Speech to United Nations Commission on Human Rights

By Shuyue He

The Humphrey speech I chose is a petition to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHRC) in February 1993 on the subject of compensation for Canadian Prisoners of War (POWs).

The speech was part of the War Amputees of Canada’s (the War Amps) project for reparations for Canadian POWs held captive by the Japanese. Founded in 1918, the organization provides a voice for Canadian amputee war veterans while also taking care of their needs. In 1987, H. Clifford Chadderton, the chief executive of the War Amps at that time, established a task force with a team of delegates (including Humphrey) to assist thalidomide victims as well as the Canadian Hong Kong veterans who had suffered as Japanese prisoners of the war.

Humphrey was a co-drafter of the declaration presented by the War Amps to the UN Commission on the right to compensation for victims of gross violation of human rights. His speech reflected one of the central points in the War Amps’ declaration: the concept that individual rights cannot be waived by treaty. In his speech, Humphrey argued that what Japanese did to the Canadian prisoners in WWII was a gross violation of human rights under international law. He therefore called for the  UNHRC to acknowledge that Japan was guilty of crimes against humanity. Although the speech was a part of the War Amps’ campaign for POW compensation, he did not address this issue in the speech, stating he would leave this for other forums. Instead, what he was “asking” for was “that the Commission decide that Japan is guilty of gross violations of Human Rights.”

In his speech, Humphrey not only supported the War Amps’ project, but more profoundly, he reinforced and propagated the concept of individual human rights. Canadian foreign policy in the mid-20th century was far more concerned with protecting state sovereignty rather than human rights, as exemplified by Canada’s hesitant acceptance of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By the 1980s, Canadian government negotiations with Japanese-Canadians for redress took place almost simultaneously with the War Amps’ lobbying for compensation from the Japanese. From 1990 onwards, Humphrey observed an increased focus on Japan’s war crimes and crimes against humanity both by the Canadian government and in a global context, so he grasped this opportunity to bolster the War Amps’ claims. His letters from 1990 repeatedly mentioned his hope that “I am particularly anxious that the compensation study becomes closely related with the U.N decade for the Development of International Law. It may well turn out that we have started something very important on the one”.[1]

In the meantime, Humphrey noted that although recent changes in international law had been “no less than revolutionary”, they still failed to “address the question of the right of the individual to compensation” in the face of gross violations.[2] For example, the petition of compensation was ineffective under the resolution 1503 of the Economic and Social Council. Hence in the speech, Humphrey referred to a report of the sub-commission to the commission, which stated that “the procedure governed by the resolution 1503 could not be applied as a reparation or relief mechanism in respect of claims of compensation for human suffering or other losses which had occurred during the Second World War”. An another obstacle to their claims for compensation was the fact that a peace treaty had been signed in 1952 by the Canadian and Japanese governments in which Canada agreed not to ask for Japan for further compensation for its World War II prisoners of war.[3] Humphrey addressed this issue in his speech:

Let me speak for a moment as international lawyer. There is an important principle of international law known as jus cogens which means that governments cannot by treaty negate the fundamental rights of individual men and women.

Similar content was recapitulated in the proposed declaration that he wrote for the War Amps—the concept that individual rights cannot be waived by treaty. What he argued was that the 1953 Treaty between Canada and Japan obscured the individual rights of the veterans. He argued further that the Canadian government had violated international law by effectively signing away the right of the veterans in its effort to come to an agreement.[4]

Despite the constant efforts of the War Amps and Humphrey, the outcome turned out to be “bittersweet”, as the War Amps did not never obtained financial compensation from the Japanese government.[5]  But Humphrey was aware that this project was by nature a difficult claim, noting that “there is even controversy as to what compensation means – certainly in law”.[6] In the end, The War Amps’ claim was financially realized in 1998 when the Canadian government announced that it would foot the bill for a compensation package and give $24,000 to each surviving veteran or their widow.[7] Later, in 2011, Japan issued a formal apology to Canadian veterans of Hong Kong on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Hong Kong, but by this time, only 59 veterans were still alive to hear it.[8]

In conclusion, Humphrey’s speech called for the UNHRC to acknowledge the fact that Japanese was guilty of grossly violating the human rights of POWs. Even though the speech did not address the claims of compensation, a major theme of the War Amps’ project at that time, it reinforced the concept the individual human rights. The speech stated that the concept of individual human rights cannot be waived by 1952 Treaty under jus cogens. The result of the project was “bittersweet” as their claims for financial compensation were realized in 1998 by the Canadian government rather than the Japanese government. Whether the campaign for compensation directly promoted the development of international law’s emphasis on individual rights is not clear, further study should be conducted in this area.

 


[1] Letter from Humphrey to Forbes, 21 August 1990, The War Amputations of Canada – Correspondence; 1990-1991, Box 16, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[2] Luncheon Speech: Conference on the Right to Compensation, 1989, Speeches – 1989, Box 18, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[3] CBC Digital Archives, Canadians captured in Hong Kong receive compensation, Online video, 2:38, 1998, http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/war-conflict/veterans/continuing-the-fight-canadas-veterans/canadians-captured-in-hong-kong-receive-compensation.html.

[4] “Government Failure to Protect POWs in Japan Consistent from 1941 to Date,” The War Amps Newsroom Archives, last modified November 19 1996,http://www.waramps.ca/newsroom/archives/hongkong/1996-11-19.html

[5]  CBC Digital Archives, Canadians captured in Hong Kong receive compensation, Online video, 2:38, 1998, http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/war-conflict/veterans/continuing-the-fight-canadas-veterans/canadians-captured-in-hong-kong-receive-compensation.html.

[6] Luncheon Speech: Conference on the Right to Compensation, 1989, Speeches – 1989, Box 18, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[7] “War Amps Acknowledges Importance of Japan Finally Apologizing to Canada’s Hong Kong Veterans,” The War Amps Newsroom Archives, December 8 2011,http://www.waramps.ca/newsroom/archives/hongkong/2011-12-08.html ; CBC Digital Archives, Canadians captured in Hong Kong receive compensation, Online video, 2:38, 1998, http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/war-conflict/veterans/continuing-the-fight-canadas-veterans/canadians-captured-in-hong-kong-receive-compensation.html.

[8]  “War Amps Acknowledges Importance of Japan Finally Apologizing to Canada’s Hong Kong Veterans,” The War Amps Newsroom Archives, December 8 2011,http://www.waramps.ca/newsroom/archives/hongkong/2011-12-08.html.

 

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