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East meets West (Gerald R. Ford Library)

East meets West: US President Gerald Ford and USSR General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev (with translator Viktor Sukhodrev at his ear) at Helsinki 1975. Flanking them are Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (l) and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko (r). (© Gerald R. Ford Library)

The Organization has its roots in the 1973 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Talks had been mooted about a European security grouping since the 1950s but the Cold War prevented any substantial progress until the talks at Dipoli in Helsinki began in November 1972. These negotiations were held upon the suggestion of the Soviet Union which wished to use the talks to maintain its control over communist countries in Eastern Europe. Western Europe, however, saw these talks as a way to reduce the tension in the region, furthering economic cooperation and obtaining humanitarian improvements for the populations of the Communist bloc.

The recommendations of the talks, "The Blue Book", gave the practical foundations for a three-stage conference, the Helsinki Process. The CSCE opened in Helsinki on July 3, 1973 with 35 states sending representatives. Stage I took only five days and resulted in an agreement to follow the Blue Book. Stage II was the main working phase and was conducted in Geneva from September 18, 1973 until July 21, 1975. The result of Stage III, which took place in Finlandia Hall from July 30 to August 1, 1975, was the Helsinki Final Act signed by the 35 participating States.

The concepts of improving relations and implementing the Act were developed over a series of follow-up meetings with major gatherings in Belgrade (October 4, 1977March 8, 1978), Madrid (November 11, 1980September 9, 1983) and Vienna (November 4, 1986January 19, 1989).

A unique aspect of the OSCE is the legally non-binding status of its provisions. Rather than being a formal treaty, the OSCE Final Act represents a political commitment by all signatories to build security and cooperation in Europe on the basis of its provisions. This allows the OSCE to remain flexible for the evolution of improved cooperation which avoids disputes and/or sanctions over implementation. By agreeing these commitments, signatories for the first time accepted that the treatment of citizens within their borders was also a matter of legitimate international concern. This open process of the OSCE is often given credit for helping to build democracy in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, leading thus to the end of the Cold War.

The collapse of Communism required a change of the role of the CSCE. The Charter of Paris for a New Europe which was signed on November 21, 1990 marked the beginning of this change. The decision to re-name the conference was taken in Budapest in 1994. The OSCE had now a formal Secretariat, Senior Council, Parliamentary Assembly, Conflict Prevention Centre, and Office for Free Elections (later becoming the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights).

In December 1996, the "Lisbon Declaration on a Common and Comprehensive Security Model for Europe for the Twenty-First Century" affirmed the universal and indivisible nature of security on the European continent.

In Istanbul on November 19, 1999, the OSCE ended a two-day summit and adopted the "Charter for European Security".