Intervention of Canada on Item 38

By Morgan James Gardiner

John P. Humphrey delivered his “Intervention of Canada on Item 38” on December 8, 1988 at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York.[1] He orated this public speech as the UN General Assembly commemorated adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, a path-breaking international legal doctrine for which Humphrey himself was largely responsible. Remarkably, his 1988 Intervention eschews waxing nostalgia to deliver the global organization a diplomatically-framed clarion call. In just six pages, Humphrey demonstrates his sober reasoning and rhetorical punch.

1988’s UN General Assembly (GA) sets the stage. The GA enjoys high public visibility; memorable moments from its past include Nikita Khrushchev’s 1960 shoe-banging outburst, a wince-inducing address by Idi Amin in 1975, and, more recently, U.S. Secretary of Sate Colin Powell’s 2003 speech concerning the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Historian M.J. Peterson describes the GA as a “standing international conference,” where all UN member states amplify relevant points and contentions.[2] During sessions, officers are organized from the central podium outward in concentric, curved tables, which are identified by desk tags reading either respective nationality or institution. Unique earpieces for simultaneous interpretation dangle from ears like hardboiled egg halves, connecting agents below to official language booths overhead; today’s Assembly gathers 193 member states and debates in five official languages.[3]

Moreover, Interventions, like this one, are common features during GA meetings. Interventions give voice to parties who are not directly involved – but nevertheless are indirectly affected by the outcome – in adjudications, discussions, or debates. Should the term “Intervention” induce confusion, remember it’s not completely dissimilar to an amicus curiae brief in common law jurisdictions.[4] Consequently, this document illustrates a GA member state following UN procedure, here Humphrey speaking on Canada’s behalf.

Humphrey’s 1988 Intervention is deceptively brief: six pages to him is hundreds to other, less skilled authors. His amicable personality is omnipresent; first-person pronouns appear seven times in the first paragraph alone.[5] Explaining that Declaration is international law, though not by virtue of GA adoption, Humphrey demonstrates the Assembly’s lack of legislative powers. Categorizing the Declaration as the “customary law of nations,” Humphrey shows that its legal status came from rights-claims and judicial precedents, not a legislative body.[6] In other words, the Declaration became international law because it was utilized over time in legal proceedings; the GA is not a parliament, so it cannot make law.

“Law tells us what should happen. It does not tell us what will happen,” Humphrey states, thus refocusing on the UN’s role in emerging international law.[7] That role is a balancing act between the organization’s public perception and its defense of rights: overemphasizing public judgment at the expense of human rights enforcement risks turning the UN into an “Organization of Shame,” handicapped by legal mechanisms that are “weak when they do exist.”[8] Here, Humphrey pivots from chafing critique to actionable interpretation, urging the UN to harness 1988’s unprecedented vis-à-vis human rights and institute enforcement apparatus.[9] For him, public opinion is either the missing jigsaw puzzle piece, or the quivering domino that imperils the whole row.

Commemorations of the Declaration’s adoption spread far beyond the plenary room that year. Amongst the hullabaloo, Amnesty International arranged a global concert tour to increase the 1948 Declaration’s awareness amongst emerging demographic epochs to the tunes of Bruce Springsteen and Sting.[10] Therefore, Humphrey’s speech was delivered as public discussions and engagement concerning human rights surged. Artfully amalgamating his experiences drafting the Declaration with shrewd surveillance of the ensuing forty years, Humphrey reminds the UN that its organizational legitimacy is contingent upon the dynamic defense of those human rights.

Humphrey’s larger, historical contributions to rights régimes and international law aside, the 1988 Intervention is significant because it actually intervenes – in good faith without jiggery-pokery – and calls attention to the discrepancy between rights and rights-enforcement. Further underscoring Humphrey’s significance to the UN, Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar presented John Humphrey and Nelson Mandela (among others) with awards recognizing sustained, international human rights contributions during that same December 8, 1988 GA meeting.[11] Undoubtedly, a skilled diplomat and rhetorician is required to first excoriate an institution, then pivot to accept that same organization’s honours, all during the same meeting.

Crucially, this 1988 Intervention does not imply Humphrey’s estrangement from the UN, or vice-versa. Rather, it reflects robust, unwavering standards to which he held the institution, himself, and his public speeches. Engineering the 1948 Declaration along makes John P. Humphrey historically significant; his steadfast, lifelong commitment to measure the United Nations against the highest benchmarks of human rights work – underlined by his 1988 Intervention – makes him truly extraordinary.


[1] “Intervention of Canada by Professor John Humphrey on Item 38 of the Agenda, December 8, 1988,” MG 4127, C. 18, File 365, John P. Humphrey United Nations Collection, Nahum Gelber Law Library, McGill University [3660 rue Peel] Montréal (Québec) Canada H3A 1W9.

[2] M.J. Peterson, “General Assembly,” in The Oxford Handbook on the United Nations, ed. Sam Dawes and Thomas G. Weiss (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 98.

[3] The UN’s five official languages are: English, French, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese. Interpreters for each language simultaneously interpret speeches at the GA.

[4] N.b.: Admittedly, additional legal nuance separates amicus curiae from Interventions; one is not necessarily equal to the other in this sense. But, for this blog’s purpose(s), the aforementioned description proves adequate, in my estimation.

[5] Humphrey, “Intervention,” 1.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Ibid., 5. Emphasis original.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “40th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” UN In Action, Film, 14 November 1988, RT: 00:02:57, UN Asset ID: UNA0054, www.unmultimedia.org/avlibrary/asset/UNA0054. Accessed: February 23, 2016.

[11] “To Generate a Universal Culture of Human Rights,” UN Chronicle 26, nº 1 (March 1989): 84.

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