The Berne Conference
The six-week conference that took place in 1986 in Berne, Switzerland, was the third in the series by NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, all 35 of them signatory to the agreement created within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, otherwise known as the Helsinki Final Act. All three conferences dealt with various aspects of human rights which created East-West problems at the outset.
The first conference in Ottawa dealt with respect for the provisions of the Final Act and laid out with practical proposals the principles by which the West intended to proceed to the succeeding conferences. The second in Budapest, under the rubric Cultural Forum, examined artistic freedom in the arts. In both conferences, the Soviet Union and some of its East European allies objected strenuously to the extensive review of their records by the United States and other Western democracies. By the time of the Berne Conference, it had become quite clear that there would be bitter confrontation between the Western and Eastern delegations as they grappled over the central theme of family unification. But no matter what the so-called themes were of any of the three conferences, the basic political and ideological differences of both camps always dominated the speeches and discussions of the 35 delegations.
In the United States Delegation, of which I was a member, I had been designated its Spokesman, a role which I at first — in Ottawa — considered to be devoted to reporting and explaining the statements and positions of our delegation. It soon became apparent, however, that this function was very shortly to be expanded into a role embracing a much larger responsibility. The reason for that lay in the fact that the press was not permitted into the conference proceedings, and because many delegations, especially from the East, avoided contact with the press, journalists covering the conference found themselves totally left out.
It had always been the position of the United States to open the proceedings to the press but that policy was bitterly opposed and eventually thwarted by the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, our delegation head, Ambassador Michael Novak, authorized me to brief the 70 journalists on anything and everything that was discussed by him in the course of the deliberations. Consequently, by the time of Budapest, I was holding two briefings a day summarizing the morning and afternoon sessions and as word spread that the American Spokesman was supplying substantive information from all delegations, the group of journalists from all over Europe began to gather at my briefings, ever growing in volume. By the time we began in Berne, my briefings were attended by all the journalists (even from Pravda) and what they were hearing from me was not just what was said by the U.S. Ambassador but by every delegation head that spoke, including the Soviet Ambassador.
It was in Berne that I met Heikki Tann from Estonia, whom I recognized as an earnest and hard-working journalist. His deep-seated desire to understand every aspect of many statements, discussions and debates in the proceedings from which all journalists were excluded impressed me in our very first meeting. Further, he sought not only to understand the context but also to see the patterns, which developed and eventually crystallized into policies. There was, however, something else that brought us closer into a relationship, which I did not enjoy with any other journalist at the conference. Because my ethnic roots are Armenian and Heikki Tann’s Estonian, we shared a common bond in that both our native lands were still suffering under Soviet occupation, which gave me particular insight into many of his probing questions, especially when addressing positions taken by the Soviet Delegates.
The role of public diplomacy in human rights conferences, as has been seen, was extremely vital, for without the involvement of the media, the diplomats from 35 countries were conferring privately behind closed doors, and the public at large, on whom human rights should impinge, would have remained ignorant. In many respects, what occurred in Ottawa, Budapest and Berne in terms of airing the proceedings of all three conferences was the West’s way of informing the Soviet Union yet again of our firm belief in the democratic principle of an open society — a principle exemplified in the character and work of Heikki Tann.
(Edward Alexander is the author of The Serpent and the Bees: A KGB Chronicle. The book has been translated into Estonian as Madu ja Mesilased. Minu kohtumised KGB-ga.)