Reaction Mixed on Significance of Human Rights Pact in Vienna
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Reaction Mixed on Significance of Human Rights Pact in Vienna

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A major East-West human rights agreement adopted this week in Vienna contains surprisingly direct language on the protection of religious freedoms and emigration rights.

If adhered to by the Soviet Union, the document could represent major progress in the Soviets’ treatment of political dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities, including Soviet Jews.

But experts here and leaders of two major Soviet Jewry groups differ on the extent to which the agreement should be welcomed.

Their differences are tactical: By concluding the hard-fought conference, is the West caving in to the Soviet Union’s claims that it has cleaned up its human rights record, or merely offering the Soviets an incentive to do so?

Foreign ministers from 35 nations in Europe and North America began a three-day meeting Tuesday during which they are expected to formally approve the agreement.

It is the concluding step in the 27-month-old follow-up session of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which produced the Helsinki human rights accords in 1975.

The new human rights proposals cover a wide range of freedoms, including information, travel, equal rights and religion.


Those provisions of most immediate significance to Soviet Jews include:

The right of everyone “to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” There are provisions for a three-day turnaround of requests to allow relatives to visit one another in cases of illness or death.

The nations will work to eliminate discrimination on religious grounds and must respect the right of religious communities to “establish and maintain freely accessible places of worship or assembly.” They must also allow everyone religious education “in the language of his choice.”

Telephone calls and personal mail will not be hindered or monitored.

Myrna Shinbaum, national director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, called the agreements “a great thing,” and said they represented a major advance over the Helsinki accords.

The provision on leaving and returning to a country “shows that this is a concern of the Western nations. That is most significant.”

However, said Shinbaum, “We have a great challenge in terms of monitoring. (The Soviet Union) has not institutionalized or codified these rights.”

Pamela Cohen, national president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, sounded a more pessimistic note on the agreement. “Frankly, it would be irresponsible for anyone dealing with the Soviet Union to automatically shift into a trust mode because of some of these changes,” she said in a telephone interview in Chicago.

“The only way to begin to trust,” said Cohen, “is to measure scientifically their compliance on promises, on any number of given objectives, the way we might an arms control accord.”

Cohen said even as the Soviets are agreeing to the rights of people to visit ill relatives or travel abroad for medical treatment, longtime refusenik and cancer patient Georgi Samoilovitch awaits permission to travel to the Hackensack, N.J., hospital that has offered him treatment.


The Union of Councils was particularly critical of the Vienna agreement in the weeks prior to its unveiling, because of a concurrent Western agreement to allow a follow-up human rights meeting to be held in Moscow in 1990.

Cohen said she believes that legislators, the administration and other Jewish organizations have not recognized the Moscow conference as the “major concession” it is.

She said that during the next year the Soviets will point to the “rewarding” of the conference as proof of their progress in human rights, camouflaging a multitude of human rights abuses.

An expert on Soviet foreign policy disagreed. Alvin Rubinstein, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, said that “with the prospect of a human rights conference in 1990 or 1991, the Soviet Union will be on relatively good behavior in terms of emigration.

“The number of Jews, Armenians and Germans will probably be at least as good as it has been in this and the past year, and maybe better,” he said.

The NCSJ’s Shinbaum pointed out that if the Soviet Union does not seem to be complying with the Vienna agreement, the United States can pull out of the Moscow conference.

Another expert on Soviet affairs said that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has no choice but to abandon the “hard line.” “Human rights issues are an unnecessary obstacle to his rapprochement with the West,” said Vladimir Tismaneanu, a resident scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

“They want to show a different face, are struggling to change the image of their society. I don’t say all the refuseniks will be getting a visa at this moment — there are still stipulations about state secrets. At the same time, the attitude of the authorities is getting milder.”

Among the 35 nations, only Romania opposed the agreement when it was presented on Sunday, saying it would not feel obliged to implement the agreement. Romania is thought to have one of the worst human rights records in the East bloc.

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