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Once Upon a Time, Helsinki Meant Human Rights
Trump’s summit with Putin risks tarnishing a legacy of Republican moral leadership.
Americans have many reasons to worry about the upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. But as consequential as what is on the agenda in Helsinki is what will most likely not be discussed. The Trump-Putin tête-à-tête, which will take place in the birthplace of the international human rights movement on July 16, will also mark the 64th day of a hunger strike by Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker and activist whom Putin has jailed as a political prisoner in Siberia. State Department officials say Trump has no plans to bring up Sentsov with Putin. His failure to do so could be tragic. It would not only bode ill for Sentsov himself, but would also bury a proud bipartisan tradition of U.S. presidential leadership on human rights — focused especially on Soviet and Russian dissidents — dating back more than 40 years.
Helsinki is where history was made with a groundbreaking international compact in 1975. That year, leaders from the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Soviet Union met to sign the Helsinki Accords, setting forth rules of international conduct, including human rights. The accords were an effort to tamp down tensions between the Soviets and the West by affirming post-World War II borders and fostering cooperation on arms control, science, trade, and other issues. For the Soviets, the agreement was a victory in that it reflected Western acceptance of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. In return, Western nations secured a Soviet commitment to both nuclear de-escalation and a series of foundational human rights precepts. These included freedom of movement, freedom of ideas, and conformity with the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declared freedom of expression, religion, and association to be universal rights.
The premise was that arms control, trade expansion, and the protection of rights were all linked together. Although Americans would later look back on the Helsinki Accords as a key turning point in the Cold War, at the time the pact was controversial in United States. The Wall Street Journal, anxious that Washington was betraying the Baltic States by conceding the fact of Soviet influence there, implored President Gerald Ford not to attend in an editorial titled, “Jerry, Don’t Go.” A citizens’ letter-writing campaign carried the same message.
As it turned out, the compact that some feared would consolidate Soviet control over Eastern Europe did the opposite. Shortly after the Soviet newspaper Pravda published the accord, courageous Muscovites, led by the physicist Yuri Orlov, formed the Moscow Helsinki Group to monitor their government’s compliance. Activists established similar Helsinki Watch groups in the Soviet Republics of Ukraine, Lithuania, and Georgia, as well as in Poland and Czechoslovakia. The U.S. Congress created its own Helsinki Commission, which exists to this day, now headed by Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey.
The path to greater freedom wasn’t smooth. Soon after the Moscow Helsinki Group began compiling and distributing hard-hitting reports on its government’s human rights abuses, Orlov was arrested along with Anatoly Shcharansky (who now goes by the name Natan Sharansky) and other Helsinki monitoring leaders. The Soviets sentenced Orlov to seven years in a labor camp and Sharansky to 13. The former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg led a U.S. delegation to the first international Helsinki review conference in Belgrade, where he shocked the government delegates by recognizing the imprisoned dissidents by name.
Goldberg was the highest-profile attendee at the Belgrade conference, his presence alone signaling intense U.S. interest in the process. Even U.S. officials were jittery about his outspoken approach, worried that it might prompt a Soviet walkout and even derail detente. But Goldberg stuck to his guns, and the Soviets stayed in the room. The review conference continued for months and, by the time it concluded, had firmly established the notion that a country’s internal human rights practices — including individual cases — were a legitimate subject of international concern. Goldberg’s approach helped give teeth to the Helsinki process, catalyzing a global movement of rigorous human rights research and documentation to feed into international deliberations.
The Helsinki process also galvanized U.S. political leaders to emphasize human rights, albeit sometimes expediently, in the struggle against the Soviet Union. President Jimmy Carter secured the freedom of five famed dissidents in an exchange for two captured Soviet spies in 1979. When Sen. Ted Kennedy was invited for several visits to the Soviet Union, he accepted only after providing lists of individual dissidents whose cases concerned him; 18 such dissidents were freed after an appeal by Kennedy in 1978.
President Ronald Reagan also made human rights a centerpiece of his effort to discredit the Soviet Union around the world and promote change from within. In 1986, the Soviets freed Orlov, whom Reagan promptly welcomed to the White House. Again in 1988, before a summit in Moscow, the Soviet Union assailed Reagan’s plan to meet with dissidents, but the president invoked Helsinki to deliver a ringing coda on freedom of speech, religion, and travel. “Whatever the future may bring,” he said, “the commitment of the United States will nevertheless remain unshakable on human rights.”
Thirty years later, sadly, the commitment touted by both Democratic and Republican presidents is scarcely discernible. Under Putin, the human rights environment in Russia has deteriorated sharply, with targeted assaults on the rights of political dissidents, LGBT people, and ethnic minorities, as well as tightening restrictions on the right to protest and the press — an estimated 21 journalists have been killed since Putin came into power. The Russian human rights organization Memorial counted 117 known political prisoners in late 2017, noting that the actual numbers were likely far higher.
Yet a delegation of eight Republican senators who spent July 4 visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg did not publicly mention human rights, much less advocate for any political prisoners. While Trump and his Republican supporters are quick to claim the mantle of Reagan to legitimize their bellicosity and militarism, they overlook the moral element of the former president’s appeal, centered on individual freedom and, albeit selectively, siding with the oppressed. The situation of dissidents now seems barely to register in Washington’s Russia policy.
Among the most prominent jailed dissenters is Sentsov. After being captured, he was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship, beaten, tortured, and sentenced to 20 years in a Siberian penal colony without having been permitted to name a lawyer to defend him against trumped-up terrorism charges. Currently on a hunger strike, he aims to secure the freedom of 64 other Ukrainian political prisoners, pointedly excluding himself.
Sentsov’s case has attracted the kind of international attention that once would have made him a crucial subject for politicians and the news media before a major summit. He was awarded the 2017 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, has been supported by international writers and filmmakers, and was championed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron in their discussions with Putin. U.S. diplomats support his case, with the State Department and U.S. Embassy in Kiev having called for his release.
Such pressure can be effective, as demonstrated this week with China’s release of Liu Xia, the wife of the Independent Chinese PEN Center founder and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who was held under house arrest for nearly eight years. The entreaties of Merkel, the European Union, members of Congress, and nongovernmental organizations finally overcame Beijing’s determination to punish Liu Xia for the purported crimes of her husband, demonstrating that even the world’s most powerful governments are not impervious to such international outcries on a compelling individual case.
But there is no such backing coming from the White House or top Trump administration officials. The president, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton — whose publicly stated views on Russia seem to have undergone a 180-degree turn toward Putin since he joined the Trump administration earlier this year and who traveled to Moscow to plan the summit — have been silent about Sentsov and human rights in Russia more broadly. Sentsov, 41 years old and the father of two young children, has lost more than 30 pounds off his lanky, 6-foot-2 frame. He is a man of determination. In a prison letter released in 2016, he wrote, “If we’re supposed to become the nails in the coffin of a tyrant, I’d like to become one of those nails. Just know that this particular one will not bend.”
In 1975, some Americans, particularly conservatives, worried about U.S. betrayal of principle when President Ford headed to Helsinki. Today, Republicans and Trump administration supporters are silent, avoiding criticism or pressure on the question of human rights, and the president’s apparent embrace of a confrontational, meddling, and morally impervious Russian regime.
The premise of the Helsinki Accord was that military, economic, and moral leadership were intertwined, a linkage that worked in favor of the United States, with its commitment to rights and freedoms. Thirty-three years later, that principled U.S. leadership has vanished. But there is still time for Trump to prove critics wrong on this count.
The Helsinki Accords hammered an early nail in the coffin of Soviet tyranny. Today, if he chooses to use the summit to demand the freedom of Oleg Sentsov and others, Trump may be able to save the life of a dissident filmmaker and to revive the legacy of principled moral and political strength that his Republican predecessor demonstrated decades ago at a meeting in Helsinki.