Helsinki Watch

Identification: Nongovernmental human rights organization

Date: Founded in 1978; absorbed into Human Rights Watch in 1988

Significance: Helsinki Watch was a U.S.- based group made up of private citizens devoted to monitoring compliance with the Helsinki Final Act, an international agreement signed in 1975 by thirty-five countries pledging to respect basic human and civil rights. The organization focused on human rights abuses in the Soviet Union, Eastern European nations, and the United States, documenting violations of the Helsinki Final Act in lengthy research reports and frequent press releases.

Helsinki Watch was conceived as an organization focused primarily on Eastern European human rights activists, working both to influence government policy and to keep the repression of dissidents under an international spotlight. Helsinki Watch, and in particular its executive director, Jeri Laber, sought to garner public support and attention for the plight of repressed or imprisoned individuals by issuing press releases, writing op-ed pieces, and speaking out publicly. Over time, HelsinkiWatch became well known for the quality and comprehensiveness of its research reports, which were relied upon by policymakers, diplomats, and others interested in Helsinki compliance. Finally, Helsinki Watch sought to influence diplomats through direct contact, making itself a permanent, visible presence at international meetings.

Helsinki Watch and its staff worked with ethnic interest groups focused on Eastern Europe as well as organizations concerned about the plight of Soviet Jews. Dissidents who had emigrated from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe often worked closely with Helsinki Watch, offering firsthand accounts of human rights violations to the organization’s researchers. HelsinkiWatch pursued a range of objectives, including advocating for those who wished to emigrate from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, in particular for reasons of religious freedom or family reunification. In 1988, HelsinkiWatch, along with committees devoted to monitoring human rights abuses elsewhere in the world, became part of a larger organization, Human Rights Watch, which is devoted to human rights internationally.

Sarah B. Snyder

Further Reading

  • Laber, Jeri. The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age with the Human Rights Movement. New York: PublicAffairs, 2002. 
  • Neier, Aryeh. Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights.NewYork: PublicAffairs, 2003. 

See also: El Rescate; Jewish immigrants; New York City; Russian and Soviet immigrants; West Indian immigrants.

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