THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS (1948)
Although the USSR participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it and the other People’s Democracies abstained when a vote was cast in the UN General Assembly to approve the document.
The Chronicle printed the text of Article 19 (see below) on the cover of each issue. Amnesty International, when publishing its translations of the Chronicle noted three more provisions of the Declaration as being of particular relevance to human rights violations in the Soviet Union:
Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile;
Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this light includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance;
Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
In 1969 the first human rights NGO in Soviet history, made a direct appeal to the UN Human Rights Committee.
The members of the Action Group for the Defence of Human Rights in the USSR were punished by the Soviet authorities for such activities; neither were all international bodies happy to receive unmediated applications from people within one of their member-States.
THE INTERNATIONAL COVENANT ON CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS (1966)
The USSR ratified the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on 16 October 1973. The Covenant acquired legal force for all parties on 23 March 1976.
In Social Issues, No. 3 (Jan-Feb 1970), Alexander Volpin discussed the implicit right of private citizens to petition States and supra-national bodies over non-observance of the terms of an agreement such as the 1966 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In October 1973 a Soviet section branch of Amnesty International was established to gather information about violations of human rights in the USSR. It was registered by the AI Secretariat in London the following year. See May 1975 arrest (CCE 36.1) and May 1976 trial (CCE 40.2) of Andrei Tverdokhlebov.
THE HELSINKI ACCORDS (1975)
The “Decalogue”, or Ten Guiding Principles of the Helsinki Accords or Final Act, were as follows (Wikipedia commentary)
- Sovereign equality,
respect for the rights inherent in sovereignty
- Refraining from the threat or use of force
- Inviolability of frontiers
- Territorial integrity of States
- Peaceful settlement of disputes
- Non-intervention in internal affairs
- Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,
including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief
- Equal rights and self-determination of peoples
- Co-operation among States
- Fulfillment in good faith of obligations under international law
The USSR, together with 34 European and North American States, ratified the Accords in August 1975.
Groups to monitor the USSR’s implementation of the Final Agreement were organised in Moscow, then in Ukraine, Lithuania, Armenia and Georgia. Harassed from the first (see CCE 48.2, March 1978, “Repressive measures against the Helsinki Groups”), their members were subjected to ever-increasing pressure, facing the alternative of prosecution and imprisonment or constant “encouragement” to leave the country.
By 1983 none of the groups were functioning (cf. CCE 65.20, December 1982, “Letters and Statements — Documents of the Moscow Helsinki Group“).
THE EUROPEAN CONVENTION ON HUMAN RIGHTS
(The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms)
The defect of all the above-mentioned agreements was the lack of a mechanism for bringing a State-party to account when it ignored or transgressed its commitments.
As the fate of the Action Group for Human Rights in the Soviet Union, the Soviet section of Amnesty International and the Helsinki Groups in various parts of the USSR showed, public opinion inside and beyond the country could only do so much. If the governments of other countries were not prepared to take action to defend those defending human rights in the USSR nothing would change. For in all three cases despite a public commitment to international law and such agreements there was no effective court of appeal beyond Soviet borders.
In February 1996 the post-Soviet Russian Federation joined the Council of Europe and signed the Convention, ratifying its provisions (with some reservations) two years later in May 1998. Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltic States and Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (but not Belarus) all gave a similar commitment to respect and uphold the principles of the Convention in their countries.
This gave those who had exhausted all means of legal redress within their countries a supra-national court of appeal at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.