Human Rights Watch was founded as “Helsinki Watch” in 1978 to support the citizens’ groups that formed, first in Moscow, then throughout the Eastern bloc, to monitor their governments’ compliance with the Helsinki Accords. This international agreement, created in 1975 to encourage cooperation in East-West relations, was the first to recognize “the right of the individual to know and act upon his rights” – the right, that is, of citizens to monitor the practices of their governments. As people elsewhere in the world struggled to give life to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a handful of individuals in the Soviet sphere took the dry language of the newer treaty and used it to build a small, brutalized, and ultimately victorious movement for human freedom.
Our small staff met clandestinely with these dissidents, reassuring them, in their isolation, that the work they carried out at such cost had meaning and was heard. We brought their reports of human rights violations to the attention of the world.
Given the heady days that were to come, it’s easy to forget that through much of the 1980s many saw this work as pointless. Yet, as Eastern bloc governments intensified repression, we kept faith with our colleagues there. The outcome, as the world knows, exceeded all expectations. Today, after mostly peaceful revolutions, the citizens of these states enjoy a degree of freedom unimaginable under the old regimes. Our part in this achievement cannot be compared with the risks taken and price paid by our colleagues in the Eastern bloc. We take pride, however, in the role that our partnership did play. As Vaclav Havel noted on a visit to our offices in 1990, shortly after his election as president of Czechoslovakia, “I feel that I’m here as a friend among friends . . . I know very well what you did for us, and perhaps without you, our revolution could not be.”

Given their small numbers and – to most contemporary observers – evident powerlessness, the Helsinki monitors might be astonished to witness the power that groups of private citizens assume today. In 1997, Human Rights Watch worked within a rich community of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) unimaginable in our first days. The vitality of such groups made possible one of our most significant achievements in recent years – the completion of a treaty that bans the production, transfer, use and stockpiling of antipersonnel landmines. For several years, we laid the ground for the ban with our reporting on landmines’ civilian victims in such places as Cambodia, Angola and Somalia. As a founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and chair of the U.S. campaign, we were at the forefront of efforts to build a worldwide coalition of NGOs to press for this treaty – more than 1,000 groups in more than 60 countries. In October 1997, the ICBL and its coordinator, Jody Williams, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In December, our efforts were rewarded by completion of a comprehensive treaty, since signed by 132 governments – the first time a weapons system in active use has been banned. Our task now is to secure broad ratification of the treaty and to monitor and insist on compliance with its provisions – goals that will require the efforts of us and all our NGO partners.