An attempt at a new peace accord for Europe

Teaser Image Caption
CSCE Conference, signing of the Helsinki Final Act 1975, from left to right: German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Erich Honecker, Gerald Ford, Bruno Kreisky.”

“Helsinki II” is on everone’s lips of late. Yet, the new accord is to be an evolution rather than a mere revision of Helsinki I.

On August 1, 1975, the Helsinki Final Act was signed in Helsinki. Yet, the guidelines for security and cooperation in Europe negotiated at the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) between the Soviet Union and the West apparently lost their standing in current Russian politics. Instead, tensions between Russia and the West, hitherto unseen since the Cold War, have emerged and culminated in the conflict over the Ukraine. Whether or not the collaboration in the fight against the so-called Islamic State in Syria will lead to a rapprochement remains to be seen.

In that context, on what basis should a cooperation be resumed, and what rules for international policy shall apply in the future? Lately, there has been a lot of talk about “Helsinki II.” Yet from our perspective, such an accord must be more than a mere revision of Helsinki I and seek to build on and develop the principles agreed upon at that time.

The Helsinki Final Act set forth two basic principles: First, the sovereign equality of all European states. This includes the right to territorial integrity. Borders may only be changed by peaceful means and in agreement with all sides. There are no privileged first-class states and subordinated second-class states of a limited sovereignty. Secondly, the refraining from the use of force or threat with force. Force is to be prohibited as a means in European politics; no country shall be prevented in the full exercise of its sovereign rights through the use of force or the threat with force. This includes the right of every state to choose its alliances freely. Two other cornerstones of the Helsinki Final Act are the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and cooperation in the fields of economics, science, environment, culture and humanitarian issues. These commitments, too, remain highly relevant as part of a European peace accord.

Why was the CSCE regime unable to prevent the Russian-Ukrainian crisis that is threatening the entire European security system? Russia carries, by having annexed Crimea and having massively supported the separatists in southeast Ukraine, undoubtedly the greatest responsibility for the current escalation. However, the erosion of the cooperative security order in Europe began already with the Yugoslav Wars and continued with the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. In addition, there are the frozen conflicts in Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh.

In our view, the Helsinki principles still constitute the foundation for a European framework for peace. What is lacking are mechanisms and instruments to intervene in specific conflict situations. This applies especially to the new type of conflicts that have been threatening peace and security in Europe since the 1990s. Specifically, a destabilizing factor in the international order are intrastate conflicts in which an ethnic minority sees its rights violated and demands a state of its own (or its annexation to a neighboring state). Should the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which emerged from the CSCE, play a mediating role in resolving such conflicts under certain conditions? If so, a protocol for conflict mediation should be developed and included as an addendum to the Final Act.

A second area of ​​conflict concerns the right of all OSCE members, as stated in the Final Act, “to belong or not to belong to international organizations, to be or not to be a party to bilateral or multilateral treaties including the right to be or not to be a party to treaties of alliance; they also have the right to neutrality.” The right to the free choice of alliances shall not be questioned. Indeed, it is a core component of equal sovereignty. At the same time, it is obvious that a change of alliance or the accession of a previously neutral state to a supranational alliance affects the interests of third states. This can lead to, as recent European history shows, serious conflicts. Here, an institutional mechanism for the coordination of mutual security and economic interests could function to de-escalate matters.

Moreover, a binding consultation mechanism between the signatory states of the Helsinki Final Act should be set up in order to deal with acute crises that threaten European security at the European periphery. The example of Syria shows the need for such a mechanism in order to avoid so-called outsourced conflicts between OSCE states. Finally, further states should be given the opportunity to join the Helsinki Accords and its continuation, the Charter of Paris, and to thereby expand the European zone of ​​security and cooperation. For this, an appropriate protocol should be established, one that would be, in principle, similar to the one applied in the accession process to the European Union.

These recommendations are not intended to replace the Declaration of Helsinki and the Charter of Paris, but rather to complement them. While no guarantee for the prevention of future conflicts in Europe, they could nevertheless initiate a process of institutional conflict prevention and a new dynamic of cooperation.

This commentary is a translation of the article “Ein neuer Versuch für eine Friedensordnung in Europa” that first appeared in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Translation by Cathleen Poehler