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Milestone for Europe

It took a long time to get there, but after 27 months of tough bargaining the 35 nations taking part in the Vienna talks on European security and cooperation have reached what could be a landmark human-rights agreement. At the same time the conferees have set the stage for a new start on conventional arms-control talks between NATO and the Soviet Bloc Warsaw Pact countries. The arms negotiations, scheduled to open in March, will replace the 15-year-old talks on mutual and balanced force reduction. The agreement on greater human freedoms enlarges the basic process agreed to in the 1975 Helsinki accords. Essentially it aims at providing a kind of minimum bill of rights for virtually all Europeans.

The strengthening of rights safeguards agreed to in Vienna seeks to ensure freedom of movement and freedom of religion, to guarantee privacy in mail and telephone communications, to allow the right to listen to foreign broadcasts and to remove delays in the processing of travel applications. Whether these results will in fact occur, and how uniformly, will provide a basic test of the reform policies being directed by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. In Helsinki nearly 14 years ago the Soviet Union and its allies solemnly pledged to permit the freer movement of people and ideas and otherwise enlarge the scope of human rights. That pledge was never honored, while Russians and East Europeans who tried to hold their governments to what had been promised suffered persecution and worse.

Will things be different now? They could be. For one thing, the Soviets know that they would face a Western boycott of the human-rights conference that they are eager to host in 1991 if they fail to keep their pledged word. For another, there is now a procedure to let governments call attention to suspected rights violations in other countries at any time. If abuses are found and not corrected, they can be put onto the agenda of the next annual human-rights conference. In the interim, countries would be free to respond unilaterally or collectively to suspected human-rights violations.

The sordid and often brutal rights records of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European regimes doesn’t encourage confidence that the promised reforms will in fact be carried out. It isn’t necessary to be confident, though, to be at least moderately hopeful about what has occurred. On paper, significant progress has clearly taken place. True progress will be seen to have occurred, though, only when the promises made on paper become a routine part of daily life.

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