Today, there are Helsinki organizations dedicated to the protection of human rights throughout Europe. Their story began more than 40 years ago ...

In 1975, thirty-five countries from Europe and North America met in Helsinki, Finland, for the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. They included the Soviet Union, every European country (except for Albania and Andorra), Canada, and the U.S. The conference ended with the signing of the politically and morally binding Helsinki Accords. At the time, it was the only international agreement that attempted to make peace and security synonymous with respect for human rights. The participating countries combined to form an organization, which is known today as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). At the same time, they began to form non-governmental initiatives. These groups participated as independent, non-political organizations in the “Helsinki Process” and monitored the implementation of the commitments made by the member states.
1976 – 1982
On May 12, 1976, Dr. Yuri Orlov announced the founding of the Moscow Helsinki Group. The eleven founders of the group—which included Elena Bonner, Anatoly Sharansky, Anatoly Marchenko, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, and other Soviet citizens—aimed to monitor the then Soviet Union’s implementation of the Helsinki Accords. They founded their civic organization based on texts of the Helsinki Final Act, Principle VII, which guarantees every individual the right to understand and take action to protect their rights and responsibilities. At a time when the appeals being made to interested civil organizations in other countries were at their most intense, new civil organizations were being founded within and outside the borders of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact. In January 1977, Charter 77 was created in Czechoslovakia, and in September 1979, the group Helsinki Watch was founded in Poland. Although they were persecuted by their governments, these groups never abandoned their work. In 1982, the Moscow Helsinki Group was forced to halt operations (they resumed later, in 1980), but its efforts inspired others to demand respect for human rights. Human rights groups were subsequently founded in several European countries, as well as in Canada and the U.S.
The International Helsinki Federation (IHF) was founded in 1892 as a structure within which independent Helsinki Committees could support one another and strengthen the human rights movement on an international scale. The International Secretariat was established in Vienna. The first members were the Austrian, Belgian, Canadian, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, and American Helsinki Committees. The creation of the IHF was partly inspired by Andrei Sakharov’s call to establish a “unified international committee to protect all members of the Helsinki group”. During its first years, the Federation achieved a number of successes in their efforts to protect human rights behind the Iron Curtain—they defended dissidents, presented documentation before the then Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now the OSCE), and supported civil society.
On July 14, 1992, a group of Bulgarian citizens gathered in the office of Ekoglasnost on Narodno Sabranie square and founded the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC). This makes it the oldest still-functioning human rights organization in the country. Its founders are Kalina Bozeva, Maria Bakardjieva, Antoaneta Nenkova, Yuliana Metodieva, Emil Cohen, Tanya Marincheshka, Koprinka Chervenkova, Petar Slabakov, Pravda Spasova, Krasimir Kanev, Dimitrina Petrova, Antonina Zhelyazkova, Yonko Grozev, and Danail Danov. In 1993, the Committee became a member of the IHF, which admitted forty-six Helsinki Committees and independent human rights organizations from Europe, the former Soviet Union, and North America before its dissolution. Today, independent Helsinki Organizations continue to operate in dozens of European countries. Soon after its founding, the organization began work on its research and monitoring program. During the first two years of BHC’s operation, this program evaluated segregation of Roma neighborhoods in Bulgaria, monitored religious freedom by conducting visits to religious denominations, conducted monitoring through visits to prisons, investigated police brutality across the country, and participated in joint projects with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. The artist Stefan Despodov (1950 – 2015) created the organization’s first logo.
In 1994, BHC established its Program for Legal Protection for Refugees and Migrants, led by Tanya Marincheshka. Later the program was headed by Iliyana Savova, attorney-at-law. In that year, the organization also made its first visits to psychiatric hospitals in Bulgaria. The results of its monitoring were included in BHC’s first special report on the conditions in places of detention: “Monitoring of the Conditions in Places of Detention and Several Psychiatric Hospitals in Bulgaria”, published in 1995.
BHC’s Legal Program was founded under the leadership of Yonko Grozev, attorney-at-law, co-founder of the organization. The program’s work is supported by legal assistants. Among its first issues of focus were anti-Roma police brutality and religious freedom. The directors of the program over the years are Yonko Grozev (1995 – 2006), Margarita Ilieva (2006 – 2017) and Adela Katchaounova (since 2017).
In the spring of 1999, BHC’s researchers were allowed into detention facilities for the first time. Over the course of roughly two years, they conducted visits in the seventy-five facilities functioning at the time. In September 2001, the research concluded with the publication “Pre-trial Detention Facilities in Bulgaria”, which analysed the rights of individuals residing in pre-trial detention facilities and made suggestions to the responsible state institutions on how to reform prison conditions in order to meet international standards for treatment of persons deprived of liberty.
On the initiative of Margarita Ilieva, attorney-at-law, director of the BHC’s Legal Program, the organization established the Human of the Year award—a distinction for people or organizations who have made specific efforts to defend human rights, animal rights, or the environment. The awards are symbolic and consist only of a plaque. They are awarded every year around December 10th—International Human Rights Day. The first laureates of the award were Albena Boneva, Kostadinka Arsova, and Mimi Furnadjieva, three judges on the Supreme Administrative Court.
The Communications and Campaigns Program was created. Journalist Yana Buhrer Tavanier became its first director. The program took on the organization of BHC’s public communications and the preparation of various communication materials—press releases, books, websites, and social media pages.
The Program for Legal Protection for Refugees and Migrants began publishing its annual report on access to national territory and on the procedure of granting international protection.