Forty years ago, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded with the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, a historic triumph of cooperation over conflict that set the stage for the end of the Cold War. The accord represented a revolutionary approach to comprehensive security, as well as to bilateral and multilateral relations. Its signatories recognized a direct link between political and military issues and human rights concerns – and that this link is a fundamental component of peace and security.

That is why, when Serbia was entrusted to lead the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which grew from the Helsinki conference, this year, we were looking forward to celebrating the accord’s many achievements on its 40th anniversary. But, with the resurgence of armed conflict in Europe challenging the Helsinki Final Act’s fundamental principles, this anniversary has taken on new meaning.

The crisis in Ukraine has, in fact, underscored the Final Act’s enduring relevance. Indeed, the only way to reconsolidate European security is to reach a durable settlement based on its principles; indeed, had those principles been respected, the current crisis in Ukraine would not have occurred in the first place.

It is now apparent that the roots of that crisis are far deeper than anyone initially realized. Well before the turmoil in Ukraine erupted, the East-West divide, which our predecessors worked hard to close in Helsinki, had begun to reemerge. A growing sense of mistrust and hostility, together with a diminishing commitment to the OSCE’s brand of comprehensive security, was hindering cooperation in various areas. Constructive engagement on security issues had been difficult for some time, reflected in a lack of progress on arms control and other key areas of the OSCE agenda.

The emergence of the crisis in and around Ukraine has only made these challenges more profound, and the search for a solution more urgent. The high-level Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project, established at the Basel Ministerial Council by last year’s Swiss OSCE chairmanship, provided invaluable insights when they presented their Interim Report on European security at the Munich Security Conference Core Group Meeting in Vienna this week.

The report focuses on the lessons of the OSCE’s engagement in Ukraine, and part of the solution is reflected in the Panel’s title; European security is, indeed, a common project. The OSCE could play a pivotal role, serving, like the Helsinki conference 40 years ago, as a platform to overcome the existing divide, restore trust, and rebuild a cooperative approach to common security concerns.

The most visible aspects of the OSCE response to the crisis in and around Ukraine have been carried out by the Trilateral Contact Group and the Special Monitoring Mission. Yet the entire OSCE toolbox has been mobilized to mitigate the crisis, as well as to support other critical steps, including constitutional reform, the protection of ethnic minority rights, and political dialogue and reconciliation. As the only regional platform that brings all of the key stakeholders to the table, the OSCE plays a vital role in keeping the lines of communication open and finding opportunities for joint action.

Given our good relations with all the key stakeholders in the crisis, Serbia can contribute to the process. Our chief objectives are preventing the crisis from escalating into a larger conflict, ensuring a sustainable political process, and preserving the inclusive and cooperative nature of the OSCE’s work.

There is little doubt that de-escalation on the ground and visible progress in the Trilateral Contact Group – and the four working groups operating under its auspices – would set the stage for renewed discussions on broader European security issues and the future role of the OSCE. Given the obvious imperative for cooperative solutions to address transnational and global security threats, this could not be more important.

Simply put, without a shared approach to security and a dedicated joint response, overcoming our current challenges will be virtually impossible. And, in fact, the situation could worsen considerably, with so-called “frozen” conflicts heating up and reverting to armed confrontation. As growing instability exacerbates social tensions, ethnic conflict, radicalization, and violent extremism become increasingly likely.

The East-West divide that leaders in Helsinki confronted in 1975 was much wider than the one that that exists today. Yet, with courage and commitment, they managed to produce a pragmatic compromise based on a set of key principles – a compromise that opened the way for far-reaching cooperation and, indeed, the emergence of today’s interconnected and interdependent world.
Today’s leaders must show similar wisdom and vision, supporting the OSCE’s efforts to revitalize the principles of the Helsinki accord. This will require increased investment of both financial resources and political capital – and a shared commitment to put that investment to good use.

Serbia, a post-conflict society built on a series of compromises, is well placed to coordinate Europe’s much-needed security dialogue during its chairmanship of the OSCE – an organization that helped us through our own transition. What better advocate is there than one who speaks with conviction gained from personal experience?
The Helsinki principles do not need to be reconsidered; on the contrary, they need to be reaffirmed, strengthened, and safeguarded. The platform is already in place. Let us get to work – together.

This article is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Ivica Dačić, Serbia’s Foreign Minister, is currently the Chairman of the OSCE.

Image: General view of Helsinki, March 18.  Russian President Boris-Yeltsin and U.S. Reuters.