The Pressing Issue of Human Rights in Eastern Europe

By Alexander Sheaf

On March 28 1977, Humphrey gave a speech in Ottawa to the assembly of the Canadian Committee of Captive European Nations, discussing the obligations that the Canadian government, Soviet Bloc governments and states of the world had in respect to the maintenance and protection of universal human rights. The speech itself was marked by praise for the Committee and its causes, and the state of international interaction and cooperation regarding the protection of universal human rights.

The Canadian Committee of Captive European Nations, the group he addressed, is rather research unfriendly. Records, minutes of meetings and other committee documents have proven elusive. A number articles in the Ottawa Citizen in 1977 however reveal much about the nature of the group and its purpose.  As Linda Goyette noted in an article on November 2, 1977, a five hundred person strong congregation outside the Soviet Embassy gathered “In a double barrelled protest against mistreatment of dissidents in the USSR, and Canadian indifference to it.” One of the chief organizers of the protest, the Committee chairman Tad Pachulski, gave an interview with the Citizen, stating “We are here to support people who cannot support themselves… we lost our freedom long ago, now we are fighting for the freedom of others left behind.” Two days later in the Citizen, an advert posted by the Committee reads “Fellow Canadians: What the communist revolution achieved in the past 60 years amounts to this: Millions of people put to death, millions of people held in slave labor camps… All western countries are threatened from inside and outside. In order to survive, democracy needs your support.” Evidently the Committee that Humphrey addressed on March 28 was one primarily concerned with the fight for human rights in Eastern Europe; to assist dissidents and to fight for the restoration of independence in the Communist dominated countries of the region. Members of the committee would seemingly then take the form of activists, former dissidents, academics and any other Canadian citizens united in the fight for the rights of dissidents and the populations of soviet bloc countries.

The main focus of Humphrey’s speech is concerned with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, to which the United States, Canada, Western European Nations, The Soviet Union & Soviet Bloc countries are party to. Humphrey describes the nature of the agreement, and how Soviet governments and others partied to it are not upholding their obligations outlined in the declaration regarding human rights. Points 8 and 9 of the declaration read “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief” and “Equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”[1] This was a concession of sorts made by the Soviet Bloc, one which the West met by recognizing Soviet Borders and sovereignty in the final declaration. Considered an important occasion of Cold War multilateral international cooperation, it was one of the hallmarks of the mid to late 70s cold war détente.

The declaration itself was not legally binding as it lacked treaty status. Nevertheless, it encouraged a wave of dissident activity within and outside of Soviet Bloc borders concerning the advancement of human rights. In October of 1977, months after Humphrey’s speech, the Belgrade conference served as a review of all parties human rights records in relation to the obligations signed up to in the Helsinki Declaration. Humphrey however declares the Helsinki declaration “legally irrelevant”, citing the 1966 (legally binding as of 1976) Convention on Civil and Political rights as a legally binding treaty, ratified by the majority of Soviet Bloc countries, and the UN charter and Universal declaration, of which all states are party to. He acknowledges the shortcomings of the enforcement capabilities of said treaty, and in particular criticizes Canada for failing to push for stronger enforcement capabilities, which could thus put the agreement on a par with one such as the European Convention on Human Rights.

Thus, his speech brings light to the shortcomings of the Soviet Bloc Governments in respect to their committed obligations to Human rights, the ponderings of the Trudeau government about how to further the cause of human rights in the region, the mechanisms of the international system in protecting human rights and their shortcomings, and the legal basis which rendered governments of Eastern Europe responsible for gross violations of human rights they pledged to uphold. Perhaps most hearteningly, his respect and warm sentiment to the cause of association of dissidents and activists that he addressed on that March day runs through the speech like a golden thread, revealing much about the man so revered here at McGill and beyond.


[1] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Helsinki Accords”, accessed February 24, 2016, http://www.britannica.com/event/Helsinki-Accords.

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