Speech in Answer to Mr. Kudriatsev, Moscow, May 15, 1989
By Adrian Carlesimo
This speech was given at the third meeting of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the now-defunct Association of Soviet Lawyers in response to Mr. Kudriatsev, the chairman of the Soviet delegation. Delivered in Moscow in 1989, the speech astutely captures the geopolitical forces at work in shifting the paradigm of international human rights law. The speech is significant because it takes aim at perestroika (‘restructuring’) and, although unmentioned, perhaps due to some confused amalgamation on Mr. Humphrey’s part, glasnost (‘openness’). Mikhail Gorbachev’s political and economic reforms had the direct and intended effect of bringing the USSR closer to the western democratic and capitalist mainstream, including on the question of human rights.
In essence, Humphrey suggests that the move in emphasis from social rights to civil rights laid the ideological and practical basis for the erection of a functioning system of international human rights law initiated nearly half a century prior with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Where international law had solely governed the relations between states, international human rights law now conferred rights on individuals. Humphrey goes so far as to call this reordering at the world level another perestroika. Given the date, 1989, Humphrey could see the writing on the wall and was imagining in this speech what form international law would take in the wake of the collapse of the USSR.
In this speech, Humphrey’s starting point is the need “to break down the emotional and intellectual barriers that have divided the people of the world since the Second World War.” During the Cold War, the ‘Free World’ prioritized civil and political liberties while resisting collective rights as a socialist notion whereas the Eastern Bloc stressed that socio-economic equality trumped individual rights. The UDHR, adopted in 1948, balanced both philosophies. Although it formed the normative basis for the UN Charter system, the legal institutions and mechanisms by which international human rights law was to be applied, it was only declaratory in nature and thus not binding. The impotence of human rights law was further cemented by the legal discord between Cold War rivals and the contentious debate surrounding the justiciability of socio-economic rights.
Humphrey’s argument is twofold. He equally asserts that the elaboration of international human rights law through the UDHR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the latter two adopted in 1966, was crucial in marking a rift with the structure and character of jus inter gentes—literally the ‘law between the peoples’—which Humphrey goes so far as to call “obsolete.” This perestroika ushered in an era of recognition of the legal personality of individuals on an international level. The importance of this shift in jurisprudence, in spite of the failures of practical implementation, cannot be understated.
This speech then is significant because it foreshadows a radical and revolutionary change in the international legal order, which Humphrey describes as the “the most important development in the twentieth century”, at a time when this evolution was far from apparent. The growing transparency and democratic reforms in the USSR, the popular toppling of Soviet-imposed regimes in central and eastern Europe and the declarations of independence from the Baltic states were all in the works at the time of this speech. Humphrey conjectured that “world public opinion”—and no longer political or diplomatic considerations—would become the “ultimate sanction” of international human rights law.
History vindicated his predictions. The first International Conference on Human Rights, held in Teheran in 1968, was caught in the grips of the Cold War and proved fruitless. By contrast, the second world conference, which took place in Vienna in 1993, against the backdrop of the genocide unrolling in Bosnia and Herzegovina, garnered the consensus of 171 Heads of State and Government to support an action program and reaffirm that all rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent. The incidence of trials and indictments for gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity soared with the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia (1993) and for Rwanda (1994) and the International Criminal Court (1998). The South African apartheid regime was dislocated under the pressure of international civil activist groups. Concisely then, Humphrey was right in arguing that the ideological change initiated with the UDHR was reaching its culmination at the time of this speech and ostensibly constituted the “greatest contribution of lawyers to the peace of nations.”
 Frans Viljoen, “International Human Rights Law: A Short History,” UN Chronicle.
 “Soviet Union Timeline,” BBC, October 31, 2013.
 Viljoen, “International Human Rights Law: A Short History.”
 “About the Court.” International Criminal Court.
“About the ICTY.” United Nations International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
“The ICTR in Brief.” The United Nations Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals.