What it is: 'Détente' is a French word, meaning 'loosening', and is used to refer to the relaxing of tension, particularly between different nations and states.

What it means: It was first used this way in the 1970s, when the strained relations between East and West in the Cold War began to ease.  Starting in 1973, a series of conferences was held to try to defuse political tensions in Europe. Political leaders from 35 nations attended the conferences, and so did representatives from the USA and the Communist states in eastern Europe. The final meeting was held in Helsinki in 1975, and managed to reach a written agreement (called the Final Act). This outlined ways to prevent confrontation between western Europe and Communist central/eastern Europe. It also suggested how the two sides could (and should) co-operate with each other over economics, science and technology. All the countries taking part in the Conference were required to accept international Conventions (agreements) on human rights. The Helsinki Conference was a remarkable achievement at a time when there was deep distrust and hostility; it is a pity it isn't remembered more often. The Conference led directly to the creation of what is now the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which has worked to defuse conflict ever since.

Think about it: The Conference encouraged the people in eastern European countries to call for human rights. More than that, it made it possible for them to ask for their rights to be respected: because of the agreement, eastern leaders were less able to ignore them (or punish them). Think about how social injustice and prejudice might be reduced if people got together to agree that 'injustice' and 'prejudice' are anti-social. Some people think that most conferences and committees and public meetings are just a lot of hot air and no result. But is that a fault of the procedure, or of the people taking part in it?