During some of the darkest days of the Cold War, thousands of people gained their freedom, thanks to the United Nations, in a story that has never been told before. It is time that this story — and others to come originating from UN archives — be put on record.
From the early days of the UN, thousands of petitions reached the Secretariat from people seeking help in securing their human rights, especially from Eastern Europe. In 1947, the Commission on Human Rights, the predecessor to the current Human Rights Council, took the position, supported by all the “great powers,” that it lacked competence to deal with these petitions. An assistant-secretary-general for social affairs, Henri Laugier, a Frenchman, denounced this decision as shameful.
After many previous attempts, in 1970 the Economic and Social Council, a main body of the UN, established a procedure in which petitions received by the Secretariat were listed and then forwarded to the governments concerned for their information and comments. The Commission on Human Rights also received authorization to act on situations dealt with in these petitions that revealed a “consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.” From 1970 to 2006, when the Commission gave way to the Human Rights Council, about 80 country situations were examined by the former body.
Put simply, countries of the Eastern European group withheld cooperation from this procedure and it was rarely, in the 1980s and 1990s, that a situation in these countries was selected for consideration. However, the petitions procedure led to thousands of people from the region to win their right to emigrate to freedom. Thousands of these people sent “thank you” letters to the UN. They were literally kept in a “thank you” file in the human-rights secretariat.
The petitions process came about the following way: When they were received, they were transmitted to the relevant governments for their information and response. Formally, the governments declined to respond. Unannounced, however, a number of countries, such as Bulgaria, East Germany and Romania, responding to the petitions submitted to the UN, quietly allowed many petitioners to leave and find new homes abroad.
After emigrating to their new countries, numerous petitioners wrote notes of appreciation to the UN, expressing gratitude for its role in helping to secure their freedom.
The petitions branch of the human-rights secretariat kept a file containing these letters. Unfortunately, when the secretariat moved in Geneva from the Palace of Nations to the Wilson Palace, the secretariat was allowed by the leadership to take only a limited amount of archives, and the gratitude file passed into history.
It is important for the record to register that thousands of petitioners wrote to the UN to thank it for their freedom. Yet not one letter survived.