If Brezhnev could accept the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, it should not be so difficult for Armenia and Azerbaijan to do so too.

Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev signing the Helsinki Final Act in August 1975. The Act made the subject of human rights a matter of legitimate concern to all.

Over the last few weeks it has become common to hear officials in Azerbaijan, and to a lesser extent in Armenia, complaining that the European Union is interfering in the internal affairs of their countries. This happens whenever EU officials or diplomats raise issues connected with human rights, rule of law and free elections. The chorus started first with some pro government journalists and commentators, but by last week senior officials in the two countries had joined the fray.

These officials clearly do not understand the processes that have been going on in Europe in the last forty years. The historic Helsinki Final Act adopted by all the European states (with the exception of Albania) in 1975 laid the foundation of a new European order which recognised the indivisibility of security and that human rights on the continent were not simply an internal matter but a matter of legitimate concern for all. The OSCE work in the field of the human dimension emerged from that agreement. Things have moved on since 1975: the cold war is over, the Soviet Union has ceased to exist and has been replaced by fifteen successor states, and many other important documents have been adopted, including in Paris and Copenhagen to consolidate and develop the Helsinki agreements. Yet the 1975 Act remains a beacon for all who struggle on the continent for their basic rights and freedom.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan jointed the CSCE (known after 1994 as OSCE) in 1992, accepting all its commitments and obligations including the Helsinki Act. They have since also jointed the Council of Europe and signed up to numerous of its conventions. They also entered into Partnership and Co-operation Agreement with the European Union. All these documents highlight the issue of human rights and the fact that their protection is a duty of all. The European Union not only has a right to speak up on issues of human rights violations in the OSCE area, but it clearly has a duty to do so. The governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan need to recognise this, and focus their efforts not on trying to shoot the messenger but to deal with the issues raised. The European Union has no intention and no desire to destabilise either Armenia or Azerbaijan. On the contrary all its actions show that it wants these two countries to develop and prosper, and be closer to it in all spheres, including its shared values.

On the other hand often, activists in Armenia and Azerbaijan have found succour in the words of the EU, EU officials and European civil society in general. That is absolutely understandable and acceptable. They however must understand clearly that support for the right to say something, does not necessarily mean support for what is being said. This is sometimes a fine, but very important distinction that is many times misunderstood by those opposing governments. It is for the people in Armenia and Azerbaijan to decide who should govern them and to debate and define the policies of their countries. Outsiders can only defend the right for those debates and decisions to be conducted in a proper fashion.

This commentary was prepared by the editorial team of CEW.