Response to “Speech to Union of Bulgarian Lawyers”

By Brendan Fitzgibbon

The year 1989 was an important one in world history, but of all the regions of the world it holds the most significance for Eastern Europe. Looking at the events of 1989, one remembers the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany, the execution of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the overall chaotic restructuring of Eastern Europe’s society. Bulgaria’s experience during this period is far less known in the Western World and it was amid this social, economic and political upheaval that John Humphrey traveled to Sofia to speak to the Union of Bulgarian Lawyers. In the opening of his speech he mentions the lack of knowledge of Canadians on Bulgarian culture and history and vice versa, and the importance of mutual understanding is in order to preserve world peace[1].  By doing so, Humphrey demonstrates that he understands the Cold War was coming to a close and that the West and East would need to drastically change their perceptions of each other, and Bulgarians of themselves, in order to co-habitate. Unlike countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland, the West knew relatively little of Bulgaria but instead saw it as a somewhat backwards country that continued to be politically loyal to the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War[2]. Humphrey’s speech indirectly asks the lawyers’ aid to build institutions that banish these misconceptions of their country by promoting respect, understanding and inclusion.

A common theme throughout the speech is the necessity for international cooperation and understanding in order to prevent war. His speech is meant to remind the Bulgarians of the pivotal moment in history that they find themselves in.  The lawyers that Humphrey addressed in May of 1989 would go on to shape the identity of Bulgaria in the post-Communist world. These lawyers would likely create much of the political and legislative realm that their nation would be governed by. He reminds his audience multiple times about the origins of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the atrocities of the Second World War, many of which occurred in Eastern Europe. Indeed, for much of the speech, Humphrey seems to be reminding the Bulgarians of the responsibilities that a nation must abide by. As he explains to his audience “The General Assembly is not a world parliament and […] its resolutions do not have the force of international law […] The Declaration was […] proclaimed as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”[3]. Although the United Nations cannot force individual member states to promote human rights, the Universal Declaration is the standard by which nations are judged on. Denying certain individuals their Human Rights for regional or political objectives, only leads to ostracization by the international community. The recognition of individuals, and the human rights you share with them, is the most potent way to prevent war. The state of human rights in Bulgaria in 1989 was poor. Beginning in 1984, the Bulgarian government took aggressive policies to assimilate the Turkish minority through suppression of their cultural identity[4]. While Humphrey was giving his speech at the University of Bulgaria, the government was promoting their expulsion and by mid-June, 52 000 Turkish-Bulgarian refugees were living in Turkey[5]. Parallels to Bulgaria’s past, as a member of the Axis, would no doubt have occurred to Humphrey.

Indeed his entire speech almost sounds like a warning. A warning to the Bulgarians, and all of East Europe, to not repeat the mistakes that had led to the catalyst for the Universal Declaration. A warning not to embrace ethnic prejudice, disunity and aggressive nationalism but to create fair economic and political institutions to propel Bulgaria into the fast approaching 21st century. In his closing statements, he reflects on the dramatic change International Law had undergone in the last century[6]. He utilizes Gorbachev’s policies of restructuring and democratization known as Perestroika (Restructuring)[7] to elucidate the global revolution of human rights to his audience. No matter where a person goes, they should be treated with the dignity guaranteed to them by the Universal Declaration. Bulgaria, and the rest of Eastern Europe, stood at the threshold in 1989-90. For the first time in nearly half a century, they were no longer bound to a political, economic and social ideology exported from another country. Humphrey chooses to leave his listeners with such choice words as “radical” and “revolutionary” and evoking the philosophical expression élan vital[8], that is, our Life Force, and its eternal battle with the physical world that surrounds us and that we perceive[9]. If human rights, and our need as people for the freedoms that they entail, are our élan vital, then the popular revolutions of 1989 are just another manifestation of the physical world giving way to our instinctual need for these freedoms.

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.364- Speech to Union of Bulgarian Lawyers, John Peter Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives

[2] Ivan Kristev, “Living in the Present,” The Times Literary Supplement (London, UK) 15 May 1992. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

[3] MG 4127 C.18 F.364- Speech to Union of Bulgarian Lawyers, John Peter Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives

[4] Rossen Vassilev, “ Restoring Ethnolinguistic Rights of Bulgaria’s Turkish Minority,” Ethnopolitics 9, no.3 (2010): 295-309

[5] Clyde Haberman, “Bulgaria Forces Turkish Exodus of Thousands” New York Times (New York, NY) 22 June 1989. Web. 19 Feb. 2017

[6] MG 4127 C.18 F.364- Speech to Union of Bulgarian Lawyers, John Peter Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives

[7] 2016. “Perestroika.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition 1 Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 22, 2017)

[8] MG 4127 C.18 F.364- Speech to Union of Bulgarian Lawyers, John Peter Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives

[9] 2016. “Henri Bergson.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition 1. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 22, 2017)

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