of the caution—one of my problem with going back to it. I don’t believe that—you know, for instance, there is a strong core right now within a number of countries to reinvent the nonaligned movement as a solution for our world of, you know, this Cold War era–like. I just think as an international community we need to reinvent those instruments, those organized forms of collective action. And I’m not convinced that it’s by looking backward that we can do so.

BRIMMER: Thank you.

Peter, you have one more—

OSNOS: Well, I want to go in a slightly different direction. One of the things that I have become very conscious of in the last, say, decade, starting with a book by Jill Lepore, the professor at Harvard, called These Truths, in which she retold the story of America, and the daily feed we now get from Heather Cox Richardson called Letters to Americans, in which that book, and her—they’d say history is something that explains the present. That one of the phenomena—I see Charles Duelfer’s here. He’d probably agree with me that it was always said about the United States and Vietnam, and then it was said about the United States and Iraq. That the United States wasn’t only in Vietnam for ten years, we were in Vietnam for one year ten times.

And one of the great—and that’s true, by the way. We didn’t learn. And one of the things that I’ve become completely sort of fascinated by—and I’m a grandfather—is what I can see by studying the history of how events evolved in the past. As I said, over and over again you discover the origin of current problems are in the past, where we had similar problems.

BRIMMER: That’s a good note on which to open up our questions. Indeed, the role of what we’ve learned from the past. I’d like to invite questions for our members, because I think this stimulating conversation has elicited many.

Just to say in general that at this time I would like to invite members to join us for—join the conversation with their questions. A reminder that this hybrid meeting is on the record. I’ll take the first questions here in Washington and then, of course, turn to questions online. The gentleman in the back, and then come here.

Q: Thank you very much. Massimo Calabresi from Time magazine.

Sorry, can you hear me?

BRIMMER: A little louder.

OSNOS: Speak up a little bit.

Q: Massimo Calabresi from Time magazine. Thank you very much. Fascinating discussion.

I wanted to follow up a little bit on the discussion of what it looked like from the Soviet side, the deal, and what they were getting. I suspect that if we ask Putin today what he thought of the Helsinki Accords, he would say it was the first mistaken step down a propaganda trap by the West. And I wonder what the conditions were that enticed Brezhnev to embrace the Helsinki program. Were they internal within the bloc? Were they internal within USSR? Were they external? And how far are we from those conditions on Putin at the moment.

OSNOS: Remember, it was détente. So there was a—the Soviets had an interest, and they had a partner in Kissinger and Nixon to talk about this kind of stuff. But they were so—they started talking about getting the borders in Europe fixed in 1954. So what they got out of this thing was fixed borders—(inaudible)—which is why everybody said, don’t go, because you’re just giving something to the Russians, the Soviets. But at the same time, because cooperation was put on the agenda, basket three, in which all the issues that were interesting to us became part of the discussion, you have these two parts. Basket one was security. Basket three was human rights or cooperation.

And, fascinatingly, the United States was able—even though we were not the major driving force of the negotiations—we were able to say to the Russians, you want us borders? You give us basket three. And because the Russians were so kind of focused on this very narrow issue, they missed the point, that they were giving up something immensely—what turned out to be, because we used it—valuable. Accountability on all the human rights issues. There has not been that before.

So what was in the Russian-Soviet context was borders. What was in our mind was how to push the process, which we called détente, forward and create this thing which enabled human rights and so forth to take on the momentum it did. So, as I said, unexpected consequences. The Soviets didn’t really know what they were doing. We didn’t really know what we were doing until it was pointed out that we could do it.

BRIMMER: David, Agnès?

SCHEFFER: Oh, just given the mindset of Putin, as far as we can discern it, he might argue, great, Helsinki. At the time we signed it, in 1975, it had nothing to do with the borders of Ukraine. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. We hereby reclaim Ukraine as it existed in 1975. So no need to speak with me about the protection of sovereign borders under the Helsinki Accords. Of course, that completely ignores the evolution in Europe with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, underpinned by the Helsinki Accords, with many nations joining it now. What, fifty-seven, I think, or so, are in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. All acting under the guidance of the Helsinki Accords. So but it would be, in Putin’s mindset—

BRIMMER: Yeah. Thank you.

CALLAMARD: That is personally why I believe a repeat of Helsinki is not an option, because the trade-off between borders and human rights or accountability will not be accepted—acceptable to anyone, in my view, at the moment. There is no way any—you know, particularly Putin’s sense of borders—there is no way there can be a trade-off around borders at the moment, in my—in my view. So that’s why I’m not convinced that this is an option.

BRIMMER: Another question might be—might be: What can we draw from the OSCE’s role in a variety of different types of peacebuilding arrangements? Might be—(inaudible).

But I have a question from the gentleman at this table.

Q: Thank you. Bill Courtney from the RAND Corporation.

In the 1970s also, the Department of State began issuing country reports on human rights globally. What was the extent of reinforcement, if you will? Was one of these planned to reinforce the other, or were they just simultaneous events?

OSNOS: David, you may—(inaudible).

I would say that, look, the general consensus was that human rights was an issue, but not the issue. So it was one—you know, there was agenda. There were a great many arms control agreements. Remember MBFR, and SALT, and so forth. But once human rights became a legitimate, acknowledged part of intergovernmental, international measurements, it took on its own significance. And remember, in the beginning it was just political rights. But at Human Rights Watch now you’ve got every conceivable kind of—you have disability rights. You have LGBTQ rights. You have, you know, the women’s, and children’s, and every kind of rights which started with political rights, started with those dissidents in Moscow.

That’s where it was. A bunch of people who had the wit, the courage, whatever it was, the daring to take on the Soviets. But now everybody is included in challenging the way people are treated. And that’s very much a function of the second half of the twentieth century and where we are now. Whether the State Department, you know, does what it does, that’s really important, because it shows an interest. But it goes up and down depending on the administration. (Laughs.) It’s a long way between Patt Derian, who was the first assistant secretary for human rights, and I don’t know who Trump’s was. There’s a different kind of thing. But it’s always now a fact that a measurement of human rights belongs in any judgment about international relations. And that’s—remember, Holocaust, genocide. These were terms, but it became human rights.

BRIMMER: If I may, just on that particular point, and I’ll say much earlier in my career I was working in the secretary for political affairs, of watching the process of writing out those—writing those reports, right? There’s a congressional element, which is interesting from the foreign policy point of view. One is that, indeed, because Congress was increasingly interested in human rights and foreign assistance. Are we giving assistance to countries that violate human rights? How do we understand that? And so the importance of being able to report on that was also dynamic, I think, in the 1970s.

The other aspect I’ll just mention, again, when we think about policymaking, is the creation of the commission on the security and conference—security and human rights in Europe. And what was interesting here is that this was bipartisan and was a vehicle in which you actually had the executive branch and Congress, members of Congress, talking regularly about human rights. And I would suggest again, when we think about an era where we have such divisions, unfortunately, on very fundamental foreign policy issues, that this was a mechanism where you actually had, over time, serious discussion about security in Europe. And I think that was our contribution to U.S. policymaking.

I understand we have a question online.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Michael Haltzel.

Q: Thank you. Terrific session. This is Mike Haltzel. I’m at Johns Hopkins SAIS.

I’d like to draw our attention to one of the Helsinki process documents that we haven’t mentioned yet, namely, the summit commemorative declaration in Astana, Kazakhstan, in December of 2010. It was the last summit that the organization has led. I think that in itself says a little bit about how its importance may have declined. But whichever way it is, there were two articles in the commemorative declaration that were signed by all fifty-seven participating states. Medvedev was the president of Russia at the time, and he signed. Let me just basically summarize what they say.

Article 3 said, we have reaffirmed the inherent right of each and every participating state to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve. Within the OSCE, no state, group of states, or organization can consider any part of the OSCE area as its sphere of influence. I think that second part is remarkable, because the defenders of Putin in the West use the sphere of influence argument all the time. And Medvedev signed on the dotted line saying: We don’t—we don’t believe in spheres of influence. And then there was one which said, article 7, we pledge to refrain from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the UN or the Helsinki Final Act Decalogue. It was only three and a quarter years later that the Russians went into Crimea, thereby changing the borders in Europe.

But I do think that Astana commemorative declaration, which took a lot of preparation. There was prep time meeting for several weeks in Vienna. I happened to lead the U.S. delegation there. We knew what we were doing, and we got specific. This was after Georgia, don’t forget. This was two and a half years after the invasion of Georgia. It seems to me, that in terms of guardrails, the Astana declaration is perhaps the most relevant of all for our situation today. I wonder if the three of you, or any of you, would like to comment. Thank you.

BRIMMER: Thank you so much for that question.

SCHEFFER: Well, I just think it’s—thank you so much for bringing that to everyone’s attention. It’s just another example of where the values are settled. They’re articulated. They’re confirmed at the political level. The fact that they are then later violated doesn’t mean that that document from 2010 has lost its strength or value. It’s just that we know even more firmly what has been violated by Russia with respect to its invasion of Ukraine. And that has value to it. I think we sometimes—I see this all the time with the international criminal tribunals over the last thirty years.

We sometimes, even with treaties, we place too much weight on whether the treaty itself, or in this case the declaration, will be the enforcing agent for state conduct, or that the tribunals will be the enforcing agent for strongmen who really don’t care and are just going to use their power to commit atrocities in any event. It’s not the tribunals and it’s not the treaties themselves that are the enforcement agents. That’s the realm of diplomacy, of interstate relations, of power politics.

And if anyone thought those were out of favor, I would strongly disagree. You need a very strong backup politically of what is established by such declarations, and by treaties, and by tribunals. And I think Russia probably, and Mr. Putin, got the wrong impression of the West before he went into Ukraine. But he’s rolling his dice, and we have to roll ours.

OSNOS: I don’t really have anything to add to that. I would say this about Putin, though. If you can take a personal anecdote. In 2000, when Boris Yeltsin decided he’d had enough and he was going to turn it over, I happened to be working with him on a book called Midnight Diaries. And Putin had just been made—taken, really out of obscurity, and we said to Yeltsin in his dacha, so Boris Nikolayevich, why Putin? He said, well, of all those guys who were around me, Putin was the only one who didn’t kiss my butt. (Laughs.) I felt that he was tough enough to take on this mission.

And then, Putin asked us—the New York publisher—to do a book for him. We put a bunch of journalists together, three Russian journalists, who spent twenty-four hours with him. And the book was called First Person. It’s still available, and you should read it. It’s the most dramatic sort of personal excavation of who Putin was then and how he has become who he is. What you saw was Yeltsin turning it over to Putin, because Putin was tough, and no one else could be. Putin then went from being a person who was picking up the thread, and turned the clock back. You can take communism out of Russia, but you can’t take Russians out of Russia. And Putin is a classic Russian.

So what you’re seeing are personalities, to some extent, and how personalities play out. We still don’t know what the endgame for Putin is going to be. I don’t think he’s going to go into retirement somewhere comfortably, in his big dacha. Something will happen. Remember, that’s how Khrushchev was ousted, Gorbachev was almost ousted. People get bumped off. Russia is not a country that evolves logically in the way that perhaps we want the United States to. (Laughs.) It’s convulsive. And so my sense of the future is watch the space. Don’t taken anything as a given. I do not believe this war is going to end up in a protracted negotiation somewhere in which there are bits and pieces. Something else will happen.

BRIMMER: Agnès, did you want to comment?

CALLAMARD: Yeah. I just wanted to remind us maybe all that let’s not forget the third kid on the block, China. Let’s not forget the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement. There are—there has been over the last twenty-thirty years a multiplicity of development of security arrangement, including one of the latest one between the U.S., Australia, and the UK. So that’s a first, you know, not—it’s, I think, a very important element as we assess the various positioning of the key actors around security and the complexity of those security arrangements at the moment.

The second is while we probably cannot quite control what Putin is doing, we certainly can control what we should do, or what we should advocate the United States and others do. And from the standpoint of Amnesty International, I think at a time when democracies are under attack, at a time when, you know, a variety of human rights, including women’s rights, are going backward, what we do need is not only a strong state prepared to take on militarily those that violate various rules, but we also need a state—a stable state—that are, you know, committed to international rules without double standards, that are committed to a coherent and systematic application and implementation of those universal principles.

Sadly, right now—and I think it is why it’s so much more open—why the resolution of what’s happening right now is probably more open than we would hope for. Sadly, the United States over the last twenty—over the last twenty months, at least, has not moved us into a direction of getting rid of double standard in their understanding and application of international human rights, and so on and so forth. And I will say, that, to me, is going to be the litmus test for who is going to be able to convince the greater number of states to join them. National interest, of course, will always prevail. But the belief that whoever is more powerful than the others is prepared to be fair, I think that will play a big role.

BRIMMER: We’ll take the next question from a member online.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Felice Gaer. Ms. Gaer, please accept the unmute prompt. We seem to be having a technical difficulty. We will move on and take our next question from Stephen Kass.

Q: Thank you. Stephen Kass, NYU Center for Global Affairs.

I would like to ask Agnès, in view of her current and past comments, what institutional reforms she would propose to move forward to deal with the broad and integrated nature of human rights and other issues confronting the world now?

CALLAMARD: Well, that’s a very difficult question. I hope the other panelists will jump. Look, I think it’s evident that the Security Council need to be reformed. During the Munich conference last month, there were quite a few call for that reform, but a lot of resistance, particularly coming from Western governments. And I think that’s very problematic. We are—we have reached a stage where that reform cannot be avoided. And in fact, it should be brought forward and really pushed forward. That reform need to begin by the veto, but it needs also to consider member—participating members. Point number one.

Point number two, the UN machinery when it comes to human rights is so deeply, deeply underfunded, so dependent on political maneuvering and bilateral relationship, that is not the way to construct the world moving forward and to respond effectively to the multiplicity of crises. So that too requires changes. I’m following with some degree of interest, coupled with skepticism, Joe Biden initiative around the Summit of Democracies. I think, you know, politically it’s an important move and something that could potentially play a role, although the X community of democracies never really reached that level, provided there is a commitment to looking at democracy and democratization without any double standards. And provided the economic issues, the debt crisis, and a range of things linked to the inequality between states, are tackled in a much more open and transparent way.

So I’m not providing very detailed answers, but more where we need to go around—you know, around institutions, around tackling inequality between states on economic issue, the debt, the financing of climate crises, and so on and so forth. Thank you.

BRIMMER: Thank you, Agnès. We have just a few minutes left, and do we have another question? I want to make sure we get questions in. Yes, please. We’ll take our next question also online.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Robert Kushen.

Q: Hi. This is Rob Kushen. I had the privilege of being at Helsinki Watch in 1990–91, reporting on the Soviet Union and its breakup.

Esther, you hinted at a question that I wanted to ask, which is about the OSCE. And Peter mentioned the nibbles that Russia took from time to time before its invasion of Ukraine. Those started in 1992, with Moldova. And I wonder if anyone would like to comment on the effectiveness of the OSCE as an international organization in deterring this kind of aggression, which really does go that far back, at least to 1992. Thanks.

OSNOS: I would say this, OSCE and the Commission, which we didn’t mention, the fact that there is still a Helsinki Commission, which is still bipartisan and still functions on—essentially, on Capitol Hill, but it’s supposedly an executive—I would say the OSCE Commission, the Security Council, these are all kind of foundational parts of the process. But one thing that we learned over the last seventy-five years is the power of civic engagement in making things happen, of which Human Rights Watch or Amnesty, but Human Rights Watch is a perfect example.

You can influence all the better by organizing. And I don’t mean, you know, the barricades. I’m talking about significant civic activity on behalf of values. That, to me, is one of the great phenomenon of an age in which communications and activity is so much easier than it once was. So, yes, the Security Council should be fixed. Yes, OSCE should not just have 5,700 people and a $200 million budget, but be more effective. The Commission, let’s face it, nobody from the State Department has been appointed to the Commission in years.

But civic engagement, values, is where I see a tremendous potential. And that’s what’s happening in the climate universe. You know, you take a kid like Greta Thunberg, and look at the impact that she has. So I think the fact is that people can make a difference. (Laughs.) And that’s one of the things that came out of the Helsinki Accords. It was Sakharov, Orlov, Sharansky, and those guys on the street in Moscow willing to take on the Kremlin, which, if you think about it, was weird, and bizarre, and crazy. But they succeeded, in part because they initiated something which took over elsewhere in the world and became this very formidable sense that we can move change.

So people like Amnesty, which has been around a long time, should be encouraged. Agnès, thank you very much for joining us late at night in Paris. Because I really believe that the power of the public can be mobilized in meaningful ways.

BRIMMER: Thank you. Thank you.

Concluding thoughts, David, Agnès? I’ll turn to each of you.

SCHEFFER: I know we’re ending here, but I just wanted to quickly say to Mr. Kushen’s question, the OSCE today is an organization I strongly support for what it’s doing, but it has such a huge mandate on so many subjects and so many areas, it’s rather broad, but not that deep on many of these issues. So it’s taken on a huge agenda. And I think sometimes we need to understand that OSCE can only do so much in terms of developing the kind of cooperation and restraint that we would like to see it perform in Europe. I do think that—I want to just—if I may, just take one more minute, Esther?

BRIMMER: Briefly, because I want to make sure I get Agnès.

SCHEFFER: OK. I just want to follow up Agnès’s point about double standards. This is what I hear constantly throughout the Ukraine conflict of the last year, is how the United States has to position itself more smartly in terms of pursuing the principles that have been violated in Ukraine. And one way to do that is to perform in a way that other countries do not see us as exercising double standards. And that means we need to get on deck ratifying the large number of treaties that we have not done so. So that’s, for me, priority number one in order to dispel the notion that we’re preaching to the rest of the world, but we’re not joining the very legal commitments that they have themselves joined.

OSNOS: Very important point.

BRIMMER: Thank you, David. Last word, Agnès.

CALLAMARD: I could not agree more with the two previous speakers. Civic power, the power of the women and men and children that are standing up to repression and to the attacks on democracies, you know, that’s a key driver. And then the advocacy, because, yes, the normative framework matters. It is the basis upon which we can build a peaceful future, a secure future, climate justice. Ratification of those principles must be a priority for a country which wants to, you know, push the world into a better—a better state. Thank you.

BRIMMER: Thank you. Thank you to everyone for joining today’s hybrid meeting. And thank you, especially, to Agnès Callamard, Peter Osnos, and David Scheffer, for their comments today. (Applause.) Please note that the video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. Thank you.


This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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