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Helsinki movement: a source of inspiration, solidarity and strength

By Brigitte Dufour, IPHR Director

It is an honour for me to take part in the 35th anniversary celebrations of the Moscow Helsinki Group. I was here 10 years ago to celebrate the 25th Anniversary, which was a very inspirational moment for me that gave me personally impetus to continue in my human rights work, as it probably did for many other participants from various countries.

So thank you for inviting me again, and for making it possible to address this impressive audience.

As we know, the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) was the first Helsinki Committee and the first independent human rights group to operate in the former Soviet Union. It served as an example and encouragement to other such groups that were soon to be set up in Lithuania, Ukraine and Georgia and other parts of the USSR and Eastern Europe. Most importantly, the Moscow Helsinki Group established principles and patterns of work that have had a profound and far-reaching impact on human rights and for human rights defender groups throughout the world.

Today the Moscow Group continues to document human rights abuses, striving to protect space for civil society. In all my trips to various regions of Russia and in other CIS countries, I have always been impressed by the indisputable reputation enjoyed by the MHG and felt pride for it when seeing the great respect that all human rights defenders have for the work of the founders of the organisation as forerunners of all independent human rights defenders in the totalitarian system of the former USSR.

While much has changed in the political environment of the OSCE since the MHG was founded, I believe it is important to note that the basic problems facing many human rights defenders in the OSCE region today are remarkably similar to those faced by the early veterans of the Helsinki movement.

While celebrating the Moscow Helsinki Group’s anniversary, we should not forget the difficult situation many Helsinki committees and other human rights groups in our region continue to work in:

  • Some of our colleagues have been imprisoned (here I think especially our colleagues Evguenyi Zhovtis in Kazakhstan and Azizhan Askarov in Kyrgyzstan), others have been killed, like too many of our Russian colleagues over the past few years.
  • The Belarusan Helsinki Committee has operated in a completely inhospitable, if not hostile, environment since it was founded in 1995, and the recent events in Minsk in the aftermath of the 19 December elections have made their work even more challenging.
  • No independent human rights groups can operate in Turkmenistan. The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights works as an exile organization, with its head facing ongoing harassment, including death threats.
  • Independent human rights organizations working in other Central Asian states continue to face intimidation and harassment, which is a source of particular concern for our organisation, the International Partnership for Human Rights. Together with the Helsinki Committees in Russia, Norway, Bulgaria, Poland, The Netherlands and Sweden (now the Civil Rights Defenders), we raised a number of issues related to current difficulties faced by human rights defenders in Central Asia in a statement to the OSCE member states on the occasion of the Warsaw review meeting in October last year.
  • The Helsinki committees in the Balkans, which have been standing together against crimes driven by ethnic nationalism, acted as bridges between communities in times of conflict and raised their voices of concern for human rights and civil liberties in the course of a sluggish reform process, continue to fall victims of nasty campaigns in the media, and to derision.

Given the problems and difficulties faced by human rights defenders in Russia, Central Asia, the Balkans and elsewhere, it’s clear that they continue to need support from us, colleagues working in other countries. This is also where the Helsinki movement has an important role to play, as a network of solidarity and cooperation. It is the experience of my organization, International Partnership for Human Rights that there is a demand from many local groups in the former Soviet Union for assistance and cooperation on raising international awareness about the persecution of human rights defenders, and other pressing human rights concerns in their countries.

The Helsinki Foundation in Poland and the Helsinki Committees in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania continue to form a strong core of the Helsinki movement and are in a particular position to provide support to colleagues in non-democratic countries given their own experiences of working behind the Iron Curtain. The prospect of European Union (EU) membership provided these and other committees in Eastern Europe with a positive political dynamic to improve human rights. But granting entry into the EU has left a deceiving impression to many that human rights problems no longer exist in the so-called new EU member states, while of course they do both in the so-called new and old Europe and the work of Helsinki Committees in these countries remains essential.

While most West European Helsinki committees were initially formed to support their counterparts behind the Iron Curtain and still continue their international assistance programs, many of them have also taken on the task of monitoring human rights in their own countries. This work is particularly relevant in the context of new threats to human rights arising from measures taken in response to terrorist and other (real or purported) threats to national security, as well as increasingly restrictive migration policies and growing racism and intolerance against “newcomers”. These developments also show that serious human rights violations occur across the whole OSCE region, which further underscores the importance of cooperation among Helsinki and other groups.

I believe that all of this supports the conclusion that the Helsinki movement still exists and is vivid, and that it is, definitely, needed.

After the painful closure of the IHF Secretariat, there were questions on whether Helsinki Committees still continued to exist. It was important to insist that each Helsinki group is an independent entity that has continues their work on behalf of the promotion of the Helsinki commitments in the human dimension field. At the same time it is essential to point out that many smaller groups of the Helsinki movement can only continue to work with support from other members of the Helsinki movement. In my view, today’s celebrations show not only that the movement is still alive but that it provides moral support to colleagues in vulnerable positions.

To promote human rights efficiently, it is essential to human rights organizations and movements in today’s human rights environment to show visible presence, and to voice their concerns, clearly on the international level – not only to the OSCE but also to the U.N., the Council of Europe and the European Union – to make these decision-making bodies aware of the findings and messages of Helsinki Committees. The spirit of solidarity that has evidently survived throughout difficult times also needs acknowledgement, and IPHR has, in its modest way, tried to contribute to it, especially in Brussels where we are based. Using the various instruments available in the EU, we are assisting local human rights NGOs in raising their concerns and making sure that the EU takes into account their recommendations in dialogues with national authorities – sometimes successfully, some other times not so, when the EU is responding more to realpolitik than to principles of human rights promotion and protection.

I’d like to finish by drawing a parallel between the demands for fundamental rights and freedoms that were made by the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group 35 years ago, and which marked the start for the Helsinki movement, and those made in the Arab world today. I believe that the Helsinki human rights movement can serve as an equalled source of inspiration for groups on this region. In the Arab countries today, as in the USSR in the 1970s, it is necessary to demand that human rights commitments made by governments are taken at face value. In view of this, I am convinced that the Helsinki movement has a future not only in its own region, but also cross-regionally and internationally.

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