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Helping Others

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Helping Others

In her President’s letter to the Bulletin, Metta Spencer reacts with alarm to recent comments by Louise Arbour. After decades of experience in the field, Ms. Arbour concluded that the current approach to the protection of vulnerable people around the world is “not working” and suggested a “more limited approach involving empathy”. In Metta’s view, this represents “a reversal of commitments, which seems to repudiate the core of peace work itself”.

Like Metta, I consider myself my brother’s keeper. My brother lives everywhere. In response to Metta’s invitation for comments, here are some reflections on the three ways of helping others in today’s world: advocating for human rights, supporting non-violent actions to effect regime change and improved governance, and prevention as well as resolution of violent conflicts.

Human Rights

Some human rights are universal, absolute and inalienable. They must be vigorously protected, their abusers prosecuted. Other human rights are not universal. They are relative because they are contentious and clash with others. They are relative because they would be suspended if in conflict with one of the absolute human rights. Thus, free speech is a sacred right, but hate speech is a wrong.

What constitutes hate speech is open to debate and subject to strong bias. The editors at satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo chose to publish the cartoon of Muhammad knowing well that as a result lives would be lost in demonstrations, and possibly their own. After the brutal murders, they were eulogized as martyrs for free speech, applauded and admired. With some notable dissent, they were awarded PEN America’s Freedom of Expression Prize.

Free speech. But is it worthy of glorification? Was it wise? Was it thoughtful? Was it moral? How was insulting somebody’s God satirical? How was it funny? Knowing that lives would certainly be lost, what was the point? Why act to provide ammunition to hate mongers everywhere – witness the recent copycat action in Texas, with others certain to come – feeding the spiral of hate and violence?

On the other hand, outrageously, the government in Ottawa is preparing legislation to charge NGOs supporting the boycott of Israel with hate crimes. It is a badge of honour to be accused of hate by the Harper government, the grandmasters of the politics of hate – morally and intellectually bankrupt, their only weapons lying, and demonizing of opposition and dissent. A gift for Harper’s only friend Netanyahu, the proposed law would accomplish nothing beyond adding to the overflowing cauldron of hate – more hate against Muslims, more hate against us Jews. The obvious double standard plays right into the antisemites’ hands. The boycott will continue to grow, its proponents galvanized.


Given different, often dramatically different, historical experiences, the priority and degree of acceptance of human rights vary across nations and cultures. In March 1992, I visited Romania with a delegation of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly Just fifteen months earlier a nightmare that lasted for over twenty years ended for the Romanians with the public and televised execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu. Ceaușescu’s Stalinist regime terrorized its citizens with a murderous security police while forcing them to live with abject poverty and deprivation.

At one stop, the Romanians asked about our projects at home, and a member of the delegation, a professor of Literature and Gender Studies from New York City, spoke with great satisfaction about progress achieved in fighting for abortion rights and equal rights for women. Later that day, at supper at the home of my gracious hosts, this comment was made by one of the Romanian women: ”She is very nice, but to us she is from a different planet”. In Romania under Ceaușescu, there were far more abortions than live births, as children were starving and freezing, sometimes to death, and mothers did not want any more.

After surviving the horrors of war in Nazi controlled Warsaw and the harsh early years of communist Poland, poet and future Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz defected to the west in 1951, eventually settling in the U.S. The same year he published “The Captive Mind” an insightful collection of essays about totalitarianism and its effects on the mind, and as relevant today as it was then.

In one essay he addressed the low esteem widely held behind the Iron Curtain for the Americans, citizens of the world’s supreme superpower and potential allies. “ ‘Are Americans really stupid?’ I was asked in Warsaw. In the voice of the man who posed the question, there was despair, as well as the hope that I would contradict him.” (1990, New York, Vintage International, p. 25)

According to Miłosz, the reason why we, the citizens of peaceful and prosperous nations, cannot be taken seriously by the rest of the world is because we “have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgements and thinking habits are. The resultant lack of imagination is appalling. Because (we) were born and raised in a given social order and in a given system of values, (we) believe that any other order must be ‘unnatural’ “. (p. 29)

More imagination. More cultural awareness. More respect for others’ points of view. More thoughtfulness. More open-mindedness. Less presumption and condescension. More humility. We need all those when engaging to help others. And more empathy.

Surely this is what Ms. Arbour is saying. Surely her comments do not represent “a reversal of commitments” to the values and goals of her life’s work, only her disappointment with the current way of doing things. With human rights abuses rampant and only a tiny proportion of abusers brought to justice, the system is not working, and can only be improved with more cultural sensitivity, respect and empathy.

Rights clash. Individual rights against collective rights. Short term rights against long term rights. Private rights against public rights. Commercial rights against human rights. When short term, commercial and individual rights overwhelm all others including public rights and human rights of present and future generations, and responsibilities are neglected, democracies degenerate to dysfunctional “democracies”.


We face a grave and universal crisis of governance. To different degrees, but with the U.S., Canada and the “democracies” as the worst offenders, our governments act in ways destructive to public good and a healthy, sustainable future. To different degrees, our governments, bought by money and power, are acting in support of powerful economic interests in waging war on public good as the last barrier to unrestrained “free” market, willing to murder the future in the name of greed.

The assault on common good is also an assault on truth. Money can buy a lot of professional liars, reality deniers, marketers, charlatans and character assassins, their powers greatly amplified by the ever present information and communication technologies. In our totalitarian “free” market society, marketing, including self marketing, is the overwhelmingly dominant societal transaction, and commercial short term rights reign supreme.

We face a crisis of citizenship, of civil society, of social engagement. Citizens became consumers. Apathy rules. Technologies offer attractive escape. The virtual world is more fun and no climate change there. I lived the first fifteen years of my life in communist Poland, in the land of the Big Lie. Most people knew about the Lie, but didn’t talk about it to strangers. Now the Big Lie is here in Canada and elsewhere, and yet most do not know or care. Canada is as much a democracy, as Poland was a Peoples’ Republic.

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The need for regime change begins at home.


In 2011, we rejoiced when the corrupt and repressive Mubarak regime collapsed in Egypt. With Arab Spring in full bloom, we hoped for more democracy and freedom for the long suffering people of the region. Sadly, it was not to be. Egypt now has another repressive military dictatorship. It is conducting mass arrests and many executions of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and, in the process, creating future cadres of terrorists. Consider Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda. In 1965, at the age of fourteen he committed to the cause of jIhad. He was inspired by Sayyid Qutb who was imprisoned and later executed by Nasser’s secular Egyptian government in a campaign of violent repression against the Brotherhood. In 1981, following the assassination of President Sadat by a member of the Brotherhood, al-Zawahiri, like many others, was arrested, tortured in prison, and further radicalized.

The early joy of the Arab Spring became despair. At best, there is no change. At worst, there are the horrors of Syria and Libya. Are all public protests to bring about government change doomed to failure?

Regime change by outside military forces can only make the situation worse. Regime change caused by public protests, the less violent the better, can in some cases, lead to improved governance. It happened a number of times, starting in Poland in 1989, as communism died in eastern Europe. The transitions worked well because of conducive circumstances, inspired and united leadership, and existing foundations of civil society.

Repressive regimes weaken or destroy civil society. With violent histories, these societies are usually riven by ethnic or sectarian divisions, inflamed by demagogues. United in their desire to force out the government, these different elements could demonstrate and work together until the job was done. What would happen next would depend on the quality of leadership and the ability of the diverse, and in some cases, conflicting elements to work together for public good.

In the deeply troubled region, which includes the countries of North Africa, the Middle East and South West Asia, the external circumstances are not conducive to a transition to a more fair and representative government. The biggest reason – the main cause of these countries’ past and current problems – is the ongoing interference, often brutal and always exploitative, by others – at first by the Europeans, later by the U.S. and its allies. During the 19th Century, colonial borders, often conveniently straight, were drawn on looted lands by bureaucrats in European capitals. Since then, there has been continuous and unrelenting interference including large scale military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

One notable event was the 1953 coup d’état against a democratically elected government in Iran. It was carried out by the C.I.A. acting on behalf of Anglo- Iranian Oil Company, the very same company which under its new name BP flooded the Gulf of Mexico with more than 200 million gallons of oil. No one was held criminally responsible for the spill. The poison is still killing dolphins and other wildlife.

Public discourse is rife with double standards. The residents of countries which are our “enemies” like Iran deserve freedom and human rights, but not the residents of “friendly” countries like Saudi Arabia. ISIS beheadings are barbaric, but we don’t mind about Saudi Arabia’s. Shamefully, our government donated millions of dollars to the Munk School at U. of T. for a project to promote “democracy and free speech” in Iran.

While good for business, especially the weapons business, the aggressive U.S. driven foreign policy is self-destructive and disastrous for common good and a healthy sustainable future. Osama bin Laden succeeded by getting America and its allies to do a great deal of damage to themselves and the world.

Destructive Conflict

Destructive conflict is a spiral fed by fear, hate and violence. It is polarized and polarizing. Advocacy for peaceful and just resolution must be rooted in uncorrupted reason and untarnished evidence, in unbiased truth. It must be impartial. Consider the current situation in Ukraine, with nuclear weapons on both sides.

After Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, my parents escaped to Lviv in the Soviet Union. They were married there in January 1940. Previously known as Lwów – the city of the lion, it was a part of the Kingdom of Poland until 1772 when that country was dismembered by its neighbours. Lwów was annexed by Austria and renamed Lemberg.

So it stayed until the end of WW1 and the fall of Austria-Hungary in 1918. On November 1, the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic was declared as independent with Lviv as the capital, and war for control broke out between the Poles and the Ukrainians. Within three weeks the Ukrainians were overwhelmed by the large Polish majority. Afterwards, some Polish soldiers destroyed and looted the Ukrainian and Jewish areas of Lwów killing dozens and injuring hundreds.

Lwów was considered one of Poland’s most important cities, a centre of learning and culture, an outpost against “eastern hordes”. While emphasizing the city’s Polish nature and heritage, the authorities acted to suppress Ukrainian nationalism. Many Ukrainians left. The very word Ukrainian disappeared from official documents, replaced by the ancient Ruthenian.

In 1931 the population of Lwów was 312,000 and included 63.5% Poles, 31.9% Jews, 11.2% Ukrainians, 0.8% Germans, 0.2% Russians, and 0.2% Others.

Just prior to WW2, following the pact between Stalin and Hitler dividing up Poland, Lwów became Lviv and joined the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. After the war started, the city received about 200,000 Polish Jews running away from from the Nazis.

When Hitler’s armies invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941, the Soviets evacuated from Lviv. Some of the Jews escaped east. Some, like my father, were conscripted into the Red Army.

One of the Soviets’ final acts was the execution in prison of about 8000 Ukrainian nationalist fighters originally arrested by the Polish authorities (Sarah A. Topol, “Fugue State: The struggle for national identity in wartime Ukraine”, Harper’s Magazine, July 2015). The Soviets believed that the Ukrainians would fight on Hitler’s side. After the Nazis discovered the bodies, they made local Jews carry them out and told the locals that it was the Jews who did the killing. Several thousand Jews were killed in the pogrom that followed.

Under Nazi occupation almost all of Lviv’s 150,000 Jews were killed or sent to their death. At first, many Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis as liberators and powerful allies against the Soviets. Acting on that assumption, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), under the leadership of Stepan Bandera, declared Ukraine as an independent state in Lviv on June 30, 1941. They were harshly rejected by Hitler and many of their leaders were killed or sent to concentration camps. In 1943 the OUN established the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which massacred tens of thousands of Poles and Jews.

On July 21, 1944, to help the approaching Red Army, the Polish AK resistance attacked the Nazis in Lviv and surrounding areas. The armed uprising lasted four days, then the Red Army took over the city. The Soviet authorities quickly turned against the Polish population. Many were forcibly repatriated to formerly German territories in western Poland. Most of the AK leaders were killed. Former members were offered a choice of joining the communist controlled AL resistance or prison.

After the war, about a half a million Ukrainians were killed, arrested or deported by the Soviets, with another 140,000 deported by the Poles. For several years, the UPA continued to fight first against Polish forces then against the Soviets.

In 2001 Lviv’s population was 725,202 and included: Ukrainians 77.8%, Russians 17.3%, Belarusians 0.6%, Moldovans 0.5%, Crimean Tatars 0.5%, Bulgarians 0.4%, Hungarians 0.3%, Romanians 0.3%, Poles 0.3%, Jews 0.2%, Others 1.8%. One commentator described it as “a monument to ethnic cleansing.”

Ukraine is a land of mass graves, living hatreds and warring memories. It is a land where mirror image histories live across the street. All the sides vividly recall their victories and their victimhood, but all angrily deny the atrocities they had committed. All the sides except for the Jews who had nothing but pain.

Ukrainians had suffered a mass murder with its own name – Holodomor – murder by forced starvation – 3.5 million dead, 6.5 million dead unborn. It was Stalin’s deadly attack against Ukrainian nationalism.

Ukraine is in the heart of the region described as “bloodlands” by historian Timothy Snyder. During WW2 14 million civilians were murdered there by Nazi and Soviet forces in a ratio of roughly two to one.

Ukraine is divided into two solitudes. The Western one, mostly Greek Catholic, looks to Europe. The Eastern one, mostly Orthodox, looks to Russia. They fought each other in the presidential elections of 2004 and 2010.

The results of the 2004 election showed that Viktor Yanukovych who wanted closer ties with Russia narrowly defeated Viktor Yushchenko who wanted Ukraine to join the EU. After mass protests alleging vote rigging, another election was held and Yushchenko won a narrow victory. His government’s relations with Russia were tense and it did all it could to promote Ukrainian nationalism. It awarded Stepan Bandera the posthumous title of Hero of Ukraine. The government self destructed by bitter infighting between the president and his main ally Yulia Tymoshenko. They both ran in the 2010 election allowing Yanukovych a narrow victory.

One of his first acts in power was to annul the award given to Bandera. In November 2013 his government refused to sign an association agreement with the EU. Instead he signed a treaty with Russia. This prompted large but initially peaceful anti-government demonstrations in Kiev and other cities including Lviv. The demonstrators were a diverse group, mainly pro democracy, but also including many Neo-Nazis and extreme nationalists for whom Bandera was the greatest hero. The demonstrations were enthusiastically supported and abetted by U.S. led “democracies”.

In February 2014, the demonstrations turned violent. By the end of the month, Yanukovych was impeached and fled the country, and there was a new government in Kiev, strongly influenced by the “democracies”. According to Russia, it was a coup d’état.

In March 2014, following a referendum Crimea was annexed by Russia. In April 2014 fighting began between government forces and Ukrainian separatists in eastern Donetsk and Lugansk provinces. In May, the rebels held referenda and with massive support declared as independent republics. With over 6,000 dead the fighting continues, as the conflict escalates.


While there is a great deal to dislike about the Putin regime, contrary to politicians and mainstream media of the “democracies”, on Ukraine he is in the right.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Iron Curtain, a promise was made to the Soviets that there would be no expansion of NATO “as much as a thumb’s width further to the East”. Although I recall this being widely reported in the media at the time, it is now officially denied by the “democracies”. This promise was broken a dozen times starting in 1999 – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, and Croatia, with four more aspiring to membership – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

The meddling and interference by the U.S. led “democracies” to weaken first the USSR then Russia started right after WW2 and continues in full force. Beginning in 1945, for several years the C.I.A. funded and supported the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which had earlier committed mass murder of Poles and Jews, in its conflict with Polish and Soviet armies.

Given that NATO is an anti-Russian alliance, from Russia’s perspective this is encirclement by the enemy, hostile missiles closer and closer to home – an existential threat. Consider that when enemy nukes came close to U.S. territory during the Cuban missile crisis, the world came to the brink of an all out nuclear war.

And now Ukraine. Its capital Kiev — the birthplace of the Russian state. The EU membership is a ticket to NATO. Russia faces a real threat and, given past experience, has good reasons to mistrust the U.S. and the “democracies”.

The collapse of the USSR humiliated Russia and left Russian minorities of different sizes in fourteen new countries. Russia feels an obligation to protect their rights. The 2012 cancellation of the law permitting Ukraine’s regions to name a second official language – Russian in 13 mostly eastern of Ukraine’s 27 regions – threatened and alienated the Russian minority. It was a mindless and divisive action typical of destructive ethnic nationalism. The strong presence of Neo-Nazi and extreme nationalist elements in Ukrainian society horrifies great many people in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere. Bandera – to one side he is the greatest hero, to the other he is a mass murderer and a Hitler supporter.

Crimea was a part of Russia between 1783 and 1954 when Soviet leader Khrushchev gave it by decree to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. At the time it meant little. After independence, strategically placed Crimea became important.

These parts of the story are not discussed by politicians, mainstream media, and pundits in the “democracies”. Remarkably, highly intelligent people take part in public discourse about an issue while unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge a fundamental aspect of the truth. This is in part because of the great power and efficacy of propaganda in our totalitarian “free” market society. As well, as Miłosz had shown, the mind performs a complex psychological dance to deny and live with the Big Lie.

Instead of honest debate, the demonization brigades are out in full force weaving nasty and condescending narratives about Putin and Russia. As usual when it comes to the politics of hate, our Prime Minister is at the front of the line.

Double standards abound. They have a dictatorship, we have a democracy. They have oligarchs, we don’t. They are victims of propaganda, we are not! The Russians are not smart enough for democracy. Putin’s support in Russia grows with each insult and slight. He is twice as popular as most of the “democratic” leaders maligning him. The refusal by Obama, Merkel and other “democrats” to go to Moscow for the 70th Anniversary of the victory against Hitler, the victory paid for mostly in Soviet blood, was hurtful and insulting, and further united the Russians against the “democracies”. It was a lost opportunity to reach out, to de-escalate a potential nuclear conflict, to acknowledge Russian concerns and to negotiate in good faith.

Many other world leaders did go to Moscow. In one photo Putin was joined by the presidents of China and India. In the rest of the world, there is a majority of support for Russia. The U.S. led “democracies” have a long criminal record.

There is nothing, short of war, that the “democracies” can do about the current status quo in Ukraine – the annexation of Crimea and fighting in the east. The harsh words and military build up continue, but to what end? Why not negotiate in good faith? Hasn’t Ukraine had enough war?

Andrew Pakula ( is a long time peace and human rights activist and a member of Science for Peace.


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