Thirty-five states of East and West gathered in Helsinki, Finland, for the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. These states included the Soviet Union and all European countries (except Albania), Canada, and the United States. The Conference concluded with the adoption of the politically and morally binding Helsinki Final Act, which, at that time, was the only international agreement that attempted to link peace and security with the respect for human rights. The signatories formed an organization, now known as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Concurrent with the process of adopting international treaties was the establishment of non-governmental structures to monitor the complience of domestic and international legal standards with the principles outlined in the agreements. These non-governmental structures acted as independent non-political entities in what was later defined as the Helsinki Process for civil monitoring of the fulfilment of every state‘s obligations.
Since 1975, a series of expert meetings and follow-up conferences have further defined the human rights provisions, and the OSCE has developed its own institutional frameworks and human rights mechanisms.
1976 - 1982
On 12 May 1976, Dr. Yuri Orlov announced the foundation of the Moscow Helsinki Group. The eleven founders of the group, which also included Yelena Bonner, Anatoly Shcharansky, Anatoly Marchenko, Ludmilla M. Alexeyeva and other Soviet citizens, sought to uphold the USSR's responsibility to implement the Helsinki commitments. They set up their watchdog organization based on the provision in the Helsinki Final Act, Principle VII, which establishes the rights of individuals to know and act upon their rights and duties. At the time of active mobilisation of concerned citizens in other countries, new citizens' groups were established inside and outside the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact states.
In January 1977, Charter 77 was founded in Czechoslovakia, and in September 1979, the Helsinki Watch group was founded in Poland. Although all these groups were persecuted by their governments, they continued their activities. In 1982, the Moscow Helsinki Group was forced to disband (it was re-organized in 1989), yet its pioneering efforts had inspired others to call attention to violations of human rights. Groups were formed in several European countries, in Canada, and in the United States.
Representatives of a number of the Helsinki committees held an International Citizens Helsinki Watch Conference. The idea of such a meeting was inspired in part by an appeal by Dr. Andrei Sakharov for the creation of a "unified international committee to defend all Helsinki Watch Group members" and to bring their work together. As a result of the conference, the International Helsinki Federation (IHF) was founded the following year to provide a structure through which independent Helsinki committees could support one another and strengthen the human rights movement by giving their efforts an international dimension. The international secretariat was established in Vienna. The original members were the Helsinki committees from Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United States.
IHF’s early years were marked by a number of breakthroughs in the initiative to support human rights behind the Iron Curtain, in the defense of dissidents, in presenting documentation to what was then the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and in the support of civil society.
In 1988, IHF received the Dr Bruno Kreisky Award and in 1989 – the Council of Europe‘s Human Rights Award.