Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech at Paris CSCE Summit

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Kleber Centre, Paris
Source: Thatcher Archive: COI transcript
Editorial comments: 1720 onwards.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1662
Themes: Civil liberties, Defence (general), Defence (arms control), European Union (general), Foreign policy - theory and process, Foreign policy (Central & Eastern Europe), Foreign policy (International organizations), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Defence (Gulf War, 1990-91)

Let me start by saying that I was a sceptic about the Helsinki Agreements when the final document was signed fifteen years ago. What worried me was not the commitments—everyone could see that they were desirable. But I doubted whether the signatories would really abide by those commitments in practice. After all, there was nothing in the record of the Soviet and East European governments at that time which gave us any confidence that freer movement of people and ideas would actually be allowed, or the other provisions of the Agreement observed.

At the time, that scepticism was justified. There were very few significant results in the early years except for an increase in emigration of Soviet Jews which was very welcome. Indeed, there were real fears that we in the West had accepted the division of Europe for all time, in return for a few scraps of paper which would never be honoured. People remained in prison or psychiatric hospitals simply for the ‘crime’ of claiming their basic human rights. There was no significant increase in travel. What was called the Brezhnev doctrine continued to apply. The level of armed forces in Europe did not decline. Soviet forces went into Afghanistan which was hardly consistent with the spirit of the [end p1] principles which had been agreed in Helsinki.

That is history. With hindsight, it is clear that we underestimated the long-term effects of the Helsinki Agreements, effects which were felt in a number of ways.

The first was the effect on individuals in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In the darkest days of their struggle for basic human rights, the Agreements were a tremendous encouragement and inspiration which helped them not to lose heart. They knew that theirs was no longer a private or lonely battle; they had the backing of a solemn and binding international agreement. They had a charter to which they could appeal, to show that not only was their cause a just one, but that the governments and authorities who were denying them their rights were in breach of specific obligations. The human rights monitoring groups set up under the banner of the Helsinki Final Act in the Soviet Union and in East European countries in those years—headed by such names as Sakharov, Orlov, President Havel—were a specific and very positive result of Helsinki.

But the Agreements were not just an inspiration for those living under dictatorship. They gave governments and peoples in the West a locus to inquire into what would otherwise be regarded as strictly internal matters and insist on observance of basic human rights in the then communist countries. Every bilateral meeting we held in those days with communist governments became an occasion to raise specific cases and to challenge failure to live up to the obligations accepted in the Helsinki Agreements.

It was the combination of internal and external pressures which finally achieved freedom and human rights. [end p2]

— It was the fantastic courage of the individuals who were prepared to go to prison and put up with unspeakable hardship in order to achieve their rights and those of others, people like President Havel;

—it was the vision of those who, like President Gorbachev, understood that you would never get economic reform and prosperity until you set people free;

—it was the fact that we had leaders in the West prepared to make use of the Helsinki Agreements, to bring oppression into the open and to press for change, indeed insist on it as a condition for improved relations, like President Reagan and President Bush.

So in a very real sense, many people in Eastern and Central Europe today can trace their new freedom back to the Helsinki Agreements. And a process which some envisaged as perpetuating the division of Europe has actually helped to overcome that division.

But the agenda which seemed so ambitious in 1975 looks really rather modest now. That is the proof of how successful the Agreements have been. But it also tells us it is time to see how we can use the experience gained from Helsinki even more effectively in the future.

There are several ways in which we can do that. First, we should keep the basic focus on human rights and the rule of law. Some months ago I suggested that we should agree on a European Magna Carta to enshrine for every European citizen, including those in the Soviet Union, the basic rights which we in the West take for granted. And I am glad that the final document from this meeting, which we shall sign on Wednesday, endorses these freedoms for every individual. But we have to remember that such liberties and the [end p3] rule of law cannot be created overnight. In our case they have grown up over centuries and it is that which gives them their strength.

Secondly, we have gained valuable experience from working together within the framework of the Helsinki Agreements. We are even now taking a further step to develop the CSCE as a forum for regular political consultation among all the countries of Europe and North America. It will represent a great coming together of Europe, of a sort we have probably not seen since the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

But consultation on its own is not enough. We need to set ourselves a more ambitious objective. I believe we should establish a great alliance for democracy which would extend from the Pacific coast of the United States right across Europe to the Soviet Far East. That would be the best guarantee of all for our security. Democracies do not go to war with each other, they have too high a regard for freedom and justice, not only for those in their own country but in each other's countries as well.

Such a great alliance could provide the framework for other changes. We would hope to see East and Central European countries join the Council of Europe. And in the slightly longer-term we would also hope to see them join the European Community when they are ready and want to do so.

And thirdly, the CSCE should be a forum for conciliation and for finding solutions to disputes between member nations. We are entering a very volatile period in Europe. Over the last forty years stability has been achieved in the Eastern part of Europe largely by force, by suppressing national feelings and by imposing the Communist ideology. Now that democracy is returning to Eastern [end p4] Europe, those national feelings are surfacing as people regain pride in their own country. And with them are reappearing problems of minorities and of peoples and nations who have been divided or annexed as a result of the territorial changes of the 1930s and 1940s. And we need to have in mind the particular position of the Baltic Republics. We welcome the fact that negotiations have started between them and the Soviet government and we hope for a successful outcome acceptable to both sides.

Nationality and minority problems will not be easy to resolve. Indeed some of them may not be soluble under present circumstances—that does sometimes happen in history. You have to wait and hope that things may be different in the future. The Helsinki Accords made clear that borders can only be changed peacefully by agreement and never by force. These are matters which should be discussed in the CSCE and its role in encouraging peaceful solutions to disputes which may arise should be expanded.

And fourth, another practical way in which we can use CSCE is to promote the economic freedom which underpins political freedom. More and more people want the politics of economic freedom and we have an obligation to help them to achieve that. But you cannot hand out a market economy freely like a gift. It takes time for freedom to work through and for people to think in new ways. It involves people taking their own decisions and accepting responsibility for them. And it is to encourage this that we have established Know-How Funds because a market economy is not a matter of theory, it is something which has to be learned in practice.

And fifth, and perhaps the most difficult to judge right, is the security aspect. We have made tremendous progress in reducing conventional forces in Europe with the agreement which we signed [end p5] earlier today. It is worth remembering that one result of the relaxation of tension is that East and West have been able to come together, as President Gorbachev said, to oppose Iraq's aggression in the Gulf.

I do not think we should expect further dramatic reductions in forces, although there are a number of useful measures, particularly on verification and confidence building, which we can still take. Security comes from knowing that you have a strong defence, including nuclear weapons, which have played such an important part in keeping the peace in Europe.

We should not try to make the CSCE into a defence organisation. NATO will remain the core of Western defence. At a time of great change it is important to preserve familiar and well tried structures. Obviously very different considerations apply to the Warsaw Pact and its future is a matter for the countries which belong to the Pact. I notice that President Havel called it an outdated varmint (phon) of the past and said he would transform it into an organisation for disarmament.

So, Mr Chairman, the Helsinki Accords have served us well. But now we should adapt them to serve future generations in the new ways which many of us around this table have suggested.

Some people have proposed that the CSCE is a pattern which might be followed in other parts of the world such as the Middle East and North Africa. I am not sure that would work. Helsinki is about getting rid of blocs, not creating or encouraging new ones.

But what should be an example to others is the way we have insisted on observance of basic human rights and liberties; how we behave to each other; and the methods by which we settle our disputes. That should become a pattern for others and a model for [end p6] stability and good neighbourliness. If we can achieve that we shall have done well for future generations and a more peaceful world will be theirs.

Mr Chairman, may I join other colleagues in thanking President Mitterrand and France for their excellent organisation and for their most generous and enjoyable hospitality.