Today, May 12, marks the 40th anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization created to monitor the Soviet Union’s compliance with the Helsinki Accords, notes Natan Sharansky (above, center), who spent nine years in the Gulag for his human rights activities. In marking this milestone we can do no better than to remind ourselves and the world of the group’s ongoing relevance to those fighting for human rights today, he writes for The Tablet:
At the time of their signing, the Helsinki Accords met with quite a bit of skepticism among Western politicians about their likely effect on Soviet behavior. For dissidents, on the other hand, the reaction went beyond skepticism: To us, the agreement represented a clear betrayal by Western powers, who had given Moscow everything it wanted in exchange for empty promises. Since the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had wanted the world to recognize the Baltic Republics, which it had obtained from Hitler, as its own; the Helsinki Accords made this a reality. For years the Soviet Union had wanted Eastern Europe to remain as its protectorate; the Helsinki signatories agreed. And despite these imperialistic policies, the Soviet Union wanted economic cooperation with the West; once again, its negotiating partners gave in.
Today, to continue the spirit of Helsinki means more than honoring the group’s founders and reminiscing about their activities, notes Sharansky, a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group [a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy]:
It means that when negotiating with the world’s most oppressive regimes, Western governments should place the fate of political prisoners—such as blogger Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, artist Atena Farghadani [above right] in Iran, writer Liu Xiaobo in China, and so many more—high on the agenda. If we beneficiaries of freedom fail to speak about these brave men and women, they will remain in prison for the rest of their lives, and the power of the regimes that tyrannize them will only continue to grow.
“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,” he adds. “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.”