John Peters Humphrey on the 1932-33 Famine in Ukraine

On September 28 1990, John Peters Humphrey spoke at the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre, a non for profit institution in Toronto, Canada in front of an audience which included the chairman of the institution and most likely professors and other researchers. The topic of his speech, the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine, is known in Ukrainian as Holodomor which translates to “death by hunger”. The following paragraphs examine the controversial nature of labeling the famine in as a genocide, as well as the findings of the  International Commision of Inquiry into the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine.

Humphrey was asked to comment on the report of the International Commission of Inquiry into the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine of which he was a member. The aforementioned commission was set up in 1984 by the World Congress of Free Ukrainians. The primary goal of this commision was to determine whether or not there was a famine in Ukraine from 1932-33, and furthermore, as Humphrey states, “its extent, the cause or causes of the famine; its effect on Ukraine and its people; and, finally, who or what was responsible for the famine.”[1] Another main topic of discussion for the commission was “the meaning of the term genocide and whether the norm prohibiting it already existed in the thirties.”[2] Humphrey argues that “rules of law prohibiting genocide did exist in the thirties and the government of the Soviet Union was bound not to engage in acts amounting to genocide.”[3]

During his speech at the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre, Humphrey discusses the evidence put forth to the International Commission of Inquiry into  into the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine which included “documentary material, the testimony of witnesses […], accounts in contemporary Western press and diplomatic correspondence.”[4] Humphrey remarks that the Commission was unable to examine witnesses in the Soviet Union and archives from that nation, partly because of Soviet denial of the whole event. Humphrey later states that the Soviet Government now admits there was a famine “and that literally millions of people died as a result of it.”[5] The time during which the Commission was investigating the famine, coincides with the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev was the Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985-1991 and was President of the Soviet Union from 1990-91. Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost, increased government transparency, could be attributed to the Soviet Union’s acknowledgment of the occurrence of the 1932-33 Famine in Ukraine. In a memoir, Gorbachev recounts his memories of the effects of the famine on his hometown of Privolnoye in the northern caucasus region of the Soviet Union: “In that terrible year [1933] nearly half the population of my native village, Privolnoye, starved to death, including two sisters and one brother of my father.”[6]

Ultimately the commission found that “there was in fact a famine in the Ukraine in the early thirties.”[7] Humphrey states that the commission found there to be three main causes of the famine; excessive grain procurements, forced collectivization of farms, and liquidation of kulaks (affluent peasants).[8] “The Commission was in full agreement as to the existence of these causes which it also agreed were manmade.”[9] Furthermore, Humphrey exclaims that the Commission found that “Stalin used the occasion of the famine to combat traditional Ukrainian nationalism”[10] which constituted genocide.

The term genocide did not exist until 1944 when a Polish-Jewish lawyer by the name of Raphael Lemkin sought to create a term to describe the Nazi policies of murder in regards to Jews during the Holocaust.[11] The word “genocide” comes from the greek word genos meaning race or tribe, and the latin word cide meaning killing. Humphrey states that “controversy arose in the Commission” because certain members believed “that no such thing as genocide existed until after the 1948 Convention [on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide] came into force.”[12] Additionally, Humphrey reminds his audience at the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre that in 1946 the “U.N General assembly had already declared that genocide is a crime under international law.”[13] Humphrey further exclaims that the 1948 Convention “was simply establishing something more firmly that already existed, namely, the crime of genocide,”[14] effectively countering the argument that the concept of genocide did not exist pre 1948. According to Humphrey, laws prohibiting “elements of genocide” did exist in the thirties but didn’t yet have a name.[15]

John Peters Humphrey concludes his speech at the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre by stating that a man made famine did occur, and “ these individuals [Joseph Stalin and his colleagues] and indeed perhaps the government of the Soviet Union were guilty of genocide” because they used the famine “to combat Ukrainian nationalism.”[16] Humphrey stance on the famine represents a controversial perspective because to this very day, although many countries such as Canada, recognize that the famine was horrific and resulted in the death of millions, not all nations, for example Russia, regard the famine as a genocide against the Ukrainian people. Many “Kremlin officials insist that, while the Holodomor was a tragedy, it was not intentional, and other regions in the Soviet Union suffered at that time.”[17] Furthermore, Ukraine’s current leader Viktor Yanukovych claims it is “”incorrect and unjust” to consider the Holodomor “the genocide of a certain people.””[18] On the flipside, Oleksandra Monetova, from Kiev’s Holodomor Memorial Museum, believes the famine should be considered a genocide: “The officials’ intentions were clear. To me it’s a genocide. I have no doubt.”[19]

While there may still be debate on whether or not the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine should be labeled as a genocide, the event is widely recognized as painful and horrific. In 1983 a monument to Holodomor was erected outside of city hall in Edmonton, Alberta which marked the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. Saskatchewan was the first to recognize Holodomor as a genocide in North America and introduced the The Ukrainian Famine and Genocide Memorial Day Act on May 14 2008. On 2 June 2010, the Province of Quebec  passed bill 390, titled “Memorial Day Act on the great Ukrainian famine and genocide (the Holodomor).”

Yale Historian Timothy Snyder estimates 3.3 million people died during the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine, while others estimate the number is much higher.[20]

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.363 – Ukrainian-Canadian Research and Documentation Centre, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, Manifesto for the Earth: Action Now for Peace, Global Justice and a Sustainable Future (Sussex: Clairview Books, 2006), 10.

[7] MG 4127 C.18 F.363 – Ukrainian-Canadian Research and Documentation Centre, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Raphael Lemkin and the Creation of the Word Genocide,” United to End Genocide, accessed February 20, 2017,

[12]  MG 4127 C.18 F.363 – Ukrainian-Canadian Research and Documentation Centre, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Holodomor: Memories of Ukraine’s Silent Massacre,” BBC News, November 23, 2013, http://www.b

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

John Peter Humphrey’s Speech at the Conference on Population Problems

By Nina Rowan

At the Conference on Population Problems, held in April 1979 at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, John Peters Humphrey gave his unique perspective about the consequences of, and solutions to, the issue of overpopulation.  Being the Director of the United Nations of Human Rights and the original drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is no surprise that Humphrey’s speech was about the relationship between overpopulation and human rights.  While Humphrey was, admittedly, not an expert in overpopulation, his wealth of knowledge about human rights and extensive experience allowed the attendees of the conference to gain a fresh and nuanced view about the problems associated with an explosive population.

Overpopulation is a topic that is currently discussed frequently by many news outlets, especially since issues like resource scarcity and climate change have become increasing relevant.  However, in 1979, when Humphrey delivered this speech, the impact of the rapid population growth was barely visible.  Although it was not the most significant issue of the time, overpopulation was clearly on the radar of some scientists and academics, since it was deemed important enough to devote an entire conference at a prestigious university to this topic.  In the mid-twentieth century, the world’s total population had started growing at a rate never seen before in human history; at the time Humphrey delivered this speech, the world’s population was around 4.4 billion people, when just two decades prior, in 1960, the population was only 3 billion people.[1] The Medical Revolution that began in the nineteenth century produced ground-breaking and life-saving treatments and technologies, such as anesthesia, x-rays, insulin and antibiotics.[2]  These advancements dramatically increased the average life-expectancy, particularly in developed nations, and thereby created a surge in the overall population trend.  An upsurge in agricultural science in the mid twentieth century, gave rise to new farming techniques, technology and mechanisms, which resulted in a substantial growth in crop production.  This improvement in agricultural production and the subsequent increase in food yield, known as the Green Revolution, had a considerable impact on growing population trends in developing nations.[3]

While it is safe to assume that other speakers at the Conference of Population Problems likely focused their discussions on the ecological consequences of overpopulation, Humphrey’s speech was centred on the impacts the growing population had on human rights and vice versa.  Humphrey argues that people cannot enjoy human rights when they do not have a certain degree of material and social well-being. Furthermore, if and when overpopulation does not allow individuals to meet this basic level of well-being, they will not be able to enjoy human rights.  Humphrey is optimistic, however, that the advancement of human rights is a powerful tool in lowering birth rate trends.

Humphrey admits that, in 1947 to 1948, when the United Nations was drafting the Declaration of Human Rights, addressing the issues arising from the growing population in the Declaration was not high on the Commission’s priority list.  With that said, Article 16 of the Declaration states that “men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.”[4] As Humphrey mentions, however, the right to found a family is subject to qualifications and limitations indicated in successive articles.  Article 29 of the Declaration states that parents ought to determine responsibly the number and spacing of their children.  Does Humphrey believe that this clause has any material impact in actually reducing the birth rate?  The answer is no.  Like all other declarations the UN has put forth, it is not a law, it is simply precedent.  It is up to individual states, especially those with explosive population trends, to give teeth to Article 29.

Humphrey briefly mentions how effective China had been in controlling its huge population by encouraging couples to marry later in life.  So impressed with the results of this effort, Humphrey even toys with the idea that perhaps a minimum age for marriage ought to be incorporated into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  A few months after Humphrey delivered this speech, China would launch the One-Child policy.  This system has been hotly contested for years, both for its (alleged) infectivity and going against individuals’ human rights.[5]  It can be safely assumed that Humphrey, an advocate for human rights, would be fundamentally opposed to this policy and would prioritize an individual’s right to found a family (if done so responsibly) above society’s long term interests.  This highly disputed debate over population control and its impact on human rights continues to the present day. It is therefore it is interesting that Humphrey touched on the subject almost forty years ago.

While noting that lawyers and states’ control of the population can be effective, Humphrey noted that it is also limited.  He thereby proposed that improving the condition of women was the only valid way to control the population.  Humphrey’s argument that the population can be constrained by improving the status of women was both a revolutionary idea at the time and perhaps the most significant idea put forth in his speech.  As women, with the help of the United Nations and other organizations, gain more opportunities to have an education and employment, fertility rates have been proven to have decreased.[6]  The vast majority of the studies that show the correlation between women’s education and the birth rate have been done in recent years.  It is therefore significant that Humphrey presented this argument decades ago.  Early on, Humphrey championed that the United Nations ought to focus on improving the status of women.  Humphrey’s many positions, such as director of the International League for Human Rights and member of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, allowed him to set into motion his belief that the condition of women ought to be improved.

The majority of discussions around issues of overpopulation often focus solely on the ecological impact of an exponential population growth, so much so, that individuals often forget about the many social and legal causes and consequences.  However, in his 1979 speech on population problems, Humphrey sheds light on the impact overpopulation has on human rights and conversely, the impact that human rights have on overpopulation.  This allowed the attendees of the conference to view the issues of overpopulation through a new lens. Humphrey frames the complex issue of overpopulation, which is often discussed at a macro level, as an issue that is, in essence, a human rights issue and can be ameliorated through improved human rights and specifically women’s rights.  This approach to the population problem is empowering as it brings an aspect of humanity to a discussion that often neglects the human experience.

[1] Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser, “World Population Growth,” Our World in Data, accessed

February 19, 2017,

[2] Lester S. King, “The Medical Revolution,” Quarterly Bulletin of Northwestern University Medical School 34, no. 4 (1960): 358-9.

[3] Prabhu L. Pingali, “Green Revolution: Impacts, limits, and the path ahead” PNAS 109, no. 31 (2012): 1203, accessed February 19, 2017, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0912953109.

[4]  United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948): Article 16.

[5] Michael Potts, “China’s One Child Policy,” BMJ: British Medical Journal 333, no. 7564 (2006), 361.

[6] Brigid Fitzgerald Reading, “Education Leads to Lower Fertility and Increased Prosperity,” Earth Policy Institute, accessed February 18, 2017,

Speech to the Society for Ethical Culture

By Kenzia Araujo

On December 10th, 1995 John Peter Humphrey was invited to New York City to speak alongside Mrs. Roosevelt and Mr. Roger Baldwin to The Society for Ethical Culture on his platform as a servant of the international community. In his speech, Humphrey outlines the human rights program of the United Nations and discusses the main problems with the Declaration of Human Rights and proposes solutions to these issues moving forward. Humphrey defines the Human Rights program of the United Nations as an all-encompassing program. He describes it as touching upon almost every aspect of the work and activities of the United Nations. Since the United Nations was established to implement human rights, freedom from fear, war and economic insecurities it follows therefore, that even the highly political activities of the organization are also in a way part of the human rights program. Therefore, the human rights program is a vast program with unique purposes and activities under the United Nations as a whole.

Humphrey explains that although there has been progress within the realm of human rights there are still two areas in particular where the project needs improvement; discrimination and slavery. The Charter of the United Nations clearly outlines that there will be no discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, language or religion. Although there was a treaty set up in 1919 for the protection of certain national minorities, the system completely broke down after Nazi Germany came to power and began exploiting certain minorities. He argues that the United Nations has done very little in connection to this problem and although the protection of minorities is within the terms of intervention, little action has been taken. Humphrey believes this is especially true when it comes to ‘stateless persons’, a minority population defined as people who have no nationality and are without protection from the government. Furthermore, Humphrey also emphasizes how slavery still exists but has simply morphed into a different meaning. Although slavery had been abolished in the formal sense of the word it still existed within a different connotation in certain parts of the world since there are certain practices involving servitude which are more or less different branches of slavery.

Although Humphrey outlines specific human rights violations as an important aspect in trying to move forward the real point he is trying to emphasize is the way in which the program relates to the definition of human rights as well as establishing some type of international system to protect and implement these rights. The charter of the organization claims that one of its main principles is too achieve international cooperation by promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and the fundamental freedom for all, without distinctions of race, sex, language or religion. In theory, this is a huge step forward but in practice defining what these right truly are has been poorly done. Humphrey argues that the task of defining these rights has largely been done through the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In his speech, Humphrey also makes a point about power and authority in the international community, a point which still persists today. International law can be tricky when dealing with authority since states are sovereign. Most argue that the Declaration had no legal authority but still possessed tremendous moral and political authority. Humphrey extends this argument further by explaining that the Declaration is gradually acquiring the force of international customary law. According to Humphrey, national legislation had already been inspired by the Human Rights Declaration and even been invoked in courts of law. Furthermore, resolutions have been adopted by the general assembly in important matters in which the Declaration has been used as citation of conduct on the same footing as the charter itself, allowing for principles to be replicated in international treaties.

Humphrey’s audience is The New York Society for Ethical Culture which was founded in 1876 by Dr. Felix Adler and is at the cornerstone of the Ethical Movement. Members of the society believe in Ethical Culture which is a fellowship based upon a philosophy of life, emphasizing education, growth, and social service with the purpose of helping people live better lives. The mission of Ethical Culture is to encourage respect for humanity and nature and to create a better world.[1] Members are committed to personal ethical development in their relationship with others and in activities involving social justice. Keeping this in mind, Humphrey’s speech was perfectly tailored to his audience since he is speaking of human rights having an entrenched nature to them.[2] Members of the Ethical culture society believe that individuals have inherent worth and dignity which goes perfectly with the overall tone of Humphrey’s speech.

Humphrey concludes his speech by mentioning two systems that may be put in place to further protect human rights in the international world. The first system would be the creation of a human rights committee that would be elected by the international court of justice on the recommendation of state parties to be covenants. This system would act as a way to investigate complaints made by ratifying states alleging violation of the covenants by other ratifying states, ultimately acting as a state-to-state complaining system. The second option would be a reporting procedure where ratifying states would report to the United Nations on their progress towards the realization of their rights. This system would act as a supplementary method of implementation because an opportunity would be provided during the discussion of these reports to consider the situation in the different ratifying countries. This system would also allow for some measure of control within various countries.

[1] “accessed 02/23/17”. See citation guide for instructions on how to properly cite a website.

[2] ibid

John Peters Humphrey Speech to the Ontario Section of the Canadian Bar Association

By Kyle McDowell

The independence of the legal profession is undeniably paramount in the administration of a fair and just legal system. Judicial independence is critical in ensuring that legal disputes be decided fairly, impartially, and in accordance with the law.[1] John Peters Humphrey was invited by the Canadian Bar Association to speak to members of the Bar as a law professor and international official, about initiatives taking place internationally to protect the independence of the legal profession. Naturally, as an expert in international humanitarian law and a principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Humphrey discussed the relationship between human rights and the independence of the legal profession. Humphrey’s speech was delivered to members of the Ontario Section of the Canadian Bar Association on April 4, 1974 in Hamilton. This speech was given after the American Civil Rights Movement and before the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. His speech is historically important in that it provides insight into the state of the legal profession and international human rights law at the time the speech was delivered.

On the question of what was being done to protect the independence of the legal profession, Humphrey stated that “very little if anything is being done.”[2] However, he ultimately decided that he would speak about the International Commission of Jurists, which, he believed, was “one of the best international agencies for ensuring that lawyers continue to exercise their traditional functions.” The International Commission of Jurists was founded in 1952. At the time of this speech, the Commission was comprised of 40 member jurists from the five continents, though Humphrey notes that no communist country was represented. Today, the Commission is composed of 60 eminent judges and lawyers from all regions of the world. The Commission ensures the “progressive development and effective implementation of international human rights and international humanitarian law; secure the realization of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights; safeguard the separation of powers; and guarantee the independence of the judiciary and legal profession.” [3] The latter reason is why Humphrey, a Commission member himself, is presenting this speech to the Bar.

In addition, Humphrey addresses how international law has changed with time. Previously, human rights were thought to be domestic jurisdiction of states, and that the sole responsibility of international law was to govern relations between states. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Humphrey explains, governments and jurists around the world recognized the universality of basic human rights and the responsibility of the international community to protect these rights. Today, international law’s subjects are not only states, but also individual men and women. Moreover, Humphrey mentions advancements in customary law as well as the signing of various treaties, such as the Genocide Convention, which have improved protections of human rights across borders.

Perhaps the most important development in human rights has been the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the principle source of law establishing internationally recognized standards of humanitarian law. This United Nations declaration, which Humphrey assisted in the drafting process, was a resolution of the General Assembly in 1948. It is a part of customary international law and is therefore binding on all states. The issue, however, is the development of effective enforcement tactics.

As Humphrey notes, some lawyers “say that there is no such thing as international law.” He argues that it does, in fact, exist – albeit practiced differently than domestic law. In identifying the methods by which countries are forced to comply with international human rights law, Humphrey cites: the Security Council as an international body possessing the ability to apply sanctions; the threat of expulsion from the United Nations; as well as various supranational courts (European Court of Human Rights) and conventions (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination). Humphrey acknowledges that creating effective international procedures might not occur within his lifetime. Not surprisingly, little has developed beyond the various forms of sanctions to punish countries for human rights violations. He does, however, cite the aforementioned bodies as well as the force of public opinion. He argues that even authoritarian governments, like the Soviet Union, are susceptible to this force – as he believes that the “organization of shame” is an important factor in relatively successful enforcement procedures.

For much of Humphrey’s speech, he discusses the elements of international human rights as described above. At a later point, he returns to the International Commission of Jurists. He argues that the Commission was becoming an “international ombudsman” and he acknowledges the necessity of the legal profession’s independence. He cites various cases in which some professional associations are powerless, and the integrity of the legal profession is jeopardized. He argues that there are “very few countries in the world where human rights are better respected than” in Canada. Interestingly, he does not acknowledge Canada’s own human rights infractions nor the plight of its Indigenous peoples.

In his conclusion, he reminds his audience that Canada’s role in ensuring independence for the legal profession as well as protecting human rights globally continues. He reiterates the necessity of an independent legal profession as a method of ensuring balance of power between the individual and the state. Moreover, he petitions the members of the Bar to “learn that what happens in the rest of the world is our business and hat we share responsibility with our colleagues in other countries for doing something about it.”

[1] Canadian Judicial Council, “Why is Judicial Independence Important to you?”, May 2016,

[2] MG 4127 C.18 F.371 – Speech to the Ontario Section of the Canadian Bar Association, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[3] International Commission of Jurists, “About,” accessed February 20, 2017,

International bill of rights – scope and implementation speech

By Cecilia Meadowcroft-Grijalva

28 years after the International Bill of Rights Drafting Committee’s 1st session,[1]John P. Humphrey’s 1975[2] speech on “The International Bill of Rights: Its Scope and Implementation” provides a critical reflection on the Bill’s progress and limitations. Humphrey’s assessment covers many aspects of the Bill. His speech, however, focuses on two major issues concerning the effectiveness of the Bill of Rights. The first is the politicization of the Human Rights Commission and the effect it has had on case selection; the second concerns the urgent need for clarification in respects to the terms used in both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) when defining instances in which the limitation of human rights is permissible. I will begin however by giving a brief explanation of what the International Bill of Rights consists of.

Currently the International Bill of Human Rights consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and its two Optional Protocols.[3]As Humphrey reminds us in his speech, it is important to note that the “Covenants only apply to the states that ratify them”[4] and that during times of public emergency those states can diverge from their obligations.

In his speech Humphrey argues that the United Nations has witnessed a growing disinterest in individual complaints of human right violations. The organization’s apathy is due primarily to the way in which the Human Rights Commission’s,[5] a mechanism for investigating human rights violations, selects its cases and evaluates them.[6]  Resolution 1503, adopted May 27 1970, mandated that instances of Human Rights violations could be submitted by the “victims, or by others representing the victims.”[7] Yet due to the increasing politicization of the Human Rights Commission, its members interests lie only in allegations brought forth by states or bodies of the United Nations, whose members are states.[8] Despite the fact that resolution 1503 was meant to open up the commission to such considerations, the commission deliberately avoids complaints filed by non-governmental organizations. In respect to the cases that are selected, the actions taken on them are often governed by the political climate and “the hazard of voting patterns.”[9] Furthermore the Human Rights Commission’s mandate does not cover the prosecution of human rights violations of the individual. The individual notes Humphrey “is still a pariah at Turtle Bay.”[10] Therefore, Humphrey advocates for the creations of a UN mechanism by which the complaints of the individuals can be heard.

The clauses written into both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which permit the limitations of rights of the individual in certain circumstances, are subject to misinterpretation and abuse. Article 8 of the ICESCR declares that limitations on trade union rights are permitted in the “interest of national security, public order and the rights and freedoms of others.”[11] The articles in ICCPR relating to freedom of expression (article 19), the freedom of assembly and association (articles 21-22) and the freedom of movement (article 12)— rights necessary to a democratic society— are all subject to restrictions if deemed “necessary to protect national security, public order [and] public health or morals”[12] Humphrey describes theses clauses as the “achilles heel”[13] to the entire efficacy of the Covenants. The ambiguity surrounding the term “public order” which is mentioned in both convents is especially alarming to Humphrey.[14] The (ICESCR), and (ICCPR) have no judicial apparatus to interpret or to clarify the definition of the term“public order.”[15] The term is left to be interpreted by the state parties. Vague criterion is like an open wound, at risk of infection, open to the dirt of abuse. The term could be used loosely to the detriment of democracy. Clashing political parties could be interpreted as causing “public disorder.” The state could then silence any objections to the governing establishment on the grounds of protecting so called “public order.”

To conclude, within this speech Humphrey discusses the imperfections found within The Universal Declaration of Human Rights[16] and delves into the discussion of the efficacy of the covenants implementation measures.[17] However, it is only in the longer sections of the speech, dedicated to the issues of the politicization of the Human Rights Commission’s and his concerns over the much needed clarifications of the terms meant to define the permissible limitations of rights, that Humphrey invokes Greek gods, the opinion of a member of the General Assembly, and Fuzier-Herman. In other words, it is safe to assume that the two major concerns discussed in this blog were the issues that truly and passionately concerned John P. Humphrey.

[1] Drafting Committee on an International Bill of Human Rights, 1st session, 9 June – 25 June 1947 New York.

[2] No information is given as to whom this speech was intended for, nor on what date it was presented. This date however was found in the footnotes of the speech, “time of Writing (1 November 1975)”, on page 1.

[3] UN OHCHR Factsheet No. 2 The International Bill of Human Rights

[4] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 –The International Bill of Rights- its Scope and Implementation, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.12

[5] Created in 1946 by ESCOSOC, the commission was the core human rights body for the UN.

[6] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 –The International Bill of Rights- its Scope and Implementation, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.12-11

[7] Maximilian, Spohr. “United Nations Human Rights Council”. Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law Online. 14, no. 1: 2010.172

[8] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 –The International Bill of Rights- its Scope and Implementation, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.11

[9] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 –The International Bill of Rights- its Scope and Implementation, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.11

[10] Ibid. Turtle Bay is a neighbourhood in New York City. The Manhattan neighborhood is the site of the headquarters of the United Nations.

[11] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 –The International Bill of Rights- its Scope and Implementation, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.15

[12] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 –The International Bill of Rights- its Scope and Implementation, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.16

[13] Ibid.

[14] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 –The International Bill of Rights- its Scope and Implementation, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.17

[15] When discussing the ambiguity surrounding the term “public order” in his footnotes, Humphrey quotes Fuzier-Herman et Demogue, Code Civil Annoté, 1935, Article 6: “il est à peut prés impossible a définir L’ordre public”

[16] If you wish to read more on his thoughts on the weakness of the Declaration please go to page 4 of the document.

[17] This discussion begins on page 17, should curiosity spike you.

John Peters Humphrey Speech to the American Bar Association

By Benson H. Cook

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while not a binding document, nonetheless is considered by many scholars to mark the beginning of the modern ideas of “human rights” in a contemporary context.  John Peters Humphrey was an instrumental figure in the crafting of that document, yet he faced significant opposition, from both his native Canada and the United States.  A significant amount of the pressure against the Declaration came from the American and Canadian Bar Associations, who both had a fraught relationship with Humphrey in the 1940’s and 1950’s as a result.  By the time of Humphrey’s Honolulu speech to the American Bar Association, on 14 August 1974, much of this adversarial relationship had faded away.  But it is clear in the speech that Humphrey very clearly remembers the day when he faced a much more strained relationship with North America’s lawyers.  This, indeed, is the crux of this address: a critique of an organization Humphrey views as having never been on his side, and a defence of his life’s work to a skeptical audience.

That Humphrey intends to both defend his legacy and hit back at those who have criticized him is made clear in the opening lines of his speech. “It is a privilege that I never expected to have,” Humphrey explains[1], “For I have not always been friend of the American Bar Association.”   Though his sharpest words are reserved for the Association’s Canadian counterpart[2], it is clear that Humphrey has perhaps never fully forgiven his North American compatriots for their behaviour nearly thirty years ago.

Much of the first section of his speech is simply rehashing and, it sometimes seems, defending, the Declaration and its history.  This is perhaps unsurprising, given the history of friction between Humphrey and the Bar Association over the matter[3].  He then pivots to a, surprisingly, even more direct criticism of the American Bar Association, critiquing then then-chairman of the organization for misrepresenting Humphrey’s words in the 1940’s on the “revolutionary” idea of establishing a supra-national system of human rights law, a characterization that would remain relevant in American legal and political circles long enough to make it into the 1964 presidential election[4].  This then turns into a defence of the very idea of international law.

As Humphrey explains, the fact that this speech is tailored to an American audience, rather than a Canadian one, becomes clearer.  He goes out of his way at several points[5] to make clear that the international law that he has spent much of his career trying to strengthen globally is not, in fact, very strong at all.  That modern American attitudes are naturally more suspicious of the global order than those in Canada are well-documented, and it seems unlikely that Humphrey would have taken a similar line of argument, even in 1974, to the Bar Association’s Canadian counterpart.

Yet even while downplaying the efficacy of international law, Humphrey makes clear that his own personal ambitions are for it to become stronger, and he encourages his audience to advocate for this as well. He does, however, acknowledge that many in his audience may not share his views[6]. “Although many lawyers would not recognize it as such,” he says, “there does exist a growing and potentially important body of international norms which international lawyers call law.”

Humphrey implores lawyers to not only respect the emergence of this new order of law, but to respect the idea that, just like national law, international law is binding.  He obviously understands that such an idea is a very hard sell to such an organization, especially one in a culture that regards its own laws as superior to all others; or at least relatively higher than in regard to contemporary views in the Canadian legal community.  After all, this speech came just two years after the establishment of a Canadian organization dedicated entirely to the study of international law[7].  Such visible enthusiasm for international law did not exist in such a widespread way in the United States, especially at that time.

This address to the American Bar Association takes several shapes throughout its length: it ranges from vindictive and spiteful, to hopeful and encouraging, to starry-eyed and idealistic.  Ultimately, though, Humphrey’s choice of words seems to indicate the mutual suspicion these two organizations continued to hold for one another, even thirty years on from the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[1] John Peters Humphrey, “Speech to the American Bar Association, Honolulu”. 14 August, 1974. (Page 1)

[2] John Peters Humphrey, “Speech to the American Bar Association, Honolulu”. 14 August, 1974. (Page 2)

[3] “John Peters Humphrey” in The Canadian Encyclopedia.

[4] John Peters Humphrey, “Speech to the American Bar Association, Honolulu”. 14 August, 1974. (Page 6)

[5] John Peters Humphrey, “Speech to the American Bar Association, Honolulu”. 14 August, 1974. (Pages 6, 7 & 8)

[6] John Peters Humphrey, “Speech to the American Bar Association, Honolulu”. 14 August, 1974. (Page 10)

[7] “About.” International Commission of Jurists. Last modified 2015.

Discours de John Humphrey à l’Université Laval, 18 mars 1986

By Julien Laporte

Livré en mars 1986 devant les membres de la section de l’Université Laval d’Amnistie Internationale, le discours de John Peter Humphrey constitue une sorte de réponse à la question suivante : qu’est-ce qu’un particulier ou une ONG peuvent réellement faire devant des entités visiblement plus puissantes qu’eux? Humphrey suggère qu’ils peuvent faire beaucoup et que leur influence est non-négligeable, principalement à travers le lobbying et l’instruction de l’opinion publique en matière de droits humains. 1986 était une année mouvementée et fort importante au plan des relations internationales. Une résolution adoptée par l’Assemblée générale des Nations Unies en avait fait l’année internationale de la paix[1] , poussant divers acteurs de la scène internationale à vouloir concrétiser cette reconnaissance symbolique. C’était le cas pour Amnistie Internationale, ONGI indépendante œuvrant pour le respect des droits humains à l’échelle mondiale[2] . John Humphrey était une figure importante au sein du mouvement, lui qui eut entre autres agi comme cofondateur de la branche canadienne d’Amnistie Internationale[3] . Sur invitation de l’exécutif de la section de l’Université Laval, Humphrey prononça donc un discours fort attendu, visant à galvaniser les troupes et à discuter de l’impact que de simples individus et des ONG peuvent avoir sur les relations internationales.

Dans un premier temps, le discours d’Humphrey s’adresse directement aux militants présents dans la salle. Pour lui, le plus grand rôle que ces individus impliqués peuvent jouer est d’abord et avant tout l’instruction de l’opinion publique. En soulevant les injustices et violations commises par différents gouvernements, les bénévoles d’Amnistie Internationale mettent en lumière des atteintes aux droits de l’homme qui autrement seraient passées sous silence. À peine un mois avant le discours d’Humphrey, l’URSS accepta d’ailleurs d’accorder l’amnistie à l’activiste israélien Natan Sharansky, emprisonné pour haute trahison et espionnage dans des conditions jugées très difficiles[4] . Pour Humphrey, le succès de sa libération est une illustration parfaite de l’impact que des particuliers peuvent avoir sur un gouvernement, qualifiant l’opinion publique de « sanction ultime des droits de l’homme ». Je pense qu’il est tout de même important de soulever ici que la portée directe de l’avis du peuple sur ce genre de question comporte des limites fondamentales. Notamment, le concept de liberté de presse est étroitement lié à la construction de cette opinion publique, et comme l’expliquent les universitaires Matthew Bomb et Philip Potter, l’absence de médias indépendants réduit l’impact potentiel des citoyens dans l’élaboration de politiques publiques[5] .

Toutefois, cela ne signifie pas que l’opinion publique ne peut avoir d’importants impacts indirects en matière de respect des droits de l’homme : en effet, elle peut rapidement mettre de la pression sur différents acteurs internationaux, qui pourraient décider d’imposer des sanctions aux pays fautifs et visés par le mécontentement public. Au-delà du concept d’opinion publique, John Humphrey reconnaît l’influence profonde qu’ont les ONG en terme de relations internationales et de respect des droits humains. Dans le discours, Humphrey parle du lobbying comme étant possiblement la fonction la plus importante des organisations comme Amnistie Internationale. Humphrey explique devant le public de l’Université Laval que ce sont souvent les organisations non gouvernementales qui animent les discussions sur les questions de droits humains devant les instances internationales. Face au désengagement historique des politiciens vis-à-vis la question humanitaire, John Humphrey suggère dans son discours que le lobbying par Amnistie Internationale amène non seulement un certain niveau d’expertise dans les discussions, mais également un engagement important des différents acteurs impliqués. Plus concrètement, il soulève dans le discours l’impact inestimable qu’ont eu des organisations internationales dans l’adoption en 1945 à San Francisco de la Charte des Nations unies, traité établissant les différents organes de l’ONU, dont la Cour internationale de Justice[6] . À partir de ce moment, et en raison de l’implication d’ONG, les hommes et les femmes sont finalement reconnus comme des sujets du droit international, constituant donc une réelle transformation du système juridique international. Pour Humphrey, ce sont autant les organisations internationales que les particuliers et les gouvernements présents à la Conférence de San Francisco qui furent les véritables agents de changement révolutionnaire Humphrey termine donc son discours en réitérant le rôle crucial que jouent les ONG et leurs bénévoles dans les questions de droit. Il soulève qu’Amnistie a besoin du soutien du secteur privé et des particuliers afin de préserver son indépendance politique, élément nécessaire à l’accomplissement de sa mission. Il s’agit en quelque sorte d’un cri du cœur de ce grand défenseur des droits humains, qui tente d’encourager le public à poursuivre son combat et à redoubler d’ardeur devant ceux qui minimisent le potentiel de leur œuvre. Le discours d’Humphrey à l’Université Laval prit donc la forme d’un appel à l’action devant une audience informée, démontrant la passion de l’homme pour l’universalité des droits humains.

[1] United Nations, General Assembly, International Year of Peace, A/RES/37/16 (16 November 1982), available from

[2] Amnistie Internationale. “Qui sommes-nous?” (accessed February 22 2017).

[3] Historica Canada. “John Humhprey.” (accessed February 22 2017).

[4] Encyclopedia of World Biography. “Anatoly Borisovich Scharansky.” (accessed February 23 2017).

[5] Baum, Matthew A., and Philip B.K. Potter. The Relationships Between Mass Media, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis. Annual Review of Political Science 2008 11:39-65, accessed February 23, 2017,

[6] Nations Unies. “Note liminaire, Charte des Nations Unies”, (accessed on February 23, 2017).

‘Les conditions nécessaires a la paix’

By Theo Gallis

The speech entitled ‘The necessary conditions for peace’ was given by John P. Humphrey at Laval University in 1987. Although a minimal amount of information is given as to the reasons of his speech during this period, we can contextualise it given a few global events happening at the time.  Following the final years of the Cold War, the world saw a rise in nationalism and democracy in the Eastern bloc, civil tensions in the Middle East in Israel and Lebanon persisted, and several blatant human rights abuses remained in several states such as Tibet and South Africa with apartheid. Hence human rights abuses was rife in the political platform of the global scale in the 1980s, as states seemingly disregarded the articles established by the United Nations established following the Second World War. Humphrey mentions both South Africa and the Cold War in his speech, as key examples in human rights abuses.

From this context arises Humphrey’s “necessary conditions for peace”, arguing that there can be no peace whilst human rights are still being ignored or abused to such an extent on the international scale. With this in mind he states that ‘only States were subjects of international law; Only States had rights […] all this is now changed’[1]. Humphrey compares the presence of human rights in the Universal Declaration to a ‘golden thread’[2]. Accordingly, the importance of the Declaration is highlighted as key to the development and respect of human rights, emphasiszing the ‘close relationship between world peace’[3] and these rights.  Hence he submits the following argument, unless states around the world begin to truly consider and respect the necessity for human rights on both the national and international scale, world peace cannot be achieved.  Based on this argument, Humphrey asks the question ‘how, and to what extent, has the world organisation achieved this goal of promoting respect for human rights?’[4]. By reflecting on the conflict of ideology caused by the Cold War, where as both superpowers are attempting to impose their ideologies to subordinate countries, the validity of the Universal Declaration can be questioned. Through his speech, Humphrey emphasizes the key struggles of implementing the Declaration on a global scale given the abuses of human rights present at the time. Nonetheless the author stresses the importance of the document, considering that it is the first of its kind to define, on an international scale, ‘standards which should govern the conduct of States in their relations with individuals’[5]. Although there was no legal implication following the implementation of the document, the global consensus concerning its ‘force of law’ has allowed it to emerge as a vital champion for human rights abuses, or as Humphrey states ‘it is now part of the customary law of nations and therefore binding all States’[6].  His speech thus attempts to draw the historical timeline and impact of the Universal Declaration of human Rights from its development in 1948, by the United Nations, up to our contemporary era.

In spite of the fact that John Peters Humphrey does underline the faults present in the development of the UDHR, considering that human rights abuses persists on an international scale, he portrays the document as a symbol of hope, constantly improving itself, in hopes of one day successfully allowing the establishment of world peace. This is reflected upon as he discusses the amendments of parts of the declaration since its creation. For example, in 1966, the United Nations ‘adopted other conventions relating to the crime of apartheid, the status of women, the elimination of torture and so on’[7]. These examples demonstrate the ongoing struggle for world peace, the principle cause behind which the United Nations was established, and the ongoing victories that it has won for human rights on the international scale.

Although the speech does not necessarily cover new ground, Humphrey underlines an essential requirement for the eradication of human rights abuses: education.  He argues that the real ‘purpose of all these implementation mechanisms is, in view of the still imperfect organisation of the international community, to educate public opinion’[8]. Hence, his statement allows the audience to understand in part why he is giving the speech at all, to educate the students of Laval University and propagate the goals established by the United Nations for the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Humphrey does not attempt to argue that the United Nations and its Declaration of Human Rights is a perfect institution for world peace, but rather a consistently developing legal template that all states should abide by. Only once the entirety of the international platform has adopted this Declaration can the world hope to attain the seemingly impossible notion of world peace ‘a matter to which all governments are sensitive, including authoritarian governments’[9]. The global acceptance and application of the UDHR however, requires the education of its citizens. As Humphrey emphasizes the inherent link between the respect for human rights and peacekeeping, he concludes by stating that ‘one of the best ways of preventing war would obviously be to educate world public opinion on these rights’[10]. As a consequence, the education of the world’s citizens concerning human rights can be considered his main condition for peace.  Nonetheless, Humphrey ignores how the abuses caused by the Cold War or South Africa are being dealt with by the United Nations.

[1]Humphrey, John. “Les conditions nécessaires à la paix.” Études internationales 18, no. 3 (1987): 601

[2] Ibid, 602

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid 603

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid, 604

[8] Ibid, 606

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid, 607

John Peters Humphrey: Statement to the World Philosophy Congress, August 25, 1983

By Sydney Roy

On August 25, 1983, John Peters Humphrey delivered a speech to the World Philosophy Congress and presented the audience with some of his good humour, but also with pertinent arguments regarding the 35th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the effectiveness of international law, and the extreme importance of peace in the midst of the Cold War. Although this speech was not presented to the Canadian public, it remained a relevant reflection of concerns in Canadian politics regarding the applicability of human rights, arms hostilities, and international peace and accountability. Throughout this analysis, Humphrey’s main topics in his speech will be contrasted with events in, and outside Canada, that were affecting the lives of Canadians throughout the year of 1983.

The 1983 World Philosophy Congress and was held in Montreal from the 21st to the 27th of August. During that time there were 2500 participants that came from 75 different countries.[1] The theme of the Congress was culture, particularly “its capacity to lead a better future for humanity.”[2] The talks and delegations were plenty, and they were composed of “forty round tables, twenty special sessions, twelve poster sessions, and a dozen workshops and fifty-sex session of contributed papers.”[3] In respect to human rights, culture set the frame very well for Humphrey’s discussion of the international community, and the impact of the rights culture in the international sphere.

It is under this context that Humphrey elaborated on the success of the UDHR since its birth 35 years prior. He explained that in that time it had been invoked “many times as law both within and outside the United Nations that it can now be said that it is binding as part of the customary law of nations” and because of this, it had changed the conception of rights, and the accountability of governments in international law.[4] The success of the UDHR, Humphrey argued, changed the typical understanding of international relations to one that was more vertical, as individuals themselves could now be recognized and protected.[5] This, he praised, allowed for a new ability to hold states and individuals accountable for their crimes, and he told the Congress “the developing international law of human rights is indeed the best example of the radical changes that are occurring in the content and nature of international law.”[6]

Despite these advances in international law, Humphrey advocated for the need for peace for any of these successes to be meaningful. He told the Congress; “there can be no respect for human rights without peace; and it is becoming just as obvious that there will be no peace without respect for human rights.”[7] And considering this address was taking place during the Cold War, Humphrey explained international laws on human rights are “of the greatest importance… because it points the direction that world law must take if… we are to have some hope of peace in a thermo-nuclear world.”[8] Ultimately, Humphrey understood that peace, international relations, and human rights all went in hand in hand, and for there to be any success in any one of these endeavours, the other two needed to be successful as well.

In the Canadian context, these concerns were relevant to the politics of the time. April of 1983 marked the one year anniversary of the new Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada and the political arena was strife with rights talk. During April of that year, the House of Commons question period was devoted to assessing amendments to the constitution and changes to the legal system as a whole.[9] There still was not a clear consensus on the applicability of the Charter, and many judges and courts were “taking a conservative view of the charter.”[10] Despite this, the Charter was being effectively used by peace groups to fight against Canada’s finalization of agreements with the United States for the testing of American cruise missiles over Canadian land. The outcry was extensive, and the public demonstrations against it were reminiscent of the 1960s peace movements.[11] On a positive note however, in September of that year, a federal court judge successfully used the charter to rule that “the peace groups were entitled to challenge the tests on the grounds that they violated charter guarantees of life, liberty, and security.”[12]

Although there were debates regarding the Charter, in regards to peace, the feeling was more unanimous. Peace was heavy on the mind of Prime Minister P.E. Trudeau, and he was involved in numerous peace initiatives: in a news conference in April Trudeau spoke out against American intervention in Grenada and in May he took part in peace agreements in South America[13]; and in the fall of 1983 he pioneered his own peace agreement that had the aim of putting “pressure on the five major nuclear powers to meet and discuss the limiting of their nuclear arsenals.”[14] Also, during 1983, Canada remained active in the United Nations, and in February of that year, Canada promoted arms control priorities, that included a “comprehensive nuclear test ban, a more effective non-proliferation regime, a chemical weapons convention and the prohibitions of all weapons in outer space.”[15]

In addition to this, following the tragic shooting down of a Korean Airlines passenger plane by the Soviet Union on August 30th, (just 5 days after Humphrey delivered this speech to the Congress), Canada imposed numerous sanctions on the Soviet Union, and the Department of External Affairs wrote to the Soviet Union on September 8th that the incident was “a flagrant breach of general principles and international law as well as of well-established rules and procedures of international civil aviation which could not be justified on legal, moral, or other grounds.[16] Following the incident, in the United Nations General Assembly on September 20th, Allan MacEachen, the Secretary of State for External Affairs, “stressed the need to ‘make more creative use of the existing provisions and mechanisms of the Charter’” of the United Nations in order to hold nations accountable for their actions.[17]

In light of these events going on before, during, and after Humphrey’s speech to the World Philosophy Conference, it is evident that his speech spoke volumes to the many issues facing Canadian politics at the time. Human rights were in question in regards to the new Charter and in addition to this, Canada was advocating for peace internationally, and for accountability on the world scale in regards to nuclear weapons and hostile events abroad. Although Humphrey’s speech was not heard by the Canadian public, it reflected events and policies that were effecting them directly, both as Canadian citizens, but also as individuals living in the Cold War and the threat of a nuclear war. In this way, Humphrey’s speech was significant as it was indicative of a changing (and turbulent) time in international relations and human rights globally and at home. Ultimately, Humphrey was able to put to words the multiple dynamics of human rights and peace at play in 1983.

[1] Venant Cauchy, foreword in Vol. 1 of Philosophie et Culture: Actes du XVIIe congrès mondial de philosophie. (Éditions du Beffroi and Éditions Montmorency, 1986), 19.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] MG 4127 C.18 F.369 – Statement to the World Philosophy Congress 1983, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 4.

[5] Ibid, 7.

[6] Ibid, 8.

[7] Ibid, 5.

[8] Ibid, 8.

[9] Robert J. Drummond. “Parliament and Politics,” in Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs, 1983, ed. R.B. Byers. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), 25.

[10] Ibid, 27-28.

[11] R.B. Byers, editor. Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs, 1983. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), 4.

[12] Donald C. Wallace. “Ottawa and the Provinces,” in Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs, 1983, ed. R.B. Byers. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), 75.

[13] David Leyton-Brown. “External Affairs and Defence,” in Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs, 1983, ed. R.B. Byers. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), 171.

[14] Drummond, Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs, 1983, 38.

[15] Leyton-Brown, Canadian Annual Review of Public Affairs, 1983, 196.

[16] Ibid, 168.

[17] Ibid, 180.

Human Rights and the Changing World order

By Susanne Röthlisberger

John Peters Humphrey presented his speech “Human Rights and the Changing World order” during the Colloquium on Human Rights and Peace in Ottawa in February 1984.[1]  The goal of the Colloquium organised by the Canadian Human Rights Foundation, presided by John P. Humphrey and the Secretary of State of Canada, was to “explore the relationship between Human Rights and peace” and explain “what kind of political structures are required to promote and possibly achieve greater interdependence of Human Rights and peace.” [2] It was attended by scholars of various disciplines, as well as politicians and different Human Rights Associations.[3] The speech was therefore adapted to an audience of specialists of the question of the interdependence between Human Rights and peace.

The speech has since been published in a report of the colloquium under the title “Individual Rights and the Changing Character of International Law”[4], which indicates that the author probably changed the title of his speech after he had prepared it under the initial title of what? on the 4th of February 1984. This more specific title stresses the importance of the individual in the peaceful structuration of the international community. He cites in his article Jonathan Schell by saying that the “contemporary state system is obsolete” and proposes a more integrative approach in which the authority of international organisations should be increased against the power of states and a legal relation between the individual and the global government is established[5]. He argues, however, that there has been progress made on the creation of this relation through the introduction of Human Rights, which made the individual a subject of international law[6].

While his speech is not proposing an entirely new vision on these issues, it is still of crucial significance. On the one hand, his 1984 speech cannot be seen as innovative, as he’s restating what has been his solution for the international order for the previous thirty-eight years. Namely, Humphrey refers to an article he wrote in November 1945 even before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been drafted. It is striking how similar his approach to the question of what? is to the one expressed in this article. In both documents, Humphrey draws a parallel between what Alexander Hamilton called “the parent of anarchy” and the international state system[7]. He argues that the lack of an effective lien de droit between the individual and the central State in the United States and between the individual and the “international order” creates anarchy, in his vision the origin of conflict and disruption of peace[8]. Especially, if the entities building the confederation are not acting in accordance.[9]

On the other hand, twenty years later, the vision of the “impractical idealist”, as Humphrey calls himself, has not lost of its significance as the issues addressed by him have not yet been resolved. A reform of the United Nations Charter as explored in Humphrey’s article from 1945 is still debated today and we are still far away from an international government as Humphrey would have liked to see emerge.[10] The long-running efforts to change the functioning of the Security Council show the ongoing importance of his proposals[11].

A very revealing element of his speech in conjunction with his article in 1945 is that Humphrey saw the protection of Human Rights in a much broader context than “simply” protecting individuals against arbitrary treatment by the State. For him including individuals in the system of international relations was a crucial element of guaranteeing peace and stability. “Given the danger of total destruction and the failure of traditional measures to deal with it, the time has come for individual men and women to take over the government of their own world community.”[12]. Giving this level of importance Humphrey attributes to the individual and to the legal system governing international relations show his background as a lawyer as well as his liberalist outlook on the global challenges facing the world. He believes that individuals are better equipped to assume the governance of the world than States. However, he fails to present a real proposal on what this government should look like. He says simply that the power of international organisations should be increased to the detriment of State sovereignty[13]. Contemporary critiques of his speech argued that he neglected the importance of a change in human attitude towards human rights and that a lack of political will does deprive existing political structures from assuming a more efficient role in assuring peace.[14]

Finally, it is important to stress that the coercive power remains under State control and that the United Nations have failed to produce an effective security system[15]. Therefore, to engage with Humphrey’s line of argument and to judge its value for explaining current issues is still significant.

[1] ‘MG 4127 C.18 F.369 – Human Rights and the Changing World Order, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives’, 1984.

[2] Michael R. Hudson et al., ‘Human Rights and Peace: A Report on the Proceedings of a Colloquium Which Took Place in Ottawa, Feb. 10-11, 1984’ (Canadian Human Rights Foundation, 1985), 89.

[3] Ibid., iii–v.

[4] Ibid., 34.

[5] ‘MG 4127 C.18 F.369 – Human Rights and the Changing World Order, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives’, 3–5.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] John P. Humphrey, ‘The Parent of Anarchy’, International Journal 1, no. 1 (1946): 13–14, doi:10.2307/40194044; ‘MG 4127 C.18 F.369 – Human Rights and the Changing World Order, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives’, 3.

[8] ‘MG 4127 C.18 F.369 – Human Rights and the Changing World Order, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives’, 8; Humphrey, ‘The Parent of Anarchy’, 17.

[9] Humphrey, ‘The Parent of Anarchy’, 17.

[10] Ibid., 15.

[11] Thomas G. Weiss, ‘The Illusion of UN Security Council Reform’, The Washington Quarterly 26, no. 4 (1 September 2003): 148, doi:10.1162/016366003322387163.

[12] ‘MG 4127 C.18 F.369 – Human Rights and the Changing World Order, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives’, 9.

[13] Ibid., 5.

[14] Hudson et al., ‘Human Rights and Peace : A Report on the Proceedings of a Colloquium Which Took Place in Ottawa, Feb. 10-11, 1984’, 38–39.

[15] ‘MG 4127 C.18 F.369 – Human Rights and the Changing World Order, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives’, 2; Humphrey, ‘The Parent of Anarchy’, 15.

L’aventure des droits de l’homme aux Nations Unies

By Stéphanie Marchand

John Humphrey, ancien étudiant en droit à l’Université McGill, est l’un des rédacteurs de la Déclaration Universelle des droits de l’homme de 1948.[1] Son influence au sein des Nations Unies et de l’univers des droits humains est indéniable, et elle s’est propagée, entre autres, au travers de discours lors de diverses conférences. D’ailleurs, l’un de ses exposés, donné au Burundi, relatait « l’histoire, depuis la création des Nations Unies, de son programme pour la promotion du respect des droits de l’homme »[2], dans l’objectif de « contribuer à l’amélioration des relations entre les Hutu et les Tutsi »[3]. Une contextualisation du discours sera introduite, suivie d’un portrait de son importance dans le contexte des droits de l’homme et des relations futures entre Hutu et Tutsi.

Tout d’abord, il est essentiel de définir le contexte entourant la conférence pour comprendre l’impact que celle-ci ait pu avoir à plus grande échelle. Elle a pris place à Bujumbura, capitale du Burundi, le 9 octobre 1989, 17 ans après le génocide de 1972 et 5 ans avant le génocide du Rwanda. De plus, tel que mentionné, le but était d’améliorer les relations entre les communautés Hutu et Tutsi du pays.[4] L’auditoire n’est malheureusement mentionné ni dans l’introduction, ni dans le reste du discours. La seule spécification est que l’ambassadeur est responsable de la présence de John Humphrey. Toutefois, compte tenu du motif du discours, c’est une possibilité que l’assistance soit composée de membres haut-placés des deux groupes, et peut-être aussi en provenance des Nations Unies. Ce ne sont toutefois que des suppositions basées sur le contexte de la conférence.

Il faut, brièvement, décrire ces relations tendues entre Hutu, peuple majoritaire, et Tutsi, peuple minoritaire en contrôle du pouvoir militaire et gouvernemental. Il est difficile d’établir l’exact élément déclencheur des tensions entre ces communautés, mais l’origine du génocide de 1972 au Burundi l’est moins. En 1965, un petit groupe de rebelles Hutu a attaqué le palais royal pour tenter de renverser la minorité Tutsi au pouvoir. L’initiative telle quelle n’a pas été fructueuse, mais elle a mené à des actes de violence envers les citoyens Tutsi dans les provinces rurales. En 1972, en réaction à cette attaque, les Tutsi, contrôlant l’armée, ont répliqué avec une vague de violence inouïe (entre 150 000 et 300 000 morts), ciblant en particulier les membres importants des Hutu (parfois considéré comme un « génocide sélectif »[5]). Certains ont réussi à fuir au Rwanda, pays voisin du Burundi, pour s’y établir.[6] Ce premier génocide est devenu un précurseur au génocide rwandais qui a suivi en 1994, qui sera abordé dans la discussion qui suit sur l’importance du discours de John Humphrey.

Le contenu du discours porte majoritairement sur l’histoire du changement de direction des droits humains durant la période pré- et post-Deuxième Guerre mondiale. En effet, au préalable, « seuls les états étaient des sujets du droit international; […] l’ordre [était] purement horizontal […] [alors que] la portée de cet ordre devient maintenant verticale. […] [L]a prise de l’ordre va jusqu’à des particuliers, hommes et femmes. »[7] L’individu obtient une place dans le monde des droits, et cette place, selon Humphrey, vient également avec des responsabilités. Il doit dénoncer les violations de ces droits et en faire la promotion, car il existe une « relation étroite entre le respect de ces droits et la paix des nations. »[8] Il mentionne d’ailleurs cette connexion à de nombreuses reprises. Effectivement, la paix ne peut être présente sans une ouverture d’esprit envers chacun et un respect mutuel basé sur une compréhension des différences entre communautés. Il faut cesser toutefois de parler de tolérance, car cela implique d’accepter quelque chose qui nous dérange, alors que les différences d’un individu ne devraient être un dérangement, mais plutôt un apprentissage sur un univers qui nous est peut-être inconnu.

L’importance du discours de John Humphrey au Burundi est alors cruciale si on considère les droits humains comme un apprentissage. En effet, l’opinion publique prenant une place croissante au sein des droits de l’homme, cette place ne peut être occupée n’importe comment. Le message ultime est d’ailleurs celui-ci : « l’éducation est le moyen principal reconnu par le droit international pour faire respecter ces droits, un des meilleurs moyens de prévenir la guerre serait évidemment de faire instruire l’opinion publique mondiale. »[9] L’enfant ne nait pas, par exemple, raciste ou sexiste, il devient par l’environnement au sein duquel il évolue. Il faut donc éduquer l’individu dans son rapport avec le respect, et cet enseignement peut prendre plusieurs formes, que ce soit par une croissance dans un environnement multiculturel, ou en dénonçant les comportements haineux, pour n’en nommer que deux. Cette connexion entre l’éducation des droits humains et la paix est, selon moi, l’élément fondamental du discours d’Humphrey.

Considérant tout cela, peut-on affirmer que le discours a eu la portée escomptée? Que les relations entre Hutu et Tutsi se sont améliorées dans les semaines, les mois suivants la conférence? En analysant au premier degré, il est facile de répondre que non, elles ne sont pas devenues plus harmonieuses, sachant aujourd’hui que cinq années plus tard, un second génocide était perpétré entre Hutu et Tutsi, cette fois en territoire rwandais et ayant comme cible les Tutsi. Il y a toutefois une nuance à apporter. Le gain du discours va bien au-delà de l’intention initiale d’améliorer les relations entre ces deux communautés. Il permet d’ouvrir une nouvelle perspective sur l’importance des individus, hommes et femmes, par rapport à l’application et au respect des droits de l’homme. Il est vrai que les états ont un pouvoir sur les individus, mais ce sont ces derniers plus qu’autrement qui peuvent se lever et dénoncer une violation des droits. C’est au travers de ces mêmes individus que se propage la discrimination, dans les simples rapports de tous les jours. Ce sont ces liens de communication quotidiens qui doivent devenir harmonieux. Pour que deux états retrouvent la paix et la sécurité, par exemple entre Hutu et Tutsi, même s’ils ne sont jamais explicitement mentionnés dans le discours à l’exception de l’introduction, il faut que les membres à l’intérieur même de ces états fassent la paix[10], ce qui n’est pas simple.

De ce fait, tel que mentionné maintes fois par le diplomate, l’éducation est primordiale, car la haine est, dans bien des cas, une conséquence de la peur, et cette peur est amenée par l’ignorance. Ce que l’on ne connait pas est souvent perçu comme étant effrayant et menaçant. Cette éducation passe autant par l’apprentissage du respect de soi que par celui du respect des autres, sans discrimination d’aucune sorte, ainsi que d’évènements passés au cours desquels certains droits ont été violé. Cet enseignement doit comprendre les causes et les conséquences de tels gestes, car l’ouverture d’esprit implique d’affronter et d’accepter la vérité pour pouvoir avancer et tenter de ne pas répéter ces erreurs. C’est pourquoi l’éducation est essentielle pour donner des repères et diminuer l’ignorance.

Pour terminer, le discours au Burundi de John Humphrey a une importance à plus grande échelle que celle de départ, qui était d’améliorer les rapports entre Tutsi et Hutu. Il réitère que l’éducation des droits est au cœur même de la solution, du moins le début de la solution, et que cette éducation doit passer par l’opinion publique mondiale[11], c’est-à-dire dans tous les états. Le respect entre chaque individu permet d’obtenir une paix globale qui peut s’étendre au-delà des simples rapports sociaux entre une personne et une autre.

[1] Laura Neilson Bonikowsky, “John Peters Humphrey”, Historica Canada, accessed February 18, 2017,

[2] MG 4127 C.18 F.364 – L’aventure des droits de l’homme aux Nations Unies (1989), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, p. 1

[3] L’aventure des droits de l’homme, Humphrey, p. 1

[4] L’aventure des droits de l’homme, Humphrey, p.1

[5] René Lemarchand, “The Burundi Killings of 1972”, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, (June 2008), p. 2

[6] Lemarchand, “The Burundi Killings of 1972”, p. 2

[7] MG 4127 C.18 F.364 – L’aventure des droits de l’homme aux Nations Unies (1989), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, p. 2

[8] MG 4127 C.18 F.364 – L’aventure des droits de l’homme aux Nations Unies (1989), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, p. 4

[9] L’aventure des droits de l’homme, Humphrey, p. 17

[10] MG 4127 C.18 F.364 – L’aventure des droits de l’homme aux Nations Unies (1989), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, p. 5

[11] MG 4127 C.18 F.364 – L’aventure des droits de l’homme aux Nations Unies (1989), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, p. 17

Humphrey and his Canadian Concerns in My Brother’s Keeper

By Sowmya Iyathurai

On May 19th 1990, John Peters Humphrey was awarded the Order of the Keepers of Compassion by the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights.[1] The award recognized his work to promote human rights in Canada and internationally. He was given the award at a conference held by the organization, My Brother’s Keeper, in Canada; the subject of the conference was human rights and constitutional changes by referendum. Humphrey described his own philosophy to be similar to that of the organization. Referencing a “common humanity [in which we are] our brother’s and our sister’s keepers,” Humphrey noted that both he and the organization were focused on highlighting the collective moral responsibility to protect human rights domestically and abroad.[2] Upon receipt of the award, Humphrey delivered a speech in which he addressed the subject of the conference while relating it back to the Canadian context. This speech illuminates Humphrey’s opinion on the Meech Lake Accord and his concerns about Canada’s future.

Within his speech, Humphrey contextualized his own beliefs on international human rights while arguing that rights must be protected in order to ensure peace among nations.[3] By discussing the implications of World War II, Humphrey suggested that the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and a new world law had been born out of the conflict; he considered these to be the most significant developments of the 20th century.[4] In terms of a new world law, Humphrey believed that both the content and nature of international law had changed and that this new focus on basic human rights could ensure peace around the world.

Humphrey described the relationship between human rights and referendums by relating them to the UDHR. By referring to Article 21, Humphrey defended the right of citizens to participate in government.[5] As well, Article 21 stipulates that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government;” Humphrey believed that the Meech Lake Accord should be considered with the idea of the “will of the people” in mind. The Meech Lake Accord was meant to unite Quebec and Canada through a series of constitutional amendments. Among other changes, the Accord would have added a clause to the Canadian Constitution to recognize Quebec as “distinct society” within Canada.[6] Although the proposed constitutional amendments had been agreed upon by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and most provincial premiers in April of 1987, opposition to the amendments grew within the three-year period during which they to be ratified. In the end, two provinces failed to ratify the constitutional amendments.[7] Humphrey believed that this would have been an appropriate time for a national referendum.

Before acknowledging his award and discussing the theme of the conference, Humphrey recognized his colleagues and students from McGill who were in attendance. Specifically, Humphrey thanked David Berger, his friend and former student, who presented him with the award. Berger was a Liberal politician in Canada and Humphrey described him as an honest man and “good Canadian [who acted] in the real interest of the people who elected him to Parliament.”[8] Humphrey’s comments on Berger emphasized that he was the exception to Humphrey’s generally negative view of politicians in Canada. It is interesting to note that Humphrey believed that most Canadian politicians were not honest or forthright. Humphrey’s high praise of Berger can also be related to his references to the UDHR. He clearly believed that a good Canadian politician would be true to the interests of their constituency and respect “the will of the people.”[9] Again, this further highlights Humphrey’s disappointment with the events surrounding the Meech Lake Accord.

Throughout his speech, Humphrey expressed his worry for the future of Canadian federalism. Considering the era of Canadian constitutional politics, it is also unsurprising that Humphrey was apprehensive about Canadian politicians and federal-provincial tensions. He questioned federalism by asking if we are “some kind of mere alliance of states.”[10] He also voiced concerned for Canada’s bilingual heritage. As an advocate for bilingualism, he hoped that Canada could be a country “with two basic cultures.”[11] He explained his advocacy by stating that one of the reasons that he was hired and able to work at the United Nations was his ability to communicate in French and English.[12]

Although My Brother’s Keeper was an award acceptance speech, Humphrey did not shy away from addressing the subject of the conference in relation to Canadian affairs. This speech provides insight into Humphrey’s view on Meech Lake and his discontent with Canadian political affairs. Considering Humphrey’s impact on the history of human rights, it is interesting to see his criticism of Canada’s human rights image.[13] Despite his efforts to support human rights domestically and abroad, this speech shows that Humphrey had some reservations about Canada in 1990. A recurring theme in Humphrey’s work was his belief in a collective moral responsibility to protect human rights; the notion of collective responsibility calls for international awareness of human rights. It can also be seen as a plea to Canadians to be socially conscious and contribute to what Humphrey saw as Canada’s inadequate human rights record.

[1] John Peters Humphrey, “My Brother’s Keeper,” 1.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Richard Simeon, “Meech Lake Accord.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] John Peters Humphrey, “My Brother’s Keeper,” 1.

[9] Ibid., 1; 3.

[10] Ibid., 5.

[11] Ibid., 6.

[12] Ibid., 6.

[13] Ibid., 2.

John Peters Humphrey Opening Address to Vème Conférence Internationale Constitutionnelle

By Shannon Cook

John Peters Humphrey is most well known for his contribution in crafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the United-Nations. In 1948, United-Nation Members signed this monumental treaty committing to the protection of basic human rights to create a platform for equality among all individuals. Included in the declaration were positive affirmations of inherent rights such as the right to a fair trial, education, to practice your religion, freedom of thought, social security, etc. Although this treaty was not legally binding, it did push forward a newfound commitment from the international community to truly protect all humans alike.

When looking at the Universal Declaration from the modern day perspective it is not difficult to point out some fundamental rights that are missing. For example, there is no protection on the basis of sexual orientation because at the time, in 1948, non-traditional relationships were not socially accepted. Another shortfall of the Universal Declaration was the lack of a right to a healthy environment. The only provision that could be interpreted to include a healthy environment is Article 25: “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family […]”[1]. This article provides a non-inclusive list of examples of well-being that must be protected, but does not mention the environment. Nearly 40 years after the Universal Declaration, the importance of a guaranteed human right to a healthy environment is discussed at the 5th Conference of International Constitutional Law in Canada, Quebec on October 1st 1987[2]. It is clear that the right to a healthy environment was previously overlooked, and it is for the very reason that this conference is of such importance.

This conference was hosted by Nicole Duplé, a professor at the Université de Laval. The name of the conference itself points out that the targeted audience were lawyers and policy makers. Constitutional law is that fuzzy space were law and politics intertwine, needing both professions to cooperate to create change. The point of this conference was to stimulate people to think about this very new field of environmental law and think about it through the lens of a fundamental human right. It is important to note that the human impact on the environment was a topic that was only beginning to be explored, thus showing the true innovation of this conference. An interesting aspect to remember about this speech and the conference as a whole is that it was being held during the Cold War, an age of nuclear threats that could ultimately have disastrous affects on the environment.

As a Canadian and Quebecer himself, John P. Humphrey was invited to be the chairman at this conference. He provides an eloquent speech to open up the session that is worth exploring. As established beforehand, the topic of discussion was the right to a healthy environment, said to be a right to become. These talks about a right to a healthy environment parallel went well with the Universal Declaration, as both were about bringing forth the importance of a particular problem that society may not be ready to accept.

John Humphrey’s opening address mainly focuses on his former colleague Eleanor Roosevelt. He talks about her experience of consistently breaking societal barriers as she was a woman working in a workplace dominated by men. He tells the story of Mrs. Roosevelt’s experience as a delegate at her first session. Men were concerned about having a woman on their team and delegated her to where “she would do the least harm”[3]. This ended up being the Third Committee which was about social, humanitarian, and cultural question. Its quite ironic that they assigned her to this position thinking it was of no importance not knowing that it would become a pivotal aspect of the United-Nations work, which ultimately led to the creation of the Universal Declaration. Mrs. Roosevelt’s hardships is analogous with the current fight taking place at this conference for the recognition of a right to a healthy environment as it is a domain overlooked and seen as a burden. Convincing state leaders to address the importance of a right to a healthy environment would be as difficult as it was for Eleanor to fight consistent patriarchy undermining her, however not impossible with determination. Looking at this speech from the perspective of the early 21st century, it is clear that the hard work to make environmental concerns legitimate by the state is now paying off. The Paris Agreement (COP21) signed in 2015[4] is the prime example of how concerns for the right of a healthy environment is now being taking seriously by the international community.

Humphrey continues his opening address by highlighting the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration that is approaching. He poses this important question: “how can the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute best mark the occasion?”[5] The answer is to highlight the power of public opinion. People have this immense power to influence their political representative by consistently voicing their opinion. Humphrey pleads that this anniversary be open to all countries, even those who weren’t yet members of the United Nations when the Universal Declaration was drafted. He wants this anniversary to have an honest impact on the world to further recognize and commit to universal human rights and equality. Humphrey argues that it is only through a commitment to listening to the desires of the public opinion on issues of human rights that nations will be bale to obtain peace amongst themselves.

Humphrey finishes his speech by emphasizing the important of inviting ‘youngsters’ to the anniversary to talk about the importance of human rights and peace. This is a message to any future conferences such as the one he is currently talking at. Young people must be included in this innovative discussion; they are the future who can bring forth new ideas like the importance of right to a healthy environment.

Overall, John Humphrey’s opening address establishes parallels between the obstacles that were faced trying to craft the Universal Declaration and Duplé’s plea for the recognition of a healthy environment as a human right. Humphrey provides hope that human rights will further expand to incorporate more what? such as the idea that an adequate standard of living includes a right to a healthy environment.

[1] The United Nations General Assembly. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 1948. (page 7).

[2] International Conference on Constitutional Law, and Nicole Duplé. 1988. Le droit à la qualité de l’environnement: un droit en devenir, un droit à définir. Vieux-Montréal, Québec: Québec/Amérique.

[3] John Peters Humphrey, “Séance d’ouvertue du Vème Conférence Internationale de Droit Constitutionnel”. 1st  October 1987. (Page 4)

[4] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Paris Agreement. 2015. [].

[5] John Peters Humphrey, “Séance d’ouvertue du Vème Conférence Internationale de Droit Constitutionnel”. 1st  October 1987. (Page 7)


Education, Knowledge, and Human Rights: A Primary Source Analysis of John Humphrey’s “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt”

By Shaden Hetu-Frankel

Broadly speaking, John Peters Humphrey was one of the most important and influential figures in the history of human rights. In many ways, his work has helped shape the culture and politics of human rights in countries across the world. For two decades at the United Nations, Humphrey was extremely active in promoting rights and protections for all global citizens. As an international civil servant, he oversaw the implementation of sixty-seven international conventions, and the constitutions of over a dozen countries.[1] Humphrey, during his time at the UN, worked in a number of areas including freedom of the press, racial discrimination, and the status of women. Among other things, he is famous for his contribution to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[2] As the Director of the Human Rights Division in the UN Secretariat, Humphrey wrote the background document that would eventually lead to the initial draft of the Declaration. Following his extended service at the United Nations, Humphrey returned to Canada and continued his distinguished human rights work both at home and around the world. He would go on to deliver countless speeches on a wide-range of issues related to human rights.

Amongst Humphrey’s public record is his “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” delivered in 1987 at the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.[3] In this speech, Humphrey discussed the pivotal role of Eleanor Roosevelt, as both First Lady of the United States and chair of the Commission on Human Rights. He highlighted, among other things, Eleanor’s unparalleled influence and commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition, Humphrey’s text also emphasized the need to raise awareness about human rights globally, and promote an educated “public opinion” internationally. Altogether, Humphrey’s “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt” offers significant insight into the role of education and knowledge in strengthening human rights across the world.

As aforementioned, the speech was originally delivered by Humphrey at the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in 1987. This organization, which formed through the merger of the Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Foundations, is a private, non-profit corporation that has supported scholarship on the “Roosevelt years,” and funded various humanitarian and development projects across the United States.[4] In its infancy, the institute, for example, sponsored the Eleanor Roosevelt Better Schools Project, which worked to strengthen educational opportunities across public schools in New York City.[5] In more recent years, the organization has helped establish a research program in the Netherlands known as the Roosevelt Study Center. For almost thirty-years, the Roosevelt Institute has served to carry forward the legacy and progressive values of both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as to improve peace and social justice everywhere in the world.

Humphrey’s speech was addressed to members of the Roosevelt Institute, and more specifically those involved with the organization’s sponsoring of the 1988 World Conference on Human Rights.[6] Given the context, it is clear that his speech was written for an audience concerned with promoting human rights and peace internationally. In speaking about the Holland conference, Humphrey suggested that the Roosevelt Institute should invite “knowledgeable people” from across the world to participate, and that the topic of the event should focus on the impact of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[7] He ultimately believed that the organization and its members had an important role to play in the upcoming conference, and more generally, in advancing the causes of human rights and prosperity. All in all, Humphrey delivered his speech in front of a very pragmatic, forward-thinking audience, altogether engaged in tackling issues of human rights globally.

Among other things, Humphrey’s speech provides significant insight into Eleanor Roosevelt’s extraordinary career and life. Although the speech was relatively short, the author offered the audience a unique perspective into the complicated and fascinating legacy of Eleanor. According to Humphrey, she was an unparalleled figure who thrived in a period where women faced a wide-range of social, economic, and political barriers. Her work at the United Nations started as a member of the American delegation appointed by President Harry Truman in 1946. The American delegation, headed by Secretary of State James Byrnes at the time, would assign Eleanor to the Third Committee on Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Affairs.[8] As Humphrey reminded his audience, Eleanor’s appointment to this unit “pleased” her American colleagues, who believed that by “sending her to the Third Committee… she would do the least harm.”[9] Little did they know, however, that the Committee would become one the most important and productive in the United Nations. Although she was never a great statesman or intellect, Eleanor overtime became one of the most influential members of the United Nations. As a diplomat, her greatest assets were her unwavering humanitarian convictions and faith in human dignity and worth. As discussed by Humphrey, she had a warm sympathy and interest for people, as well as an extraordinary understanding of human nature. It was these qualities, he asserted, that allowed her to play such an important role at the United Nations.[10] Above all, Eleanor’s work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be her greatest achievement. Her passion and commitment for human rights, among other things, proved to be the driving force behind the Declaration. As a whole, Humphrey referred to Eleanor as “the most important person in the United Nations Human Rights Program.”[11] In many ways, Eleanor’s legacy and achievements have helped widen opportunities for women across the world, and broaden the scope of human rights internationally.[12] Altogether, Humphrey’s speech offers an important account of Eleanor’s long-lasting impact on both the United Nations and its human rights activity.

Perhaps the most significant part of this speech is Humphrey’s advocacy for education as a tool to promote public opinion and human rights globally. At the height of his speech, Humphrey emphasized the importance of education and knowledge, particularly amongst younger generations, in fostering peace and stability across the world. He asserted that organizations like the Roosevelt Institute had a responsibility to “contribute not only to the cause of human rights … [but] also to preserve in this nuclear age the planet as a place where we and our children could continue to live.”[13] In his mind, Humphrey believed that an educated public opinion and respect for human rights were key to ensuring world peace. His message, among other things, is significant given the national and global human rights issues that continue to persist today. From an American electoral campaign marked by discriminatory and xenophobic rhetoric, to countless human rights abuses in Syria, it is clear that the world is still far from realizing the ideals first envisioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[14] Even after sixty-nine years, it is fair to say that the Declaration is more a dream than a reality. While human rights are recognized by most countries around the world, violations continue to take place in every part of it. As a whole, Humphrey’s speech serves as an important reminder that human beings are constantly engaged in a “race between education and catastrophe.”[15] Both in his time and today, Humphrey’s words offer insight into the significance of education and knowledge in promoting the growth of societies centered on respecting human rights and holding governments accountable for their actions. As he described, without an educated “world public opinion” and respect for human rights globally, the planet would continue to fall into conflict and despair. In all, Humphrey was a passionate idealist when it came to human rights, and his speech reflects his ever-lasting commitment to rights ideals and protections.

All things considered, the “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt” stands as only one of many speeches published during the course of Humphrey’s exemplary career. Among other things, Humphrey was a hard-nosed and pragmatic lawyer, and a remarkably passionate human rights activist. Equally at home and abroad, he would have a long-lasting impact on human rights ideals and protections. He worked tirelessly to advocate the need for rights and protections across the world. In his speech, Humphrey highlighted the multi-faceted career and life of Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman who represented her years, and more notably, moved beyond them. Moreover, Humphrey explored the importance of education and knowledge in shaping the fabric of peaceful and stable societies. He believed that a country founded on a respect for human rights and an educated public opinion was necessary to ensure the preservation of the planet for future generations. His speech ultimately touched on several key aspects of human rights and related issues. Altogether, Humphrey’s work has had a major influence in shaping the culture and history of human right both in Canada and across the world.

[1] “John Peters Humphrey and the UDHR,” John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, accessed February 17th, 2017,

[2] Glen Johnson and Janusz Symonides, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A History of its Creation and Implementation 1948-1998 (Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1998), 24.

[3] MG 4127 C.18 F.366- “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 7.

[4] Henry R. Beasley, Maurine H. Beasley, and Holly C. Shulman, The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001), 338.

[5] Beasley, Beasley, & Shulman, The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia, 338.

[6] “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” 7.

[7] “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” 7.

[8] A. J. Hobbins, “Eleanor Roosevelt, John Humphrey and Canadian Opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Looking Back on the 50th Anniversary of UDHR,” International Journal Vol. 53, No.2 (Spring, 1998): 335.

[9] “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” 2.

[10] “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” 5.

[11] “Roosevelt, Eleanor,” Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, accessed February 18th, 2017,

[12] Hobbins, “Eleanor Roosevelt, John Humphrey and Canadian Opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 330.

[13] “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” 7.

[14] “Amnesty International Report 2016/2017: The State of the World’s Human Rights,” Amnesty International, accessed February 15th, 2017,

[15] “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” 7.

NGOs as a Piece of the Human Rights Puzzle

By Sally Hough

John Peters Humphrey is most recognized for authoring the first draft of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), which was adopted in 1948. However, he engaged with human rights issues in a variety of capacities, which often reflected and complemented each other. The UNDHR marked a major step forward in global discussions and conceptions of rights, though it, and later concrete international human rights laws, have fallen short in many ways. The Declaration has no enforcement mechanisms, so citizens and governments often overlook or take for granted its stipulations. From this need for alternative mechanisms of rights-enforcement and rights-awareness arose charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to stop rights abuses worldwide. Amnesty International is one such NGO and was founded in 1961,[1] though the Canadian branch was established in 1973. Fittingly, John Peters Humphrey served as the Canadian branch’s first President, and delivered a powerful speech at its first Annual General Meeting.

It is difficult to determine exactly who the audience of this speech was. Today, attendees to the Amnesty International Canada General Meeting are general members of the organization—donors and supporters who pay an additional yearly fee to participate in governance-related activities.[2] In 1974, Canada’s Amnesty International was composed of “a very small group of people”[3] as Humphrey explains, of which he highlights a chairman, treasurer, national director and secretary, all of whom were in the audience. Moreover, in his introduction, he mentions that human rights champion Ms. Eleanor Roosevelt would later be delivering a speech. I will then suggest that the audience of the Amnesty International Canada General Meeting in 1974 was smaller but contained many prominent figures, as opposed to today’s meetings, which have much larger audiences. This is significant as it demonstrates an expansion since Humphrey’s years of activism in who engages in human rights discourse, and how they do so. NGOs are now a frequent method for the general public to participate in human rights campaigns, and Amnesty, under Humphrey’s guidance, helped show that NGOs can facilitate the participation of all people with rights issues.

Today, Amnesty International is a household name. In fact, it is now a “global movement of over 7 million people.”[4] Naturally, Canadians are aware of the important work that Amnesty does to promote human rights at home and abroad, though the Amnesty ‘brand’ was far less known in the 1970s. This speech does not deliver a novel argument about the place of NGOs in human rights advocacy, however, it does strongly reinforce the often-forgotten role of charities and NGOs in international human rights campaigns. Though Humphrey’s speech touches on why Canadians should care about rights elsewhere, human rights problems in Canada and the logistical aspects of non-profit human rights work, I feel that the most substantive element of his speech lies in Humphrey’s discussion about the undervalued but essential capacity of Amnesty International Canada as a newly-established non-profit organization in contributing to the promotion of human rights and the prevention of abuses around the world. The tone of Humphrey’s speech could be described as nearly celebratory: despite making nods to global human rights struggles, he is largely praising Amnesty Canada for the momentous charitable work it does to advance human rights. Humphrey demonstrates that NGOs like Amnesty are key players in the legal-governmental arena in which human rights matters are commonly played out, in three major ways: firstly, its ability to fill in where laws and governments fail; secondly, its position as the arbiter of public opinion which allows it to put immense pressure on governmental actions; and finally, its capability to stop Canadians from being lulled into complacency amidst Canada’s generally “well respected”[5] rights environment.

Amongst a proliferation of human rights treatises, bills, and laws, of which the most notable was Humphrey’s own UNDHR, Humphrey critically notes that the “United Nations has not yet been able to devise effective procedures for the international enforcement of this law, but that is a defect which is common to most if not all international law.”[6] Amnesty enters where international and local politics fail, by recording rights abuses and initiating public, governmental and legal action. Humphrey specifically mentions a “successful conference […] on torture last October,” which was part of a broader campaign and helped push for the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture.[7] It is clear that Amnesty filled in where governments and international law were failing, resulting in a positive push towards human rights.

According to Humphrey, often Canadians were not aware of human rights infringements occurring at home and abroad. It becomes the responsibility of NGOs like Amnesty to bring attention to these what?, and then pursue them acting as a vehicle for expressing public outcry. Humphrey explains that “governments, including authoritarian governments, are highly sensitive to public opinion. […] We know something about this in Amnesty where public opinion is our only weapon.”[8] Amnesty mobilizes Canadian sentiment to defend human rights worldwide, although, this does have a selfish aspect. Rights abuses are “contagious,”[9] and preventing their spread to Canada requires stopping them abroad. Amnesty facilitates this multi-step process by bringing awareness to an issue, voicing Canadian outrage and then substituting for laws and governments if need be.

According to Humphrey, because human rights are fairly upheld in Canada, Canadians “are in danger of becoming, perhaps we have already become, complacent.”[10] If Canadians, as members of the global community, stop caring about fellow global citizens, they will allow rights violations to occur. This would only feed into a vicious chain of increasing violations. As Humphrey states, “human rights must be protected internationally if they are to be protected at all.”[11] The work of Amnesty revolves around Canadian interest in protecting rights locally and abroad, and so at the very core of Amnesty’s mission is to prevent Canadian complacency. By bringing awareness to human rights abuses, Amnesty is not only able to use public upset to halt the abuse, but to provide Canadians with constant reminders to remain vigilant about our own and other’s rights.

There is no foolproof method to ensure respect for human rights in every country. UN Declarations, international laws and governments all work towards this, but too often they fail. While charities and NGOs have their own faults, they fill in when other rights-mechanisms are lacking; they mobilize public opinion to put pressure on governmental action; and they force Canadians to remain attuned to local and national rights-related problems. Amnesty International is one of the most well-known and well-respected non-profit organizations bolstering human rights worldwide, and Amnesty International Canada has contributed to the achievements of its parent organization greatly since its inception in 1973. As Humphrey’s speech stresses, Amnesty is indispensable to the maintenance of human rights everywhere.

[1] “Who We Are,” last modified 2017,

[2] “AGM 2017,” last modified 2016,

[3] “Speech to Annual Meeting of Amnesty International (1974)” MG 4127, C.18, File 371, John P. Humphrey United Nations Collection, Nahum Gelber Law Library, McGill University.

[4] “Who We Are.”

[5] “Speech to Annual Meeting of Amnesty International (1974).”

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Who We Are.”

[8] “Speech to Annual Meeting of Amnesty International (1974).”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

John Humphrey’ speech at Bishop’s College School

By Robyn Lee

In November of 1989, John Humphrey delivered a speech at Bishop’s College School in Quebec. Given Humphrey’s history and level of involvement with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he was “asked … to talk about human rights” [1]. However, the 1980s were dominated by the tensions between Quebec and Ottawa with the failure of the Meech Lake Accords. In the wake of Meech Lake and rising Quebec Nationalism, Humphrey’s lecture seems to be tailored to the future generation of voters, urging them to think critically about Canada’s national identity.

Despite having an extensive history in the crafting of human rights legislation, Humphrey seems to gloss over the past and spend more time on how the young students at Bishop’s College can contribute to the rapidly changing rights culture. Fifty years after the war, Humphrey commends the 1948 Universal Declaration as a “new world law” that was designed to protect human dignity. He continues to explain that the responsibility to maintain the law depends on individual men and women. Humphrey personally annotated an emphasis on how “one of the challenges of your generation, [is] to see that [preserved peace]” truly takes place. He ends the first portion of his speech by asserting the importance of public opinion, and the need for “your generation … to improve these mechanisms of implementation and to develop mechanisms of enforcement […] to support the world law of human rights”[2].

In 1989, there was still fierce debate regarding the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the topic of Quebec’s sovereignty. The Constitution Act of 1982 was a “valiant attempt to reconcile and harmonize the concepts of individual rights for all and collective rights for certain specific groups in Canadian society.” [3] However, the Quebec premier Robert Bourassa refused to sign the Constitution Act, because it failed to address Quebec as a “distinct society”.[4] It is within this context, of increasing resentment amongst Quebecers of being overlooked as a linguistic minority that the Meech Lake Accords took place. The Meech Lake Accords in 1987 represented the growing debate about Quebec francophone nationalism. It recognized Quebec as a distinct society, and included the “responsibility “to preserve and promote this distinct society” [5]

Delivering this speech to a Quebec audience, Humphrey grounded himself in his Francophone roots by describing his own personal history. He mentions his French-Canadian wife, his appreciation for the French language, his membership of the National Order of Quebec and his love for the province. He includes a disclaimer to the audience, as he wanted [them] to understand his words were “not the reaction of some English speaking redneck”[6]. This reflects the intense divides between English-speaking Canada and Quebec. The historic tensions between Quebec and English-Canada are well documented. Humphrey’s disclaimer acknowledges the value of Quebecers concerns’ about being a cultural and linguistic minority. However, Humphrey disputes the notion that opposing the “acceptance of distinct society provision is proof of anti-Quebec sentiment.”[7] He emphasizes that conflating anti-Quebec sentiment with the usage of the distinct society clause has overlooked his own basic definition of human rights- in that it protects individuals rather than ‘collective groups’.

Meech Lake was characteried by it’s closed door, “late night discussions”[8]  that lead to what Peach describes as the death of deference in politics”[9] in his article. People, particularly Quebecers, had less faith in political elites, because they felt they were constantly being overlooked. Humphrey echoes this sentiment by describing the accords as the result of “politicians sitting around a table, using the accords to “their own political advantage” [10]. Humphrey seems distressed by the state of the country, stating “the future of this country … is in jeopardy”[11]. He highlights his worries about “the presence of that clause”… and “what that might mean for the future of [his[ country”[12]. It is clear that towards the end, Humphrey’s lecture has turned into a message of concern for the country. His tone is one of disbelief as he asks: “Have they ever read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?”[13]. The document he had worked so hard on, seems to be ignored and misinterpreted. In the last years of his life, Humphreys faced a crowd of eager, passionate and easily influenced youth and tried to persuade them of his vision of Canada and human rights.

Humphrey ends with his final request for Canada’s national identity with his belief in bilingualism. Humphreys speech ends almost in a plea: “If we abandon that heritage .. it distinguishes us most clearly from our neighbours to the south”[14].  The reoccurring issue of Canada’s geographical proximity to a global power such as the United States becomes increasingly present in the lecture. Humphrey drives home the importance of maintaining a distinct, bilingual culture to remain “distinct on the North American continent”.

John Humphrey is 84 years old in 1989. He dedicated his entire life and career to the protection of individual human rights and begins to see an unfamiliar change in his country. He ends with an almost urgent tone, advising the students at Bishop’s College to continue his own legacy. Humphrey reflects back on his career, recalling the anecdote with Henri Laugier, who invited Humphrey to become the first director of the Division of Human Rights in the World organization[15]. He attributes his greatest achievement to the value of bilingualism to inspire the audience. Humphrey reveals his doubts and worries in an almost hurried manner, resulting in an unexpected attitude for a young school audience.

[1] MG-4127-C.18-F.364-Lecture at Bishop’s College School (1989), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 1.

[2] Ibid., 5

[3] Michael D. Behiels, “From the Constitution Act, 1982 to the Meech Lake Accords: Individual Rights for All versus Collective Rights for Some”, In Democracy with Justice/La Juste Democratie: Melanges En L’honneur De/Essays in Honour of Khayyam Zev Paltiel, (1992) ,127

[4] Ibid.,128


[6] MG-4127-C.18-F.364-Lecture at Bishop’s College School (1989), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 6.

[7] Ibid., 8

[8] Ibid.,5

[9] Peach, Ian The Death of Defernece: the implications of the defeat of the meech lake and Charlottetown accords for executive federalism in Canada, Multiculturalism in Canada (2007), 91

[10] MG-4127-C.18-F.364-Lecture at Bishop’s College School (1989), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 6.

[11] Ibid.,5

[12] Ibid,.7

[13] Ibid.,8

[14] Ibid.,8

[15] Ibid.,9

On “Opening Statement and Introduction for the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights”

By Raegan Kloschinsky

John Peters Humphrey, acting as vice-president, addressed the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights at their Toronto conference on November 21, 1974. Humphrey provided the opening statements and introductions, commencing a series of lectures and seminars on the subject of human rights and legal action. In doing so, he offers glimpses into his own personal views, but more concretely, the ambitions and motivations of the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights. Now, Humphrey’s speech provides insight into human rights discourse and the initial intentions of the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights, an organisation still in existence today, though under a different name. Humphrey’s speech can illuminate the actors in Canadian human rights discussion in the 1970s, as well smaller-scale action and activism.

In Humphrey’s words, “the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights is a representative body of men and women dedicated to the promotion of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Canada.”[1] Continuing, he expressed his desire for the organisation to be “a channel through which public spirited people could by their individual contributions help promote respect for human rights” and “undertake certain projects that might otherwise not be attempted”.[2] These important projects were education and research based, focusing on human rights and the law. Interestingly, John Peters Humphrey’s Canadian Human Rights Foundation’s continues to exist as Equitas, the International Centre for Human Rights Education, whose mission remains “the advancement of equality, social justice and respect for human dignity” through education.[3] Equitas, then known as the Canadian Human Rights Foundation, was founded in 1967 by scholars and social activists, who strongly believed in the power of education to advance social justice and democracy; John Peters Humphrey, Thérèse Casgrain, and Dr. Gustave Gingras, organised innovative research, conferences, and publications on human rights with the goal of education and ameliorating the status and understanding of rights in Canada.[4] The Canadian Human Rights Foundation was not formed with the intention of advocacy.[5] Rather, it functioned to research and educate on the subject of human rights as a national charitable organisation.[6] Thus, Humphrey’s presentation is a key to understanding an organisation that continues to promote human rights education and social justice today, and the philosophy behind its approach.

The conference Humphrey addressed in this speech is one of many that happened nationally throughout the 1970s to discuss human rights.[7] This conference was attended by both members of the general public and by those who occupied some of the most elite positions in Canadian society.[8] Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, although not able to attend, sent a letter of support, which Humphrey read to begin his opening remarks.[9] Hon. Otto Lang, Minister of Justice for Canada, Hon. Hugh Faulkner, Secretary of State of Canada, Mrs. Helvi Sipila, Assistant Secretary-General in the United National Secretariat, and Mr. Niall MacDermot of the International Commission of Jurists, all led seminars, some of which were opened to the public for discussion.[10] This speech offers an interesting look at the political elite involved in human rights discussion, and through Humphrey’s introductions, his personal opinions and their importance. These opening statements are impactful, for they help reveal the scope and intentions of conferences like these; they display the climate surrounding human rights discussion and the participation of important national and international figures.

Most interestingly demonstrated in Humphrey’s speech are his and the Foundation’s views on the links between education, human rights and social justice. Humphrey outlines the projects the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights was sponsoring: awards and publication of works concerning human rights and more significantly, in his opinion, “an exhaustive, scientific analysis of human rights law and practice in Canada”.[11] Humphrey espoused the importance of understanding the legal mechanisms, which protect human rights or allow for their violation. The purpose of this conference, as purported by Humphrey, was to decide how to proceed with the preliminary research and analysis; how to best continue what?, both as an academic pursuit, but also towards a productive goal. Humphrey propagated inclusion and participation, wanting to include as many people as possible in the discussion. The educational aspect of human rights and social justice supported by the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights and founding members like John Peters Humphrey is unique and productive. It is fascinating, and incredibly important to remember this aspect of Humphrey’s opening remarks. Essentially, human rights are for everyone to learn from and discuss.

While not a significant speech, according to Humphrey, his opening statement and introductions to the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights are nonetheless, salient representations of human rights discourse and its direction in 1973. These remarks display his vision, and those of other members, for understanding human rights and the law. Though the actual presentations given at this conference undoubtedly would be more interesting and informative, this opening statement does in fact, offer a unique glimpse at the philosophy of human rights and justice at a time of great change.

[1] “Opening Statement and Introduction Canadian Foundation for Human Rights Toronto, 21 Nov., 1974,” MG 4127 C.18 F.371, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Our Mission,” Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education / Centre international d’éducation aux droits humains, accessed February 23, 2017,

[4] Ibid.

“About Us,” Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education / Centre international d’éducation aux droits humains, accessed February 23, 2017,

[5] “Canadian Human Rights Foundation,” Canada’s Human Rights History, accessed February 23, 2017,  

[6] Ibid.

[7] “About Us.”

[8] “Opening Statement and Introduction Canadian Foundation for Human Rights Toronto, 21 Nov., 1974.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

John Peters Humphrey and The Case For Human Rights

By Olivia Watson

On June 18, 1985, John Peters Humphrey,  delivered a speech to the Human Rights Awareness Conference in Fredericton in his home province of New Brunswick. Humphrey’s speech, which he called “Why Human Rights?”, aimed to answer the inquiry which the title posed. To Humphrey, the answer to the question of why human rights is almost self-evident; Humphrey’s response addresses our shared humanity, stating his belief, which echoes the Universal Declaration of Human Right, that all humans are born free possessing certain rights and freedoms, and that human dignity cannot exist without their assurance. Humphrey’s speech then turns to the task of asking the question not of ‘why human rights?’ but ‘how human rights?’. Answering this question makes up the bulk of Humphrey’s speech to the conference and in the end, he concludes that in fact to secure human rights we must alter the contemporary state system and in doing so we will overcome what he sees as the greatest problem of our time; “how to maintain the peace of nations at a time when our planet is threatened by nuclear destruction”[1].

In order to understand why Humphrey places such emphasis on the threat of nuclear destruction, we must review the political climate in which he is speaking. During this period, the international system is changing rapidly. Most colonies have recently won independence and are in the process of state building, giving the issue of human rights newfound relevance. As well, Reagan and Thatcher are President of the United States and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom respectively, ushering in new economic systems in the form of neoliberalism acting in direct opposition to Article 23 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ which guarantees the right of everyone to “form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests”[2]. But most importantly, in 1985, the world is still in the midst of the Cold War. During this time, the world’s two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, competing in an arms race[3]. It is clear that this event has had a heavy influence on Humphrey’s thinking and perspective on human rights. The very prospect of nuclear war and a nuclear holocaust threatens humanity and therefore human rights.

In his speech, Humphrey mentions Jonathan Schell’s book ‘The Fate of the Earth’, published in 1982. The book, which discusses the possibility of nuclear war and the subsequent destruction of humanity, stirs something in Humphrey. He tells his audience that the possibility of a nuclear holocaust which Schell discusses, looks to him as more of a probability unless we do something about it. This emotion and conviction must be assumed to stem from the tensions and precariousness resulting from the Cold War he is witnessing.

Humphrey then references another book, this time a less contemporary one, which 200 years after it was written, he feels still has relevance in the 1985 international climate. The collection of essays compiled into ‘The Federalist’ was written after the War of Independence in the United States. Humphrey tells his audience that although Hamilton’s essay was concerned with national matters existing 200 years ago, he had inadvertently described what Humphrey saw as the chief weakness of the contemporary states system. That is, that “the constitutional weakness that was enshrined in the Articles of Confederation was also present at the international level”[4]. Essentially, to Humphrey, the inability of international systems to have any real bearing on national affairs was a crippling weakness and one that failed to appropriately protect human rights.

Humphrey is captivated by the idea of a horizontal world order versus a vertical one. This idea is at the core of his speech and it is his belief that the shift which is occurring from the horizontal to the vertical is a decisive win for international human rights and a reason for optimism. This shift represents a recognition of the rights of individuals and in doing so simultaneously limits the power of states. In proving the occurrence of this shift, Humphrey references the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. These documents confer rights on the individual level, rather than the traditional national level; proving the shift from the horizontal to the vertical.

In light of these developments, Humphrey returns to the claims made by Schell that the contemporary state system is obsolete and that it must change if humanity is to survive. His conclusion?  These changes are already happening. He tells his audience that this trend must continue if humanity and our planet are to survive. He finishes his speech by once again asking the question why human rights? Going further than simply describing all humans as being born with certain rights and freedoms without which there cannot be human dignity, he states that by helping to construct an effective international law of human rights we are also fundamentally changing the contemporary state system and in doing so we are committing to contributing to the solution of what he believes to be “the greatest problem of our time, how to maintain the peace of nations at a time when our planet is threatened by nuclear destruction”[5].

Humphrey’s ‘Why Human Rights’ speech serves as a reminder of the importance of focusing on the individual as well as the state and represents a side of a debate that continues to this day surrounding the balance of power between the national and the international. While the threat of a nuclear holocaust is no longer as imminent as it once was, the world continues to face problems, such as climate change, which it cannot solve on a national level. While ultimate power remains in the hands of the state, transnational systems have become increasingly popular since Humphrey gave this speech; the European Union being founded less than a decade after this speech was given proving that Humphrey’s words are as relevant now as they were when he spoke them.

[1]    1. John P. Humphrey,“Why Human Rights?” (speech, Human Rights Awareness Conference, Fredericton, NB, June 18, 1985).

[2] The United Nations. 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[3] “Arms Race,” History, accessed February 18, 2017,

[4] John P. Humphrey,“Why Human Rights?” (speech, Human Rights Awareness Conference, Fredericton, NB, June 18, 1985).

[5] John P. Humphrey,“Why Human Rights?” (speech, Human Rights Awareness Conference, Fredericton, NB, June 18, 1985).

The Failures of the United Nations

By Nicolas Grammatikakis

Following the end of the Second World War, the United Nations was conceptualized as a successor to the League of Nations ─ a project that had failed disastrously at preventing another World War ─ to primarily ensure and maintain the peace and security on a global scale. By 1976, a former United Nations official, Professor John Peters Humphrey, one of the officials responsible for drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, gave a speech to the Women’s Canadian Club ─ an all inclusive speech organization that focuses on the role of Canada on the global stage and the current state of the country among many other things[1] ─ in regards to the progress and current state of the United Nations after thirty years of existence. Fortunately for us, we presently have a copy of his speech in 1976 that was once buried deep within the McGill University archives. His presentation focuses on bringing to light the emerging criticisms and issues brought about in the media and the public with regards to the role of the United Nations at the time.

Professor Humphrey’s presentation addresses a large number of issues concerning the UN in 1976, however three in particular stand out most as they are just as relevant in the present time. In John Peters Humphrey’s speech titled The United Nations in 1976, he sheds light on the flaws and issues that plague the legitimacy and functionality of the United Nations such as the “tyranny of the artificial majority”, the prioritization of collective rights over individual rights and the inability of the organization to maintain international peace and security to its desired extent.

To begin, in his 1976 speech, Humphrey exposes one of the major flaws to the organization which he labelled the tyranny of the artificial majority.[2] In his address to the Women’s Canadian Club, he exposes the inability of the United Nations to function to the best of its ability in its current state of “fairness”. According to the United Nations and its charters, it is very well known that all states are equal in representation regardless of size, power or even population; in essence, each state gets one vote and that vote is equal to the vote of every other country (excluding the right to veto granted to the five permanent members of the security council in the most extreme cases).[3] The problem with this, Humphrey argues, is that in an attempt to be more democratic and fair, the UN has granted the countries of the Third-World an artificial majority which they have been able to use for their own interests against the will of the more industrialized and powerful states of the planet. The main issue with the idea of one state / one vote is that it grants a country with ten times less the population of another, for example, exactly the same amount of influence and power within the organization. With the countries of the Third World colluding together to vote alike, they, the artificial majority, have effectively imposed a tyranny that aims to implement charters that benefit them at the expense of the others who are effectively the real majority.[4]  Humphrey’s analysis of the tyranny of the artificial majority brings to light an important issue of the United Nations that is present even today within the organization. This attempt to be fair to everyone has worked against the interest of the UN and has further divided the globe between the conflict of interests of the prosperous Western democracies and the non-developed often authoritarian countries.

In addition, his oral presentation brings to light another major flaw of the United Nations namely the recent shift in prioritization of collective rights over individual rights. As the influence of the Third World countries grows within the United Nations, by 1976, we start to see a shift from the focus of individual rights granted to all under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to collective rights.[5] Both individual and collective rights are equally important but there must not be a bias for one type of right over another. The issue with prioritizing and focusing far more on collective rights over individual rights is that, on the global scale, no one disagrees with national self-determination, social rights and economic rights not even brutal authoritarian regimes.[6] By shifting our center of attention away from individual rights within the United Nations Organization, we indirectly help legitimize the brutal repressive authoritarian regimes that infringe on the peoples’ right to freedom of speech, freedom information and fair trial just to name a few.[7] With the undeniable shift towards prioritizing collective rights over individual rights, the flawed charters of the UN have allowed for the legitimization of repressive and oppressive regimes at the expense of the victims who rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are violated without consequence.

Finally, Professor John Peters Humphrey states that one of the worst major flaws of the UN is its inability to maintain peace and security to its desired extent. Humphrey states that even though the UN has played many crucial roles in maintaining the peace it has largely been less effective than it was intended to be. To name a few, he gives the examples of Vietnam and Bangladesh where the UN failed to play a role in ending these conflicts.[8] Further, he admits that the UN’s mission to preserve peace and security all over the globe is, essentially, flawed. It bases its power on the compliance of member states to play their part. The UN has no real and legitimate ability to enforce any policies on anyone. As we already know, the UN resolutions do not have legislative power but, rather, the force of recommendation based on the legitimacy and prestige of the institution.[9] In essence, if the super powers of the world decided to wage a war against each other, the UN and its respective members would not have any power in persuading them to do otherwise.

In conclusion, Professor Humphrey brings into the spotlight some of the major flaws that prevent the United Nations from functioning as intended as well as damage the legitimacy of the organization namely the tyranny of the artificial majority, the prioritization of collective rights over individual rights and the UN’s inability to maintain the peace and security to its intended extent. It is clear that Humphrey’s aim at addressing and acknowledging the existing flaws within the United Nations is to help us identify the true issues within the organization in order to make it a more legitimate and effective institution for future generations.

[1] Women’s Canadian Club London. “Our Mission”. (accessed February 22, 2017).

[2] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 4. MG 4127 C.18 F.370, Student Administrative Record, McGill University

[3] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 9-10.

[4] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 10.

[5] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 7.

[6] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 8.

[7] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 8.

[8] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 12.

[9] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 5.

John Peters Humphrey’s Speech at the General Assembly (1973)

By Michael Chen

On December 20, 1973, the 25th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), John Peters Humphrey delivered a speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations.[1] The UDHR, created by the UN Commission on Human Rights, and mainly drafted by Humphrey, established a standard of human rights conduct for all nations to follow. As a guest of the Canadian delegation[2], and not a representative of government, Humphrey was able to speak to world leaders without any political motivation, recounting the drafting and incorporation of the Declaration, reminding the world of one of our greatest achievements, “giving voice to the deepest aspirations of mankind … notwithstanding the sharp ideological differences which divided the organization.” While his speech is a commemorative one, due to the persistence of human rights abuses, Humphrey also warns the Assembly that there is still work to be done, and reminds nations to continue focusing on implementing the UDHR and advocating for human rights worldwide.

While the UDHR had been in effect for 25 years, human rights abuses were still prevalent during the time of Humphrey’s speech. Decolonization movements in Asia and Africa spurred gross violations[3], while in the US, the Watergate scandal left Americans questioning the motives of their own democratically elected leader.[4] Meanwhile, the Cold War created some of the most oppressive regimes in history, most infamously the Stasi of East Germany[5]. The 1960s saw a large membership increase in the UN from newly decolonized African nations, many of which were struggling to maintain a satisfactory human rights record[6]. In addition, East Germany became a member of the UN a mere three months before Humphrey delivered his speech[7]. When giving his speech, Humphrey spoke to many states who were not original signatories to the UDHR, notably some new UN members with poor human rights records. Because of this, Humphrey only reaffirms the need for human rights to the original signatories, he also asserts to new members that complying with the UDHR is an obligation of a UN member, and that human rights will not be forgotten.

In his speech, Humphreys first reflects upon the success that the UDHR has received in its first 25 years of existence. As one of the original drafters of the Declaration[8], Humphrey was able to share his memories of its creation, and remember his late co-creators Eleanor Roosevelt and Henri Laugier. In addition, he was able provide first-hand insight on the intended goals of the document provided by the Human Rights Committee. By creating a defined list of rights and freedoms for the entire world, the Human Rights Commission had hoped to end the violations of these enumerated rights. One of the main drawbacks of the UDHR is that it is not legally binding on any of the signatories, due to the fact that many of them would not have signed if that were the case. However, Humphrey argues that even without any legal status, the Declaration “immediately acquired a moral and political authority equaled by the Charter itself.”[9] While he may be slightly exaggerating its power, the significance of the UDHR cannot be denied, as a large majority of its articles have indeed become part of international customary law. In addition, Humphrey specifies that the Declaration is supposed to be an anonymous document, a symbolic gesture to give it power to apply to all of mankind. The success of the first 25 years of the UDHR paves the way for even more developments to come.

At the time this speech was given, Humphrey was aware that the UDHR was far from perfect. Recognizing some of these problems, Humphrey lays the groundwork for ways to improve human rights enforcement throughout the world. As previously noted, the fact that the declaration is not legally binding presents a major problem for enforcing it; implementing human rights around the world, even with the UDHR, had not always been very effective. However, it was the commission and Humphrey’s plan to incorporate the Declaration into an International Bill of Rights, which would be a multilateral treaty enforceable through international law. At the end of his speech, Humphreys challenges the General Assembly to implement this bill, calling it “the ultimate test of its ability to make the Charter’s finest purpose a reality,” and hoping it can be done within 5 years. The International Bill of Rights was introduced in 1976, three years after this speech was given, and contains three parts: The UDHR, and two covenants based on civil and political rights, and economic, social, and cultural rights.[10]

John Humphrey’s speech at the General Assembly on the 25th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminded government leaders that although human rights have come a long way since the end of the Second World War, violations are still occurring in many areas of the world, and we should not be complacent until human rights are truly shared by all people. As a representative body of the entire world, the General Assembly is responsible for committing to human rights globally, and Humphrey’s speech reaffirms the will of international community to maintain and advance these rights.

[1] (McGill University Archives 1973) Citations are incorrect. See Style Guide on MyCourses. If you want to see your piece on the class blog, please revise and resubmit with correct citations.

[2]  (McGill University Archives 1973)

[3] (Selfstudyhistory 2015)

[4] ( n.d.)

[5] (Encyclopedia Britannica 2015)

[6] (United Nations 2016)

[7] (United Nations 2016)

[8]  (McGill University Archives 1973)

[9]  (McGill University Archives 1973)

[10] (Encyclopedia Britannica 2017)

Laval Conference on Minorities

By Maria Murillo

On March 5, 1985, John Peters Humphrey, original drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and former Law Professor at McGill University, gave a brief speech at the Conference of Minorities held by Université Laval at Chateau Frontenac, in Quebec City.[1] From beginning to end, he expressed his interest in minority rights, especially those of linguistic minorities across Canada. Humphrey began his address in French, expressing his appreciation of the language and acknowledging that as a representative of the Anglophone minority in the province of Quebec, he would continue his speech in his native tongue.

Humphrey continued his address by acknowledging the importance of analyzing and questioning the role that both the state and international law play in the protection of minorities: “in and age when majority rule is apt to be considered the ultimate value, it is well to remember that, as the Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘a country can be judged by the way it treats its minorities’”.[2] His speech essentially goes through a brief review of the absence of international law in what he calls the “positive protection of minorities.”[3] Rather than praising the role of the United Nations Charter, the Universal declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Genocide convention in advocating for and defending the rights of minorities; he was openly critical of their attempt of only preventing discrimination with no other intended actions to actually fully protect minorities’ cultural identities. He believes that advocating only for equality is simply not enough. Also the lack of consensus of what is to be done to protect minority groups, comes from “most if not all states, which did not and do not want to help minorities preserve their cultural identity, but rather assimilate them.”[4] Although article 27 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does mention “the protection of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and the group’s rights to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion or to use their own language”[5] it still does not impose any duty on the states to perform any additional service that would guarantee the protection and survival of diverse cultural identities.

He found this particularly problematic because as he illustrated with a Canadian example, countries have failed to reflect their international obligations in the matter of human rights.[6] Before any amendments were made to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Charter did not include the prohibition of discrimination based on language.[7] In fact, as Humphrey describes, the list only clearly stated discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability.  If it were not for the two first words: “In particular” on article 15 of the Charter, Canadians would be completely unprotected from active discrimination based on linguistic grounds.[8] This and other examples used in this speech illustrated the lack of cooperation between states and international law to come to an agreement on how to best protect the identity and the interests of minorities.

The significance of this speech is of great value especially in today’s political climate. Although Humphrey did refer to the protection of minorities in general and not on any specific category of their identity, his audience was made up of a linguistic minority at a time when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms did not explicitly condemn their discrimination based on language in the province of Quebec. It is important to recognize that language is a key element of ethnicity and culture and that its protection is essential to the survival of cultural identity.[9] Although changes and amendments have been made in both international law and Canadian law[10] Humphrey’s main argument still stands. As long as the protection of cultural identity of minorities is not adequately achieved through the vindication of equality and the prohibition of discrimination,[11] and as long as there are no enforceable obligatory rules to be followed by states in regards to the protection of minorities, the words in the United Nations Charter, and the various conventions and bodies of law criticized by Humphrey are simply just symbolic. This is not to suggest that all of the current international laws condemning discrimination, genocide, etc. are of no use, but rather that there must be some change in the way they are enforced.  Only then will states actually be accountable and will not force the assimilation of certain minorities into the mainstream without facing serious repercussions.

Humphrey often referred to this change as a positive protection of minorities, “that is to say an obligation assumed by the state to provide certain services for the minority, such as minority schools, in order to help it preserve certain characteristics that distinguish it from the majority population or, more simply put, to help the minority preserve its identity.”[12] Although his intentions are good, my understanding from this is that it could perhaps lead to unintentional exclusion of certain groups. I do agree that spaces should be provided, but I would still much rather see respect and tolerance of difference rather than assimilation, or exclusion of a group.

The arguments presented in this speech represent an innovative way of questioning the validity of international law. It makes one realize how the laws sound great on paper, but are they actually being followed and enforced? I believe they are to an extent, however, there is a need for more pressure on establishing clear repercussions if the protections are to ever be violated. I believe this speech is extremely important and can be linked to several news events in the last few months. I choose to focus on the controversial executive order made by US President Donald Trump on the barring immigration entry from seven majority- Muslim countries. It has been thoroughly studied, and it is certain that this order violates several international treaties ratified by the United States, some of which include: the post-World War II Refugee Convention of 1951, as well as the laws present in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which the US is bound and requires state parties to “guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law.”[13] Nevertheless, violations of this sort are not new in the United States. After 9/11 attacks, all the measures taken to fight against terrorism have discriminated based on race, and religion.[14] So despite the controversy of the ban, it is not the first time it has occurred and although there is a lot of condemnation from international leaders, as well as from the United Nations, not much else has been done to solve this violation or past violations. This is where Humphrey’s argument is extremely beneficial to understand the need for these laws to be enforced to actually protect the minority of Muslims living in and immigrating to the United States. Until then we will continue to witness history-repeat-itself.

[1] Humphrey, John Peters. “Laval Conference on Minorities.” Speech, Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City, March 5, 1985. Accessed February 20, 2017. 1-13.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid., 12.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mowbray, Jacqueline. 2006. “Ethnic Minorities and Language Rights: The State, Identity and Culture in International Legal Discourse”. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism. 6 (1): 2-29.

[10] Tavani, Claudia. 2012. “The Protection of the Cultural Identity of Minorities in International Law: Individual versus Collective Rights”. European Yearbook of Minority Issues Online. 9 (1): 84-92.

[11] Ibid., 92.

[12] Humphrey, “Laval Conference on Minorities,” 4.

[13] Dakwar, Jamil. “All international laws Trump’s Muslim ban is breaking.” USA | Al Jazeera. February 02, 2017. Accessed February 22, 2017.

[14] Ibid.

How many angels can dance on the point of a pin?

By Vashti Maia Wyman

In 1984, John Peters Humphrey delivered a speech to a conference held in Moscow, to an audience comprising of members from the Association of Soviet Lawyers (ASL), the American Bar Association (ABA), and his own affiliation, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).[i] The conference was assembled by the ASL to engage in a discussion on human rights internal legislation, judicial procedure, and the use of nuclear armaments.[ii] In this particular speech, Humphrey interrupts a discussion on the legality of nuclear armaments to direct the attention of the conference to a larger issue at play: the counter-productive nature of the discussion itself. Humphrey effectively defends the notion of universal human rights in this speech while logically acknowledging and critiquing its shortcomings from a legal perspective.

It is important here to explicate both the history and the goals of the ICJ, as Humphrey speaks on behalf of this group in his speech. The ICJ is a non-governmental organization founded upon the basis of promoting the application of international law to violations of a “civil, political, social, or economic nature” using the Rule of Law to hold accountable those governments that violate rights in these areas.[iii] Humphrey sat as the Vice-President of the ICJ from 1981 to 1987, working with various organizations around the world to promote this policy.[iv] A part of the group’s mission statement is to ensure that international law effectively protects individuals, particularly the most vulnerable; it is this effectiveness that Humphrey challenges in his speech to the Moscow Conference.[v]

Humphrey begins with the assertion that the arguments of the other speakers, those regarding the legality of nuclear armaments, are unconvincing, as they draw upon treaties that are only binding to certain states that ratified them and are, therefore, not applicable on an international level. Here, Humphrey is bringing into question the difficulty of legislating universal human rights, as the binding law that prescribes them differs from nation to nation. He goes on to reference Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, which states that nothing within the Charter shall impair individual or collective self-defence until the Security Council has taken measures to maintain international peace and security.[vi] Discussions on the grounds of the legality of nuclear armaments would, in Humphrey’s words, “weaken the authority and force of international law” for there can be no effective sanction on laws regarding a force of such destructive capacity.[vii] In this sense, the magnitude and dimension of a nuclear attack on a country would not provide any opportunity for punishment or recourse. Humphrey views the inherent flaw in legalizing nuclear weapons as detrimental to the authority of the international legal system itself, for he states “a legal system which provides no sanctions for its most basic rules is a weak system”.[viii]

To contextualize the debate on nuclear armaments in the Cold War period, one must look to the International Relations scholarship of this time. John Mearsheimer is a prime example of one of the proponents for nuclear armaments who views well-managed nuclear proliferation as a necessary precaution for political stability in a state of international anarchy, where there is no overarching world power and “the system is populated with great powers that have revisionist intentions at their core”.[ix] However, even Mearsheimer and other political theorists had doubts about the reality of well-managed proliferation, for “proliferation in the midst of a crisis would obviously be dangerous, since states in conflict with an emerging nuclear power would then have a powerful incentive to interrupt the process by force”.[x]  Humphrey stood at the other side of this debate, for in his speech he brings forth the notion of disarmament and, he too, references the dangers of international anarchy during a period of such global political turmoil.

Humphrey contends that disarmament, or the control of armaments, is the most urgent problem of that period. The discussion surrounding nuclear armaments simply exacerbates state boundaries and conflicts and, in stabilizing and disarming the world, there would be no need for a discussion of this nature. As a solution, Humphrey proposes a discussion on how to diminish barriers engendered by the current world order rather than simply working within its framework.

A discussion on political security at the height of Cold War security breaching and guerilla warfare is common in this period. However, Humphrey’s final notion of breaking down “cultural, political and other barriers that divide the world” and rather producing different channels of international communication directly contradicts the Cold War era sentiments of enhanced security and nationalism. His values in this speech align with, and indomitably defend, the values of the ICJ. He provides a logical framework that breaks down the flaws of the arguments presented by his peers and effectively propagates the notion of human rights while remaining critical of its faults in the legislative process. Humphrey himself attended the conference with the hope of innovating the structure of international politics and communication for future generations to come. It is this commitment to the universal protection of rights that has propelled the legacy of John Peters Humphrey, for why “continue to debate how many angels can dance on the point of a pin” when the sanctity of human rights is being threatened?

[i] MG 4127 C.18 F.369 – First Draft of Intervention at Moscow Conference 1984, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives

[ii] Tolley, Howard B., Jr. The International Commission of Jurists: Global Advocates 

for Human Rights. Pennsylvania, U of Pennsylvania, 1994. 156

[iii] “Themes” International Commission of Jurists,

[iv] Tolley, Howard B., Jr. The International Commission of Jurists: Global Advocates 

for Human Rights. Pennsylvania, U of Pennsylvania, 1994. 158 (Table 7.2)

[v] “About.” International Commission of Jurists,

[vi] “Chapter VII.” United Nations,

[vii] “First Draft of Intervention at Moscow Conference.” Ibid

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Mearsheimer, J.J. (2001). The tragedy of great power politics. New York: W.W. 16

[x] Mearsheimer, John. “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War.” The Atlantic, Aug.


“The Canadian Charter of Human Rights and International Law”

By Laurie Mercier

On the eve of repatriation in December 1981, John Humphrey delivered a speech entitled “The Canadian Charter of Human Rights and International Law” at the University of Western Ontario. Humphrey welcomed legislative action to protect fundamental human rights with a constitutionally entrenched charter, an initiative he had advocated in favor of for years. To Humphrey, the growth of legislative and executive powers conferred upon government the obligation to prescribe the rights and freedoms of individuals vis-à-vis the state. Moreover, he saw that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom’s binding nature on all governments would create legal uniformity in a diverse federation, providing equal protection under the law to all its subjects.

But the Charter, for all of its alleged brightness, was not without difficulties for Humphrey; its content did not reflect the international human rights standards to which Canada had previously committed.[1]  To Humphrey, the Charter’s omission of any international rights standards created as many questions as it answers. For instance, did the absence of international commitment suggest that, if adopted, governments could evade international rights obligations that were not explicitly stated under the Charter? Besides this more general preposition, Humphrey was concerned that the very text of the Charter, specifically, sections 1, 25 and 33, would recognize right infringement as permissible executive and legislative choices.

The text of section 1 exposes that the Charter is subject “to such reasonable limits prescribed by law” that are not contained in its text, thus pointing to the risk that unwarranted restrictions may be imposed on right bearers. Humphrey’s analysis of this section reveals that its limitation clause violates the United Nations covenant on Civil and Political Rights by which Canada is bound to under international law. Humphrey contended that extraordinary circumstances cannot justify rights infringements because certain rights are so fundamental that they must be respected “even in time of emergency.” The legal ambiguity which plagues the limitations clause was both problematic and unjustified for Humphrey, leading him to question why the Charter did not employ the clear language of the Covenant. Without clear constitutional guidelines for what justifies a limitation, the law’s malleability made him reluctant to vesting his “trust in the reasonableness of any Court.”[2]

Moreover, Humphrey discussed the extraordinary power that section 33 of the Charter delegates to provincial governments. The “notwithstanding clause,” as is has come to be known, grants provincial legislatures the power to override Charter rights guaranteed by sections 2, and 7 to 15, in any act of legislation for a period of 5 years. As Humphrey pointed out, this provision exhibits the same fundamental flaw as does section 1, for they both allow the implausible proposition that fundamental human rights are alienable. With regards to international commitments, Humphrey concluded that the two provisions, as so worded, contradict the standards governing international human rights law.

While the Charter is alleged to protect English and French, Humphrey questions the mysterious omission of language as a “prohibited ground of discrimination.” The distinction between the protection of language and the prohibition to discriminate on its basis is noteworthy. By contrast, the United Nations Charter makes this distinction by purporting the “universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex language or religion.”[3] It is unclear whether the absence of such clarity was specifically intended by the framers of the Charter but either way, the omission is not forgiven by international law standards.

These observations point to a two-fold argument. Firstly, though the Charter does not violate international law per se, it consistently undermines the rationales, assumptions and values that govern the international system. Ultimately, it expresses the fact that the Charter denies international law a permanent place in Canadian jurisdiction. The framer’s reluctance to entrench international standards and adopt broadly defined provisions was not without a reasoned basis. To prescribe the same standards that exist at international law to the Charter would have legally bound Canadian governments to much higher and judicially-enforceable standards of scrutiny. Under the pretext of unforeseeable circumstances, the framers argued that the Charter’s broad language would permit the judiciary to approach its text in a fashion that could accommodate its collective fancy. Nonetheless, the adoption of the Charter in 1982 was done without the consent of indigenous nations and the province of Quebec, revealing the inconsistency between the intentions and the values its framers professed. Humphrey’s message was clear; the standards impartially prescribed at international law are the only ones which can ultimately safeguard us against politically-driven agendas.

Though the Supreme Court has explicitly affirmed Canada’s obligation to comply with international law, these standards, though binding on paper, have been enforced selectively.[4] It is for this reason that Humphrey, with all his legal wisdom, urged us to discover and defend international law to protect us from the fallacy that our fundamental rights can be taken from us. Humphrey’s message in 1981 holds as much significance today as it did then, for its broader message- that we must never stop cautiously protecting democracy- is timeless.

[1] McGill University Archives. MG 4127 C.18 F.369. “The Canadian Charter of Human Rights and International Law.” (Lecture at a meeting sponsored by the Faculty of Education of University of Western Ontario). December 8, 1981, p. 8.

[2] Ibid, p. 7.

[3] Ibid.

[4] R. v. Hape [2007] 2 S.C.R. 292, para. 53.

“Welcome to Ethical Culture.”

By Kenzia Araujo

On December 10th, 1995 John Peter Humphrey was invited to New York City to speak alongside Mrs. Roosevelt and Mr. Roger Baldwin to The Society for Ethical Culture on his platform as a servant of the international community. In his speech, Humphrey outlines the human rights program of the United Nations and discusses the main problems within the Declaration of Human Rights and proposes solutions to these issues moving forward. Humphrey defines the Human Rights program of the United Nations as an all-encompassing program. He describes it as touching upon almost every aspect of the work and activities of the United Nations. Since the United Nations was established to implement human rights, freedom from fear, war and economic insecurities it follows therefore, that even the highly political activities of the organization are also in a way part of the human rights program. Therefore, the human rights program is a vast program with unique purposes and activities under the United Nations as a whole.

Humphrey explains that although there has been progress within the realm of human rights there are still two areas in particular where the project needs improvement; discrimination and slavery. It is clearly outlined in the Charter of the United Nations that there will be no discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, language or religion. And although there was a treaty set up in 1919 for the protection of certain national minorities. The system completely broke down after Nazi Germany came to power and began exploiting certain minorities. The fact of the matter is, that the United Nations has done very little in connection to this problem and although the protection of minorities is within the terms of intervention, little action has been done. Especially when it comes to the minority of the ‘stateless person’, which is defined as people who have no nationality and are without protection from the government. Furthermore, Humphrey also emphasizes how slavery still exists but has simply morphed into a different meaning. Although slavery has been abolished in the formal sense of the word it still exists within a different connotation in certain parts of the world since there are certain practices involving servitude which are more or less different branches of slavery.

Although Humphrey outlines specific human rights violations as an important aspect in trying to move forward the real point he is trying to emphasize is the way in which the program relates to the definition of human rights as well as establishing some type of international system to protect and implement these rights. The charter of the organization claims that one of its main principles is too achieve international cooperation by promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and the fundamental freedom for all, without distinctions of race, sex, language or religion. In theory, this is a huge step forward but in practice defining what these right truly are has been poorly done. Humphrey argues that the task of defining these rights has largely been done through the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In his speech, Humphrey also makes a point about power and authority in the international community, a point which still persists today. International law can be tricky when dealing with authority since states are sovereign. Most argue that the declaration had no legal authority but still possesses tremendous moral and political authority. Humphrey extends this argument further by explaining that the declaration is gradually acquiring the force of international customary law. National legislation has already been inspired by the Human Rights Declaration and it’s even been invoked in the court of law. Furthermore, resolution have been adopted by the general assembly in important matters in which the declaration has been used as citation of conduct on the same footing as the charter itself, allowing for principles to be replicated in international treaties.

Humphrey’s audience is The New York Society for Ethical Culture which was founded in 1876 by Dr. Felix Adler and is at the cornerstone of the Ethical Movement. Members of the society believe in Ethical Culture which is a fellowship based upon a philosophy of life, emphasizing education, growth, and social service with the purpose of helping people live better lives. The mission of Ethical Culture is to encourage respect for humanity and nature and to create a better world. Members are committed to personal ethical development in their relationship with others and in activities involving social justice. Keeping this in mind, Humphrey’s speech was perfectly tailored to his audience since he is speaking of human rights having an entrenched nature to them. Members of the Ethical culture society believe that individuals have inherent worth and dignity which goes perfectly with the overall tone of Humphrey’s speech.

Humphrey concludes his speech by mentioning two systems that may be put in place to further protect human rights in the international world. The first system would be the creation of a human rights committee that would be elected by the international court of justice on the recommendation of state parties to be covenants. This system would act as a way to investigate complaints made by ratifying states alleging violation of the covenants by other ratifying states, ultimately acting as a state-to-state complaining system. The second option would be a reporting procedure where ratifying states would report to the United Nations on their progress towards the realization of their rights. This system would act as a supplementary method of implementation because an opportunity would be provided during the discussion of these reports to consider the situation in the different ratifying countries. This system would also allow for some measure of control within various countries.

An Introduction to Two Canadian Contributors of International Human Rights

By June Gleed

Throughout his successful career in the fields of international law and human rights, John Peters Humphrey was able to deliver hundreds of compelling speeches around the globe. This particular speech was given at his alma mater, McGill University, at the Convocation in which Ronald St. John Macdonald received an honourary degree on 7 June 1988. This speech given by John Peters Humphrey offers historians a look at two renowned Canadian lawyers who advocated for human rights internationally in the post-war period. Humphrey, the one delivering the speech on Ronald St. John Macdonald, offers insight into the way that human rights are perceived both in Canada and abroad from 1948 to when he delivers the speech in 1988. In his speech introducing Macdonald at the convocation, Humphrey proves how Macdonald was both a great Canadian citizen and a civis mundis.

In his speech, Humphrey is presenting Ronald St. John Macdonald his honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. Macdonald was an international jurist who worked on multiple human rights programs throughout the world. A Montreal native born on 20 August 1928, Macdonald obtained degrees from “St. Francis Xavier University (BA, 1949), Dalhousie (LLB, 1952), London and Harvard (LLM, 1954-55)” in addition to his honorary degrees from “McGill, Dalhousie University and Carleton University”[1]. At the time that this speech was given, “Macdonald [was] the only non-European sitting on the European Court of Human Rights, despite the fact that Canada [was] not a party member to the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”[2]. Macdonald also became an Officer of the Order of Canada and Queen’s Counsel for his work in 1984[3]. The recognition of his contributions to the field of international law and human rights was fittingly delivered by John Humphrey, another Canadian who passionately advocated for human rights during the same period. Humphrey was both a previous colleague of Macdonald at the United Nations and co-author of their book ‘The Practice of freedom: Canadian essays on human rights and fundamental freedoms’. At the time of delivery, John Humphrey was retired from the UN Human Rights Secretariat for over twenty years and was a professor of law at McGill University. Humphrey notes that while he could continue the long list of notable achievements that Macdonald had accomplished in the field, he was “told not to read out a curriculum vitae” by his superiors at the University[4].

After declaring Professor Macdonald as a great Canadian citizen and a civis mundi (citizen of the world), he speaks of how he met Macdonal in 1965 when they were both part of the Canadian delegation to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Humphrey was the officer in charge of the World Organization’s human rights program. In light of their previous relationship working together at the United Nations, and that they were both internationally known in the field of international law, it comes as no surprise to historians that it was Humphrey who introduced Macdonald for his honorary degree. While it is not clear whether this convocation was just for the honorary degree of Macdonald, or other graduates from the law program of 1988, it can be inferred that the audience would have been other faculty from McGill. The introduction of Macdonald by Humphrey would act as the precursor to either Macdonald’s own speech or the delivery of his honorary degree.

Humphrey offers the argument that the change in Canada’s public attitude towards human rights from 1948 to 1965 can be attributed in part to the work that Macdonald had done. Humphrey notes that during the twenty years spanning from the 1946 to the 1946 while he personally was in charge of the World Organization’s human rights program, that “Canada had given it little support”. He cites the example of Canada abstaining “along with all the communist countries” in a key vote in 1948 on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[5]. This offers historians a significant perspective to see how Canada has evolved with their adoption of human rights from 1948 to 1965, and from 1965 to present. During this period when Humphrey was in charge, Macdonald was a member of the Canadian delegation to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Humphrey says that he always believed that Macdonald had a role in transforming Canada’s approach towards these human rights declarations to be more accepting. To this point, he argued that Canadians should thank Macdonald and that he is truly a great Canadian.

Humphrey’s second argument regarding Macdonald was that he is a civis mundis. He was able to adapt and contribute to the European Court of Human Rights, despite not being a European himself. The point that Humphrey makes about Macdonald is that he had a significant role in not only shaping the adoption and enforcement of human rights in Canada but also abroad. From this it can be inferred that the voice of human rights that Macdonald brought to the table was international in scope. Humphrey adds his personal belief that “there is a close relationship between respect for human rights and the peace of nations”. He seems to imply that Macdonald fulfills both of those conditions, thus he is a civis mundi.

John Humphrey’s short introduction of Ronald Macdonald at the McGill convocation offers a clear picture of what Macdonald had achieved. He outlines that he had helped make the advancement of human rights in Canada and abroad. The speech possesses an air of admiration and appreciation for Macdonald. This is expressed in the way in which Humphrey shows the evolution of attitudes towards human rights coming from the Canadian Government. In summary, Humphrey is giving a salute to Macdonald for his work in bringing Canada to the forefront of the human rights discussions by being a remarkable ambassador to Canada in all the works he has done.

[1]Historica Canada. “Ronald St.John Macdonald”. Accessed February 20, 2015.

[2] “Convocation McGill University, June 7 1988”.  MG 4127 C.18 F.365. McGill University Archives.

[3]Historica Canada. “Ronald St.John Macdonald”. Accessed February 20, 2015.

[4]  “Convocation McGill University, June 7 1988”.  MG 4127 C.18 F.365. McGill University Archives.

[5]  Ibid.

“The Socrates Appeal”

By Julian Bonello-Stauch

For the assignment on John Peters Humphrey this blog piece will cover the speech entitled “The Socrates Appeal”. In order to accurately contextualize the speech the five W-questions will be answered. The argument that will be put forward is that this speech is significant because of the lessons it teaches us about the importance of rights and the necessary components of a truly just trial system.


John Peters Humphrey delivered this speech to an unknown audience, though presumably one not familiar with the trial and execution of Socrates to the extent that Humphrey believed was necessary (perhaps they were law students of his?).


In 399 B.C. after a period of civil unrest Socrates ran afoul of the political establishment. Before diving into the details of the trial, some background information is necessary. In 411 B.C. Athens was defeated and its democracy replaced “by the four-month reign of the four hundred” (Humphrey, 1). In 404 B.C. a similar uprising overthrew Athenian democracy, this time for eight months, by a group known as the 30 tyrants (21). In 401 B.C. another attempt was put down before any actual resistance had begun.

The charges against Socrates had been brought by three accusers, one of whom was Anytus, and the trial was presided over by a jury of 500 citizens. This jury was selected by lot and tasked with determining Socrates’ guilt or innocence and, if guilty, the penalty (2). Unlike contemporary juries unanimity was not required and jurors were instructed only “to vote according to the laws where there are laws, and where there is not, to vote as justly as in us lies” (3).

Before the trial, individuals, analogous to modern lawyers, would help prepare the speeches of the two parties and would provide advice (Socrates rejected this legal aid). Once the trial started the prosecution would speak first and then the accused, Socrates, would offer a reply. The jury would then hold a public vote on their belief in the guilt or innocence of the accused. A conviction would require 50% + 1 guilty votes. If an individual was convicted, they and their accuser would both suggest a penalty which the jury would vote on (3).

The specific charges Socrates was accused of were “corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in deities of his own invention instead of the gods recognized by the state” (4). According to Humphrey, there was no specific law which prohibited this conduct. Furthermore, when referring to Stone, Humphrey notes that fourth-century B.C. cases employed the practice of citing the specific text of the law under which the accused was charged (4). This means that if there was a specific law that Socrates violated he had the legal right to know (5). However, Humphrey does not believe this to be the case and rather that Socrates was tasked with proving he was not impious and that he did not corrupt the youth (5).

Impiety was not considered atheism as understood today, it was not believing in the official Athenian religion/gods (5). The evidence of Socrates’ impiety as believed by Stone was in Socrates’ disrespect for the gods Hephaestus and Peitho (6). Humphrey takes issue with this sort of law as it criminalizes a person’s inherent beliefs, something he thinks is impossible to know and wrong to criminalize (7).

As for the charge of corrupting the youth this is a charge which, in Humphrey’s view, violates freedom of speech (7). This should not have been as freedom of speech was something enjoyed by citizens of Athens (9). As Humphrey argues “the nature of democratic… government is such that it will not survive in the absence of the relatively free circulation of information and the right of access of every citizen who is comprehended in the structure of government to speak directly with the governing officers of the state (10). While it is true that Socrates had much complained about democracy he had not been charged with acts of sedition against the state (11). Furthermore, those youth he had “corrupted” had willingly come to his side to hear him speak.

In the end the jury voted 280 to 220 to find Socrates guilty, and a bigger majority was had in the vote issuing him the death penalty. This was unwanted by the prosecutors as they apparently had only aimed to force Socrates to leave Athens (12).

Humphrey then turns to the structure of the trial itself and remarks how it is perhaps best not to compare it with modern criminal proceedings (14). This is seen in how the prosecutors are private citizens, there is no formal place for evidence or witnesses in the proceedings,  jurors are not expected to be impartial, there is no judge, the jury does not need reach consensus, and there is no principle of beyond reasonable doubt (15-16). There more similar parallel would be arbitration (16).

Humphrey concludes by asserting “the charges were brought and the conviction sustained because [Socrates] was seen as a continuing threat to the democratic power structure of Athens” (19). Socrates’ impiety cannot be proven and he had not corrupted the youth. The jury ruled the way they did because of biased and rumours about a fanatical teacher trying to challenge the political foundation of Athens. Thus, they did what they did to eliminate what they viewed as a public enemy. Something they thought to be necessary considering the recent tyrannies (20).


The exact date is not provided. However, references to The Trial of Socrates are provided, so one can conclude that this speech was given in between the publishing of The Trial of Socrates (1988) and Humphrey’s death (1995). During this period Humphrey was teaching part-time at McGill, which may support the musing of mine that this was a lecture given to students.


The location of this speech is not provided, but I believe at McGill.


I cannot offer a definite answer to this question as one is not provided, but I do have a possible explanation. I believe this speech is a lecture that Humphrey gave to a law class of his for the purpose of educating his students about Socrates, rights and judicial systems.

I think the lesson about rights is especially significant. Humphrey first raises the issues of freedom of belief and speech on page 7. On the charge of impiety Humphrey writes that this is a problematic charge as it is impossible to truly know what an individual believes or disbelieves. It is also wrong to prosecute them for such because beliefs by themselves are harmless and it is impossible to force someone to believe something. Humphrey also notes that the charge of corrupting the youth is a violation of Socrates’ freedom of expression. The problem with this, Humphrey tells us, is that freedom of speech is a necessary component of democracy. This is because “to inhibit any form of speech… is to threaten… the survival of the freedom of every citizen.”

Humphrey also makes some important comments about proper judicial proceedings. The first component which he talks about is the involvement of the state in criminal law. He also stresses the need for a system to incorporate evidence and witnesses in trials. Next, Humphrey identifies the biggest issue with this trial in how it departs from the ideal; this is the bias of the jury which is antithetical to the belief in impartial tribunals. Finally, an impartial and knowledgeable judge is needed to preside over trials and direct the jury in their duties.

If these rights are not protected or these components of proper judicial systems not had then this will result in miscarriages of justice such as the trial of Socrates.

Humphrey’s speech to the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities

By James Flanagan

Humphrey’s speech to the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in August 1992 reveals his understanding of the moral responsibilities of the UN. Exploring the time in which it was written and the issue to which the speech is addressed, the criticisms Humphrey directs towards the Sub-Commission  reveal his belief that the UN is responsible for recognizing all cases of human rights violations. He stands by the principle that no humans rights abuses should be forgotten, even if the erasure of certain instances of human rights violations may be convenient for certain states. As such, Humphrey’s speech suggests that he saw the UN as being responsible for recognizing all human rights violations, no matter the political consequences.

Japan at the time of Humphrey’s speech bore little resemblance to the Japan of the Second World War. By 1992 it had become a strong economic and military ally with Western states, notably the United States. Nearly 50 years before Humphrey’s speech Japan had allied with Nazi Germany during the Second World War, and was responsible for gross human rights violations in its treatment of captured soldiers of the allied forces. The states making up the allied forces, United States, Britain, and others, would become close allies with Japan by 1992. The shift in Japan’s alliances from the Second World War to August of 1992 left the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in an awkward position when deciding whether or not to address Japanese treatment of prisoners of war. During the Second World War one in three of the 140,000 allied prisoners of war died from starvation, work, punishment, or disease within Japanese prisoner of war camps.[1] Given that the world of state alliances had changed drastically since the Second World War, the convenience of historical amnesia for contemporary circumstances suggests that the Sub-Committee felt uncomfortable addressing human rights abuses suffered half a century ago. Perhaps the Sub-Commission was aware that bad publicity arising from a human rights investigation into Japanese prisoner of war camps could tip an already tense relationship between Japan and the United States over the edge. It seems as though the Subcommission felt that damaging Japan-US relations to deliver justice to victims of whom many had already passed away would cause more trouble than good.

It is within this context that the Sub-Commission failed to issue a petition to the Commission on Human Rights related to Japanese treatment of allied prisoners of war. Renamed “The United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights” in 1999, the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities acted as the main subsidiary body of the former Commission on Human Rights. It was tasked to undertake studies on human rights issues and make recommendations concerning the prevention of discrimination of any kind relating to human rights and fundamental freedoms and the protection of racial, national, religious and linguistic minorities.[2] Humphrey notes in his speech that the Sub-Commission failed to issue a petition urging the Human Rights Commission to recognize Japanese human rights abuses because they did not have the power to deal with any matter relating to the Second World War, a justification seen by Humphrey as “pure nonsense” considering the fact that the war “provided the catalyst to which we owe the new world law of human rights.”[3] He criticizes the Sub-Commission’s decision in reference to Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution 1503, a procedural mechanism that empowers the Sub-Commission to refer “particular situations which appear to reveal a consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights” to the Commission on Human Rights, arguing that the Japanese treatment of prisoners of war uncontroversially represented “consistent pattern of gross…violations of human rights.”[4]

Humphrey considers the Sub-Commission’s failure to issue the petition as having “weakened” resolution 1503.[5] It would be misleading to infer that Humphrey’s view of 1503 as “one of the most useful international mechanisms for the implementation of human rights and fundamental freedoms” means that resolution 1503 was weakened in its functionality, as its content was neither threatened nor altered, only ignored. What Humphrey means, then, is that the unwillingness of the Sub-Commission to adhere to resolution 1503 is an attack on the principles that underlie it. The Sub-Commission’s refusal to implement resolution 1503 suggests that they saw the resolution as being restricted in its scope. They therefore figured it was reasonable to ignore their responsibilities under resolution 1503 if the human rights violation had occurred during the Second World War. Yet as one of the people who “drafted the Sub-Commission’s resolution that became the basis for what was done by the Economic and Social council” Humphrey insists that “neither I nor my colleagues in the Sub-Commission” wished “to impose any restrictions on what soon became resolution 1503.”[6] As such, that Humphrey understands resolution 1503 as being unrestricted in its applicability to all human rights violations hints at his philosophy regarding the responsibility of the UN.

It seems, then, that Humphrey’s condemnation of the Sub-Committee for ignoring human rights violations in Japan shows that he believes the UN ought to recognize all cases of human rights violations no matter the political consequences. Even though the case in question had occurred almost 50 years prior, Humphrey argues fiercely that it should still be investigated, because not doing so would “challenge the very heart and basis of the new world law of human rights.”[7] It follows that Humphrey believes the heart of human rights to be the unconditional recognition of all human rights abuses. Humphrey’s concern at the weakening of resolution 1503, therefore, is in reference to the weakening of its fundamental principle. And so, Humphrey’s rhetorical question as to whether the Sub-Commission “will go down in history as having weakened” resolution 1503 reveals deeply held visions of the responsibility of the UN to uphold the principles of justice and truth no matter the inconvenience of doing so.

[1] Kozak, Warren. “World War Two – Japanese Prisoner of War Camps.” History on the Net. June 08, 2014. Accessed February 23, 2017.

[2] “Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.” Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. Accessed February 23, 2017.

[3] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 – United Nations Speech, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 1.

[4] “Economic and Social Council Resolution 1503 (XLVIII), 48 U.N. ESCOR (No. 1A) at 8, U.N. Doc. E/4832/Add.1 (1970).” University of Minnesota Human Rights Library. Accessed February 23, 2017.

[5] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 – United Nations Speech, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 2.

[6] Ibid, 2.

[7] Ibid.

In Defence of Florence

By Jacob Webster

Convocation speeches vary from the insightful to the mundane and across the spectrum between those two poles. John Peters Humphrey used his convocation address on June 9th, 1976 at McGill University to tackle notions of excellence, Canadian nationalism, and universality. In this speech Humphrey describes the threat that Canadian nationalism presents toward excellence and argues against isolationist cultural policies in a way that is increasingly significant for contemporary discussions about culture and media.

The atmosphere of a university convocation will be familiar to most in society whether they have an academic background or not. It is an event celebrating the academic achievements of university students from undergraduates to newly conferred PhD recipients. John Peters Humphrey was invited to deliver the 1976 convocation address to students, faculty, staff, graduates, and friends of McGill University and used this opportunity to unpack the compatibility between excellence and nascent understandings of Canadian nationalism.

The convocation address mounted a defence of excellence in all forms.[1]  Humphrey positioned laws that mandate the protection and proliferation of Canadian cultural content as an important threat to excellence in Canadian culture and society. He envisioned excellence as important in all domains within society from plumbing to philosophy, and credited equality of opportunity as the right that makes the realization of excellence possible.[2] Unlike equality of opportunity, Nationalism inhibits the embrace of universal excellence in Humphrey’s assessment.

In attacking Canadian nationalism, Humphrey delivers an invective against Canadian content regulations that is increasingly prescient in the current media and cultural landscape. By arguing that Canadian content regulations promote mediocrity and limit freedom, Humphrey attacks efforts to preserve Canadian culture and support Canadian talent simply based on their national origin. These protectionist policies, Humphrey argues, “can only result in national mediocrity and possibly worse.”[3] He invokes Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the right to access information regardless of national borders, in justifying his opposition to isolationist cultural policy.[4] Not only does Humphrey make a utilitarian argument that Canadians will be exposed to better information when Canadian culture is not supported solely based on its Canadian-ness, he makes a rights-based argument emphasizing equality of opportunity and the free flow of ideas across borders. This multi-pronged attack on content regulations shakes the foundation of policies meant to promote Canadian nationalism.

In ridiculing Canadian efforts to protect cultural material based solely on their degree of Canadianness, Humphrey provides an alternative. In an appeal to history Humphrey exhorts Canadians to follow the Florentine model of the 14th and 15th Centuries. By the Florentine model Humphrey encourages an embrace of excellence regardless of its national origin. Instead of insulating themselves in their Tuscan traditions, denizens of Florence embraced and sought out excellence, and in doing so proliferated ideas that led to global advancement. In dichotomizing the Florentine openness to the more insular and nationalistic concept of national content protection, Humphrey provides an interesting binary that is relevant to current discussions surrounding Canadian media and culture.

Humphrey’s critique of Canadian content regulations is increasingly salient because it went against the prevailing zeitgeist of his time. The 1960s and ‘70s were a tumultuous time for Canadian nationalism. With the growing influence of the United States on Canadian society and culture, many Canadians were unsure how to protect and foster Canadian talent in media and the arts. This fear led to the creation of the Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC) that was designed to “safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada.”[5] The mission of the CRTC was supported by important Canadian intellectuals like George Grant and Walter Gordon as well as everyday Canadians.[6] Given the broadly constituted support for Canadian content regulations in all echelons of Canadian society Humphrey’s critique was rather anomalous.

Despite the regulations, fears of losing Canadian content have not dissipated. Given the increasing difficulty of policing content in the digital age and a recent report published by the Public Policy Forum Humphrey’s critique is increasingly prescient. For traditional media like television and radio, enforcing Canadian content was relatively straight forward. If stations did not conform to CRTC standards the Commission could revoke their license to broadcast.[7] However, with the ubiquity of content on the internet and the practical impossibility of regulating internet domains and social media the CRTC is at a crossroads. Not only, as Humphrey suggests, are content regulations potentially harmful to excellent content but they may be impossible to enforce in the digital ecosystem. The CRTC acknowledges this fact in stating, “The control of access as a means of guaranteeing the supply of Canadian content is becoming outdated.”[8]

Furthermore, Canadian media is in a time of crisis. In a recent report published by the non-partisan Public Policy Forum entitled “The Shattered Mirror” they detail the dire state of Canadian media organizations, notably so-called “legacy media” institutions like the Globe and Mail and Postmedia. The Report suggests policy solutions that would protect Canadian media in the advent of a digital age that is dominated by foreign media sources. Specifically, the report recommends eliminating tax deductions for foreign owned companies and news entities in an effort to insulate Canadian legacy media institutions from foreign owned companies like Google, Facebook, and the New York Times.[9] It also proposes imposing increased taxes on news media subscriptions that do not meet Canadian content regulations.[10] The capital generated from these programs would go to support Canadian media outlets in an attempt to preserve Canadian content in the news media landscape.[11] The report was written by former Editor-in-Chief of The Globe and Mail Ed Greenspon.[12] The recommendations of this report are a proposal to institute Canadian content regulations that fit the present evolving digital ecosystem. They represent an attempt to bolster the position of long-standing Canadian media institutions by penalizing foreign news sources. These policy recommendations are antithetical to Humphrey’s exhortation to embrace excellence rather than protect mediocrity simply because of its national origin. They contravene the principle of equality of opportunity, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Humphrey’s call to embrace the global proliferation of excellence regardless of national origin.

Digital media provides an unparalleled platform for the global transmission of ideas and information. It makes Humphrey’s Florentine model increasingly possible. Given this incredible tool that allows the dissemination of information and journalism around the world, should the Canadian government support Canadianness or excellence? Based on the rhetoric of Humphrey’s speech it is clear which side of the debate he would come down on. Humphrey’s critique of Canadian cultural protectionism deserves re-examination. The dilemma that Humphrey elucidated in 1976 remains contentious today and his recommendations provide a model by which Canadians can pursue excellence in the digital age.

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.370 – Graduation Speech (June 9, 1976), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives. 2.

[2] Ibid 4.

[3] Ibid. 9.

[4] Ibid 11.

[5] “Canadian Broadcasting Policy, 6 August 2014”, Background Paper No. 2011-39-E

[6] Ryan Edwardson, “Canadian Content : Culture and the Quest for Nationhood,”  (2008). 144

[7] “Canadian Broadcasting Policy, 6 August 2014”, Background Paper No. 2011-39-E

8 “Canadian Broadcasting Policy, 6 August 2014”, Background Paper No. 2011-39-E

[9] Bruce Campion-Smith and Alex Ballingall, “Media Cuts Are a Threat to Canadian Democracy, New Report Warns,” Toronto Star 2017.

[10] Daniel LeBlanc, “Canada’s Media Industry Needs Major Federal Cash Injection: Report,” The Globe and Mail 2017.

[11] ibid

[12] Ballingall.

Freedom and Diversity: Addressing the Future of Canada

By Gina Fung

John Peters Humphrey’s speech “Freedom and Diversity” delivered to St. Thomas University’s 1971 Convocation argues for embracing diversity as a way to distinguish and solidify the Canadian identity as a nation state. Throughout the speech, Humphrey emphasizes French and English tensions, American cultural hegemony, and historical examples of the fall of states. These are all framed in ways that the audience, made up primarily of recent university graduates and academics, can best understand and relate to. Humphrey’s speech was a response to the “present national crisis”[1] and also invoked ideas of what the Canadian state should strive towards.

The rise of Québec nationalism, which stems from historical tensions between English and French traditions, is the initial example Humphrey uses to discuss the divisions of the country at the time. The first specific example he brings up is the October Crisis, in short, a recent event that occurred in Québec the previous year when the separatist group, the Front de Libération du Québec, kidnapped British trade commission James Cross and the minister of labour Pierre Laporte.[2] The crisis sparked questions about Canadian unity. This reference is used by Humphrey to demonstrate and remind the audience of the current existing and ongoing divisions in the country. He remedies this fear by immediately referring to the 1969 Official Languages Act, where both the English and French language are recognized as official languages with equal status in Canada. Humphrey is able to frame these legislative act as the “increasing recognition of the rights of francophones in this Province of New Brunswick”[3], attempting to communicate how the state has made efforts to recognize the need for Francophone rights through institutional processes.

It is understandable why Humphrey would want to address the increased recognition of Francophone rights, given that New Brunswick had a 38% French speaking minority population at the time.[4] With the increasing attention and rise of the Québec nationalist movement, areas in the country with Francophone minority populations could potentially start their own movements based on similar sentiments regarding their marginalized status from mainstream Canadian society. Additionally, being originally from New Brunswick, Humphrey legitimizes his authority and is able to relate to the audience in this way. By framing the Official Languages Act as something that celebrates the diversity of the Canadian population, Humphrey is better able to argue the idea of bringing a divided nation together as an “ideal and a formula for survival”[5].

Later in the speech, Humphrey mentions the threat of the “cultural pull of over two hundred million Americans”[6], further promoting the importance of having a unified country. Concerns regarding the amount of American influence over Canadian sovereignty originated post World War II, due to recognition of the geographical proximity and America’s new position as a global power. According to Humphrey, the way to face American cultural hegemony, which he paints as an ominous force, would be to combat it with an united front and a full embrace of the cultures and diversity from the “two great traditions”[7] to ensure the continued existence of Canadian independence. This would unite the French and English together in opposition to a greater force, instead of sowing conflict towards one anotther.

The images that Humphrey illustrates as to what could potentially happen to the Canadian state if diversity, as defined as the intermediary powers or in a sociological sense ethnic or cultural groups is eliminated,[8] are drawn from historical events. The first case he highlights is how Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich destroyed the intermediary links between the state and the people, suggesting the concept that Canada’s future could become akin to that fascist state. A contemporary example he gives is Mao Zedong’s communist party in China, which also governed without the presence of intermediary groups, resulting in an authoritarian direct bureaucracy. Both examples are used to evoke powerful emotions and pictures to  encourage the audience to imagine the future of Canada if divisions between groups were to continue. He specifically chooses examples that are authoritarian systems to capitalize on the anti-authoritarian sentiments at the time. The first example raises post World War II anti-fascist sentiments for the older generations in the audience, and the second is current to the younger generations because it aligns with the Cold War context fight against communism. Overall, he sees the democratic state as a uniting factor for the country, which can be understood in the context of the Cold War especially when he states that “freedom of association is cherished in a democracy.”[9]

Humphrey argues for the solidification of a Canadian identity that is distinct and secure from both internal and external forces looking to divide the country. Although the essential argument that Humphrey leaves the audience with is Lord Acton’s maxim on how “liberty provokes diversity and diversity preserves liberty”[10], it is important to question and identify what he means by “diversity”. The speech served as an important medium for the message of acceptance between French and English tensions at the time. However, the concept of diversity that is brought up in this speech is limited in that it only addresses the groups of the French and English without addressing the existence of the various additional groups in Canada.

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.371 – Convocation Address: Freedom and Diversity (1971), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 2.

[2] William Tetley, “Introduction,” in October Crisis, 1970: An Insider’s View, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), xvi.

[3] Humphrey, Convocation Address: Freedom and Diversity (1971), 3.

[4] Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Volume IV (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1970), 254.

[5] Humphrey, Convocation Address: Freedom and Diversity (1971), 4.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Ibid., 4.

[9] Ibid., 5.

[10] Ibid., 9.

John Peters Humphrey Blog Contribution: Nationalism, Freedom and Social Justice in Humphrey’s Dalhousie Convocation Speech

By Erin Grant

John Peters Humphrey is celebrated both in Canada and internationally for his contributions to the protection of human rights.  As a lawyer and diplomat, Humphrey not only helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), but also served as the director of the United Nations Human Rights Division from 1946 to 1966.[1] Throughout his career, he received numerous accolades including the United Nations Prize for human rights advocacy (1988), the Order of Canada (1974), as well as the honor of having a rights and democracy award named after him.[2]

On May 16, 1975, Humphrey received an honorary doctor of laws from Dalhousie University. [3] While the degree might not have been the most eminent of the awards he has accumulated, I think he would have felt greatly honoured by it, specifically since he was asked by the Dalhousie president, Henry D. Hicks, to give a speech at the general convocation ceremony that same afternoon.[4][5]

Humphrey chose to “…talk about nationalism about freedom and about social justice”.[6] These subjects were relevant to all members of the audience, including the Chancellor and President of Dalhousie, students and guests, but most specifically to the graduates who represented the new generation and hope for the future.[7] President Hicks likewise emphasized this hope for the new generation when he wrote in the 1975 yearbook  “…that in the years ahead [he hoped] we may hear well of you whether your field of activity is one that draws public attention or whether you contribute quietly and steadfastly in some way to the welfare and happiness of your fellows”.[8]

In his speech, Humphrey argued that nationalism does not inherently guarantee freedom, but can instead create conflict such as “war…and the denial of human rights”.[9] It is an argument that contradicts the “Much greater men than [himself]” who have argued for the power of nationalism to create freedom.[10] Nonetheless, Humphrey’s position is not unique.  After all, the Victorian scholar and historian, Lord Acton[11] also argued that “real freedom is more apt to exist in states made up of minorities whose loyalties are divided between the state and an ethnic, cultural religious or linguistic group” than in the “national state”.[12] I argue that Humphrey’s speech is innovative because it recognizes that nationalism is not a historical problem, but remains a threat which continues to evolve and spread across the world. His speech emphasizes the need for citizens to remain informed about historic events and past mistakes and to be wary of any inclination to over-idealize their nation, in order to avoid the pitfalls of nationalism.

Humphrey compares nationalism to an “epidemic”,[13] and vividly describes how it engenders “the dragon seeds of war and…new challenges to freedom” which threaten society.[14] In listing the volatile consequences of nationalism, he emphasizes the vast historic scope of the problem which spans from eighteenth century France’s Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic wars, to the contemporary threat posed by China’s and the Soviet Union’s socialist-nationalism in the 1970s.[15] He attributes nationalism to be the “immediate, if not-ultimate, cause” of several negative phenomena of the past including: both World Wars, National Socialism in Germany and the breakup of the League of Nations.[16] By listing this catalogue of horrific events, Humphrey emphasizes how nationalism is a problem which transcends time; he warns that people must be mindful of past mistakes to avoid repeating them.

Humphrey himself admits that he is “something of a nationalist [and that he] lov[es] [his] country”[17], but nonetheless recognizes  the danger of over-idealizing one’s country and in sacrificing human rights to further  Canadian nationalism.[18]  He warns that “…even in a country so favoured as Canada (where the cry has usually been that nationalism is not strong enough) we should be weighing our priorities”.[19]  When Humphrey delivered the convocation speech at Dalhousie, he was seventy-years old, had been retired from his work at the UN for nine years and had returned to Canada to teach law at McGill University.[20]  He recognized that his work in the UN allowed him to “observe what was happening in the world”,[21] and helped him to develop a more distanced view of his home country and a less biased view of its flaws.  While he praised Canada for being “multi-national, multi-cultural and bi-lingual”,[22] he nonetheless recognized that Canada had developed a destructive nationalism which was leading Canadians to become “…more self-centered and more parochial in their attitude toward other countries and cultures”.[23] He cautioned that a nationalist agenda which sacrificed civil and political rights for economic and social rights would not only fracture the country, but damage relations with other nations.[24]  Thus, he advocated for an outlook that would be a balance between internationalism and nationalism,[25] as well as among economic, social, civil and political rights.[26]

Although John Peters Humphrey’s convocation speech was written in 1975 for an audience of university graduates and their guests, it remains relevant to this day, forty-two years later. In 2016 the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union, a decision which appeared to be motivated by the type of nationalism which Humphrey described as “self-centered and… parochial in their attitude toward other countries and cultures”.[27][28] The British public chose to fracture international relations because they believed they would benefit economically if they separated from the EU, showing that they prioritized their economic rights over political relations.[29] Further, many were tempted to leave the EU due to the promise of limitations on immigration,[30] which suggests that the UK was fostering a “national and cultural identity” which sought to exclude minority groups and their rights.[31] In view of recent events, it might seem that Humphrey’s words could not solve the problematic aspects of nationalism in the world. However, I argue that while he does not provide an immediate solution, he nonetheless raises concerns about the negative effects of nationalism and raises hope for a solution.  As Humphrey famously said, “I have enough sense to realize that I can’t step out of McGill and by the aid of a few clever words or acts [create change] …[but that] Success, if it comes, will be slow and after many set backs, but it will come…”.[32]

[1] Laura Neilson Bonikowsky and William Kaplan, 2011, John Peters Humphrey, The Canadian

Encyclopedia (accessed February 19, 2017).

[2] Ibid

[3] MG 4127 C.18 F.370/371 – Speech to the General Convocation: Dalhousie University (1975),

John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives,1.

[4] Ibid

[5] Dalhousie University, Pharos: Dalhousie University Yearbook 1975, (Graduating Class of 1975),

Dalhousie University Archives and Special Collections, Dalhousie University, pg. 5, Killam Memorial Library. Did you access this online? If yes, please provide the date of access.

[6] “Speech to the General Convocation: Dalhousie University”, 1.

[7] Ibid

[8] Dalhousie University, Pharos: Dalhousie University Yearbook 1975,5.

[9] “Speech to the General Convocation: Dalhousie University”,3.

[10] Ibid.,1-2.

[11] Roland Hill, Lord Acton, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, 20.

[12] “Speech to the General Convocation: Dalhousie University”,2.

[13] Ibid.,4.

[14] Ibid.,3.

[15] Ibid.,3,12.

[16] Ibid.,3.

[17] Ibid.,4.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.,12-3.

[20] Bonikowsky and Kaplan, John Peters Humphrey.

[21] “Speech to the General Convocation: Dalhousie University”,6-7.

[22] Ibid.,2.

[23] Ibid.,6.

[24] Ibid.,4-5.

[25] Ibid.,5,10.

[26] Ibid.,10-11.

[27] Ibid.,6.

[28] Eight reasons Leave won the UK’s referendum on the EU,” BBC News. June 24, 2016,

Accessed February 17, 2017.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Erin C. Roth “John Peters Humphrey: Canadian Nationalist and World Government Advocate,”

The Canadian Yearbook of International Law 45 (2007): 1.


When the United Nations Stopped Being Progressive; Examining the Divergence Between the UN and the New Left

By Eric Mayhew

On May 24th 1968, John Peters Humphrey spoke to the convocating class of ‘68 at Carleton University, where Humphrey was being given an honorary Doctor of Laws. Given the option to choose the topic of his convocation address, Humphrey chose a familiar topic to him: human rights, particularly United Nations involvement in advancing human rights. Given that 1968 was the 20 year anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), his speech had extra significance. Notably, his speech gave the convocating class context to the development of the UDHR along with advice for the future generation to manage a society full of malaise.[1] This blog post will examine the advice given to the convocating students and contrast it with the student lead movements at the time. Despite Humphrey’s best intention to turn students on to the United Nation, his advice to the students shows how out of touch he was with students movements that were already making gains in education reform (amongst other things) through other channels and using other methods. In this way, Humphrey’s speech signals a growing disconnect between conceptions of progress between organizations like the UN and grassroots student movements.

At the time, student protest was very active. In 1963, the Canadian Union of Students (CUS) was created to replace its predecessor, the National Federation of Canadian University Students (NFCUS).[2] The CUS was focused on student rights and university accessibility, primarily by advocating for low tuition and student aid funding (like loans and bursaries). As a result of intense student activism by NFCUS and the CUS, public opinion had changed to support government funding for higher education, and the federal government responded with the Canada Student Loan Program (CSLP) in 1964.[3] This marked a significant turning point in the government’s attitude towards student-aid policy.[4]

Fervour over education reform was also present in the Carleton University student community. As documented by the student newspaper The Carleton, students’ council president Bert Painter spoke to 600 students on September 29th, 1967, in an event that drew 600 students to hear Painter’s views on education reform.[5] Immediately after the rally, the Students for a Democratic University (SDU) was created with goals to “change the university into a true institution for learning” instead of “training for use in society”.[6] At a glance, it is easy to see the deep level of organization and action taken by students in the 1960s, both locally and nationally.

Judging by the contents of Humphrey’s speech, one wouldn’t assume he was aware of the progress being made by students. His assumptions regarding Canadian’ conceptions of rights issues imply that these students weren’t aware of issues like poverty and minority rights present in Canada. In Humphrey’s speech, he declares “Canadians are inclined to be smug about human rights”, suggesting Canadians hold an uncritically view of Canada as a “model of virtue”.[7] He goes on to denounce social discontents like wealth inequality, suggesting his audience is oblivious to these issue.[8] Given the huge student movements taking place nationally, it seems these students are more aware of the conditions of wealth inequality in Canada than Humphrey himself. After all, accessibility to education came down to the lack of funding and wealth for students to use for their education.

Humphrey address the issue of language rights in his speech as if students were unaware of the issue as well, but the history of the CUS tells a different story. Humphrey said in his speech, “Only slowly… are we beginning to realize” the importance of protecting “our two linguistic groups”.[9] The wording of “slowly” and “beginning” suggest that Humphrey believes his audience isn’t versed in the issue of language rights. However, the CUS was already addressing the issue in the student movement. One of the most notable changes in the constitution of NFCUS to its successor the CUS in 1963 was the recognition of the “fundamental bi-nationalism of the Canadian state.”[10] Although Quebec sovereignty would only grow more pressing, the changing of the constitution of the national student union to include bi-nationalism speaks to the development of the student movement at the time. Students were already aware of the rights struggle and were actively finding solutions to the problem by adapting their constitution to recognize Quebecois nationalism.

Humphrey’s speech appears most ignorant of the political dynamic at the time when he notifies the graduating students they will now be required to become active members of  bringing about societal change – despite their already impressive track-record in doing so. Humphrey prescribes these newly graduated youth with the tasks of improving society, as they “will now have an opportunity to… [build] the new economic, social, and political machinery which the new circumstances will require”. He then proceeds to offer some advice to these students in their new quest, saying “I venture to suggest in all friendliness that you haven’t yet diagnosed the trouble [of society]”. However this is in stark contrast with what the student movements were already doing. They were already well aware of the malaise in society, such as access to higher education and minority rights. Furthermore, they didn’t wait for Humphrey to tell them they now have the “opportunity” to create change for the better. The CUS, the DSU and creation of the CSLP all speak to the ways that these university students had already been creating societal change.

This disconnect highlights that the torch of progressivism had already passed from the hands of the United Nations (and Humphrey) to the new student movements. Responsible for the energy and influence of the New Left, students were already many steps ahead of where Humphrey thought they were. Despite Humphrey’s best attempt to advise and appoint these graduating students to be the new drivers of progressivism, it appears these students were already knee deep in creating on-the-ground change in Canada. By some critics, that’s more than the UDHR has done.

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.372 – Convocation Address: Carleton University (1968), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives. P. 1.

[2] Moses, Nigel R. “Student organizations as historical actors: the case of mass student aid.” The Canadian Journal of Higher Education 31, no. 1 (2001): p. 76.

[3] Ibid, p. 99

[4] Ibid, p. 90

[5] Margeson, Wayne. “600 support Painter at Monday meeting.” The Carleton (Ottawa), September 29, 1967. Accessed February 24, 2017.

[6] “Group formed for academic reform.” The Carleton (Ottawa), September 29, 1967. Accessed February 24, 2017.

[7] MG 4127 C.18 F.372 – Convocation Address: Carleton University (1968), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives. P. 6 – 7.

[8] Ibid, p. 7.

[9] Ibid, p. 6, 7.

[10] Moses, Nigel R. “Student organizations as historical actors…” p. 77.

John Peters Humphrey et l’abolition de la torture

By Dominic Pelletier

John Peters Humphrey donne le discours L’abolition de la torture le 5 septembre 1985. Celui-ci est fait dans un contexte d’activisme populaire et international face à cette pratique qu’il dénonce. Cette allocution prend son importance dans son désir d’offrir des mécanismes plus contraignant en lien avec cette pratique. Humphrey note l’importance d’agir face à la torture, identifie les faiblesses des législations existantes et reconnaît les difficultés posant un obstacle à son abolition.

L’allocution de John Peters Humphrey prend place dans un contexte où des initiatives sont prises dans la communauté internationale et citoyenne afin d’agir sur le problème de la torture. Ce discours est fait à l’Église St-Léon située à Westmount dans la ville de Montréal[1]. Il s’adresse à l’Action des chrétiens pour l’abolition de la torture (ACAT). Ce groupe a été formée le 16 juin 1974 par les Françaises Hélène Engel et Édith du Terte.[2] Après avoir été sensibilisés par un campagne d’Amnistie internationale dénonçant les cas de torture au Sud-Vietnam, elles décidèrent de fonder une organisation comptant, au départ, une quarantaine d’individus.[3] Leur mission est « [d’] agir pour prévenir et faire cesser toutes situations de torture ou de peines cruelles, inhumaines ou dégradante ».[4] Un chapitre est fondé par Denise Bonfils et l’Abbé Gabriel Villemure au Canada en 1984 à Montréal et fait ses débuts dans l’Église St-Léon[5]. Le discours d’Humphrey prend donc place dans le lieu de fondation du chapitre canadien de l’ACAT. Celui-ci s’adresse à cette organisation l’année suivant son apparition.

Cette allocution a également lieu moins d’un an après l’adoption de la Convention contre la torture et autres peines ou traitements cruels, inhumains ou dégradants (CCT) de 1984 par l’Assemblée générale des Nations Unies.[6] Comme le note John Peters Humphrey, cette convention n’est toujours pas en vigueur lors de son discours compte tenu du manque insuffisants d’États l’ayant ratifiée.[7] Celle-ci sera mise en place officiellement le 26 juin 1987.[8] Aujourd’hui 159 États ont ratifié la convention.[9]. Humphrey donne ce discours après avoir participé activement à la rédaction de normes internationales régissant la torture[10] Ce dernier a participé à la rédaction de la Déclaration universelle des droits de l’homme des Nations unis (DUDH) de 1948 qui contient l’article 5 statuant que « nul sera soumis à la torture ».[11] Il a aussi joué un rôle dans l’élaboration de l’article 7 du Pacte international relatifs aux droits civils et politiques (PIDCP) qui demande également aussi l’abolition de la torture.[12] De plus, Humphrey a participé à deux missions en lien avec des accusations de torture en Grèce et aux Philippines en 1977.[13] Donc, c’est dans un contexte où des mesures sont mises en place au niveau international concernant l’abolition de la torture que John Peters Humphrey s’adresse à l’ACAT grâce à son savoir acquis dans son implication au sein d’initiative concernant les droits de l’homme.

L’importance du plaidoyer effectué par Humphrey se trouve dans le fait qu’il soutient les initiatives internationales en notant la nécessité de poser des gestes et d’avoir des lois plus contraignantes par rapport à l’abolition de la torture. Cependant, il se montre critique face à la législation internationale sur la torture et face aux efforts domestiques canadiens.  Humphrey note le besoin de continuer à agir face à ce problème, car il affirme que cette pratique est toujours d’actualité et en vigueur dans le monde.[14] Il réfute ainsi la déclaration de Faustin Hélie de 1870 affirmant que « la torture a cessé d’exister » en démontrant la présence de la torture « dans la moitié des pays du monde ».[15]  L’auteur du discours appelle donc son auditoire à répondre à son devoir chrétien d’agir contre la torture[16] Il propose de faire pression sur les gouvernements et les organisations internationales afin mettre sur pied de véritables mesures permettant d’empêcher des États à recourir à cette pratique.[17] De plus, il invite son audience à informer le public sur la portée des conséquences de la torture dans le monde.[18] Il est possible d’affirmer que ce discours n’a pas été ignoré par l’ACAT, car ces deux mesures font parties des actions principales que ce groupe pose présentement face à la torture.[19]

La nécessité de légiférer sur la torture est démontrée par Humphrey, car il démontre la pertinence des effets des mesures internationales dans la transgression de droits humains. Il utilise l’exemple du Canada qui a été condamné pour sa transgression des droits de l’autochtone Sandra Lovelace grâce à sa participation au PIDCP.[20] Cependant, il souligne les faiblesses des documents internationaux en lien avec cette pratique. Bien qu’il souligne un progrès entre la DUDH et le PIDCP grâce à la présence de mécanismes permettant d’appliquer les restrictions sur la torture, Humphrey note la présence de nombreuses clauses facultatives qui nuisent à une application véritable de ce document.[21] Malgré la présence de meilleurs « mécanismes prévus pour sa mise en œuvre »[22], il dénonce aussi les faiblesses de la CCT en lien avec d’autres articles facultatifs sur la mise en application du document[23], Effectivement, les signataires de la Convention doivent fournir des rapports à un Comité pour démontrer leurs efforts en lien avec l’abolition de la torture. Cependant, la capacité de recours individuels ou étatiques envers un autre pays ne se fait que sous l’approbation de l’État visé.[24]

Ce discours trouve aussi son importance dans sa critique de la politique domestique du Canada en lien avec la torture. En effet, il dénonce l’absence de toute mention sur ce sujet dans la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés.[25] Cette affirmation démontre l’ambiguïté de ce document face à la torture et la possibilité de l’interpréter de différentes façons. Alors qu’Humphrey n’y voit aucune mention de la torture, la Cour suprême du Canada a vue en 2002 un référence à la torture au sein de l’article 12 qui interdit les peines « cruelles et inusitées ».[26].

De cette façon, bien que Humphrey note l’importance de poser des gestes et de légiférer au niveau international et domestique contre la torture, il se montre sceptique face aux effets potentiels de ces actions. Il se demande si le nombre de signataires de la CCT sera suffisant.[27] De plus, ces expériences en Grèce et aux Philippines lui ont démontrées que même si la convention est ratifiée avec succès, il sera toujours difficile de prouver la présence de torture au sein d’un État ce qui rend son abolition complète difficile.[28]

En conclusion, le discours de John Peters Humphrey s’inscrit dans un contexte où des initiatives internationales et populaires sont mise en place afin de légiférer plus sévèrement face à la torture. Son allocution se base sur ces expériences passées liées aux droits de l’Homme. L’importance de ce discours se trouve dans son appel pour un activisme autant populaire qu’international afin de renforcir les mécanismes déjà existant sur la torture. Il offre donc une critique des faiblesses au sein de la législation internationale et domestique tout en reconnaissant les limites sur le potentiel des actions qu’il promeut.

[1] « L’abolition de la torture », MG 4127 C.18 F.368, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 1.

[2] « Historique, » accédé le 21 février 2017,

[3] Ibid.

[4] « Mission, » accédé le 21 février 2017,

[5] « Historique, » accédé le 21 février 2017,

[6]  « Convention contre la torture et autres peines ou traitements cruels, inhumains ou dégradants, » accédé le 21 février 2017,

[7] « L’abolition de la torture », 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] « Convention contre la torture,. » accédé le 21 février 2017,

[10] « L’abolition de la torture », 3.

[11] Ibid, 4.

[12] Ibid, 4-5.

[13] Ibid. 7.

[14] Ibid, 2.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 3.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] « Mission, » accédé le 21 février 2017,

[20] « L’abolition de la torture », 5-6.

[21] Ibid, 5.

[22] Ibid 6.

[23] Ibid, 7.

[24] « Convention contre la torture et autres peines ou traitements cruels, inhumains ou dégradants, » art 21.

[25] « L’abolition de la torture », 6.

[26] « Suresh c. Canada (Ministre de la Citoyenneté et de l’Immigration, » accédé le 21 février 2017,


[27] « L’abolition de la torture », 7.

[28] Ibid, 8.

John Peters Humphrey’s “Why Human Rights?”

By Dexter Docherty

This is an early draft of a speech John Peters Humphrey would deliver at a Human Rights Awareness conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick on June 18th 1985. In it, Humphrey attempts to explain why discussions about human rights are important in a world under constant threat of nuclear annihilation. His message is one of cautious optimism that expressed his faith that the developing system of international human rights law could see the world through the heightened tensions of an escalating Cold War.

Humphrey’s speech came months after Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration as President of the United States, and prior to any signs that he and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would work towards deescalating the Cold War—which Reagan had worked to heat back up in the early-1980s. A Hampton, New Brunswick-native, Humphrey delivered his remarks to a room full of Maritimers aware of the important role Atlantic Canada played in human rights history where Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had met in August of 1941 and issued the Atlantic Charter. [1] Like any great speaker, Humphrey began by flattering his audience with praise for a region he believed to be more beautiful than all seven wonders of the world.

Humphrey’s references to literature are an indication that he is speaking to an academic audience. Much of his speech is in conversation with the alarmist arguments forwarded by Jonathan Schnell in his relatively recently published book The Fate of the Earth. Schnell’s argument was about the inability of the existing international system to prevent a nuclear holocaust. Schnell believed that without a change to the status quo, “the world will be held perpetually at the edge of doom” and that the current path the world was on “leads to death.”[2] Humphrey provides a unique perspective on this issue, as someone who had worked to enshrine universal legal protections for every human being on earth. Humphrey believed that the very kind of work he began in the late 1940s was helping to move the world past this unstable status quo.

Humphrey reminds his listeners how deeply he once shared the concerns of Schnell, by reflecting on a paper he wrote in 1946, called “the Parent of Anarchy.” Humphrey’s article borrows its name and its central argument from Alexander Hamilton’s writings in the Federalist Papers. Humphrey believed that the international system after the Second World War suffered from the same fatal weakness that Hamilton identified with the United States in the eighteenth century. Namely, there was no direct link between individuals and the system governing relations between states, meaning that there was no means of coercing states into respecting the rights of individuals. The problem was a horizontal rather than vertical governing structure, which meant that when “resolutions” were passed by the federal government, in Hamilton’s case, or the United Nations, in Humphrey’s, they were “in practice…mere recommendations which the States observe or disregard at their option.”[3] This realization led Humphrey to conclude, much like Schnell did in the 1980s, that the international system was obsolete and incapable of preventing nuclear war. Humphrey argued that “there can be no effective government unless the governing authority possess a monopoly over all instruments of coercion.”[4] Without a government accountable to all people, there would not be sufficient safeguards against the use of weapons that could end all human life. In 1946, Humphrey did not feel the international system was sufficiently accountable to the people of the world, which the system now had the technological capacity to destroy.

By the mid-1980s, however, Humphrey’s outlook was much less grim, largely because of the evolution he had observed in international human rights law. Per Humphrey, the continuing development of human rights law was working to address the very flaws in the international system that were central to Schnell’s doomsday fears. The problem had been the “absence of any legal relationship, any lien de droit, between international law and individual men and women.”[5] The “essential thing” that had changed were the rights for individuals enshrined in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which inherently weakened the power of states vis-à-vis individuals, as well as the precedents set during the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials, wherein individuals were convicted of crimes under international, instead of national, law.[6] Perhaps because he was proud of the work he did with the Universal Declaration, Humphrey had become much more of an optimist in his later years. Though the prescriptions of his 1946 paper were not followed, his optimism was not misplaced, given the seemingly imminent doomsday never arrived. The fact that the international community had begun to pledge its support to individuals, meant that the entirety of humanity in Humphrey’s eyes was well on its way to being protected like never before.

[1] Atlantic Human Rights Centre, “Origins of the AHRC”, St. Thomas University, Visited February 21, 2017,

[2] Jonathan Schnell, The Fate of the Earth, (New York: Avon Books, 1982), 221 and 231.

[3] Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and James Madison, The Federalist Papers, “Federalist No. 15: The insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union”, December 1st 1787, The Project Gutenburg: 2009.

[4] John Peters Humphrey, “The Parent of Anarchy”, International Journal, 1(1): 11, 1946, 17.

[5] MG 4127 C.18 File 368—Why Human Rights?, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 5.

[6] Ibid, 6-7.

Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Address

By Declan Burns

The Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Address was a speech delivered by John Peters Humphreys for the Collegiate Council for the United Nations at Sarah Lawrence College, New York on the 17th of June, 1966. The speech details Humphrey’s experience of working with Eleanor Roosevelt in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, her subsequent work with the United Nations on attempting to follow up the Declaration with binding covenants (for she was convinced it was “not legally binding on the States [sic] and that its value was moral only”[1]), the consequences of her efforts and the next step for human rights on the international stage. As would be expected from a memorial address (Roosevelt died four years prior to the speech) for an organisation that sought to promote the United Nations among American colleges[2] the tone is largely celebratory, ultimately declaring that subsequent progress has been a “monument… to the memory of a great American” whose name has become synonymous with the UN human rights programme.[3] Whilst this sometimes leads to hyperbole, this speech should still be considered significant as it furthers our understanding of key figures in the development of international human rights (specifically Roosevelt and himself), provides an argument for the development of a body of international law and explores the relationship of human rights to the Cold War.

Primary among the document is the lauding of the Declaration as a significant, world changing achievement. The authors’ achievement, Humphrey believes, marked an “epoch in history” – a claim he admits is bold considering the less than twenty year gap between the Declaration’s publication and this speech – toward an international community focused on the “promotion of respect for human rights”.[4]  Whether this marked the beginning of a rights regime is a much debated question amongst scholars. Some, such as former Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff, would agree, heralding it as a quintessential moment, whereas others have focused elsewhere, such as Samuel Moyn who emphasised the discrediting of other competing metanarratives in the 1970s.[5] For Humphrey, this analysis is predicated on the subsequent developments; for him the Declaration and Roosevelt’s work on covenants is the genealogy of international law itself.[6] It must be noted that the significance attributed to the covenants appears to be somewhat a political decision made for the occasion as, in his memoir, Humphrey complains that “I thought the Declaration would be much more important than the covenant”, demarcating his position more clearly.[7] Nevertheless, it is clear that Humphrey attributes a significant role to Eleanor Roosevelt for the promotion and development of human rights internationally.

This celebratory discourse translates into Humphrey’s discussion of the personal. He goes to great lengths to portray the work of the Human Rights Commission (of which he and Eleanor Roosevelt worked on) as an underdog narrative, succeeding against great odds. Roosevelt, he explains in the speech, had to work against sexist opposition from within her own government, being relegated to a lower committee where they believed she would “do the least harm”.[8] Cynically, it is arguable that this underdog narrative (and the exceptionalism of the Document mentioned elsewhere) attributes a self-interested element to the speech. Humphrey aligns himself with it by noting that his enthusiasm far outweighed his professional capabilities in the period and that he did not really know what was expected of him.[9] Both he and Roosevelt are therefore portrayed as pioneers battling against the odds, suggesting that Humphrey is articulating a ‘great individuals’ vision of history congruent with both increasing their reputations and also his individualistic construction of rights (“the purpose of which is to protect the individual against the tyranny of states”).[10] This is only further amplified by repeated reference to ‘destiny’, truly emphasising the importance attached to them as figures in the development.

Roosevelt herself seemingly embodies noble qualities that could easily be associated with human rights legislation such as “a warm sympathy for people – people interested her and counted for her as people”.[11] Sometimes Humphrey’s rhetoric tends toward hyperbole. For example, he details that an encounter between Roosevelt and a Russian official which resulted in the him being beside himself in gratitude for Humphrey’s introduction suggested that her “general good-will and understanding” could possibly have maintained the Great Alliance from World War Two.[12] This claim is far-fetched in its ambition and, furthermore, seemingly does not even fit the reality of Roosevelt’s relationship to the Soviet Union. Whilst noting that she was not to the belligerent extremes of other significant American leaders, the historiography still generally portrays her as a ‘reluctant Cold Warrior’.[13] Humphrey also once again contradicts this speech in his memoir. Whilst here Roosevelt is portrayed as a key diplomatic cog between the United States and the Russians, in Human Rights and the United Nations: a Great Adventure he complains at her “impolitical statement” that the Soviets would not accept the draft covenants.[14]

Although this relationship between Roosevelt and the Soviets appears exaggerated and unrealistic it does allude to another significant aspect of the speech – the relationship of human rights to the Cold War.  By attributing Roosevelt’s warmth to the human rights agenda Humphrey conversely implies the opposite to the Communist bloc, i.e. that they are an impediment to values of common humanity, relegating them to the often applied cold, machine-like trope which characterised much Cold War discourse. Humphrey’s and Roosevelt’s achievements are once again thus amplified via crafting the Declaration during the “very heart of the Cold War which was then at its worst” (ostensibly once again hyperbole – after all, Humphrey had witnessed the Cuban missile crises only four years prior).[15] Finally, going forward, the Soviet Union is portrayed as the biggest hindrance to what Humphrey perceives as the necessary next step in the development of the human rights agenda – the creation of a High Commissioner specifically for human rights work at the UN. This is attributed to complaints over sovereignty, conveniently forgetting that the U.S. has raised such complaints hitherto in relation to human rights developments (as did Canada, who initially abstained on the Declaration for ‘fears of impinging on provincial jurisdiction’).[16] The implication is therefore that human rights – even for figures such as Humphrey who extol rights for their own value – were a significant public relations weapon on the international stage, forming a more subtle part of the ideological war characteristic of the period.

[1] “Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Address, 17 June 1966”, MG 4127 C.18 F.372, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives: 5.

[2] “About Us”, Nmun.Org, 2017,

[3] “Memorial Address”: 10.

[4] Ibid: 4.

[5] Michael Ignatieff, The Rights Revolution, 2nd ed. (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2007); Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia, 1st ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010).

[6] “Memorial Address”: 6.

[7] John Peters Humphrey, Human Rights & The United Nations: A Great Adventure (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Transnational Publishers, Inc., 1984): 65.

[8] “Memorial Address”: 2.

[9] Ibid: 2.

[10] Ibid: 10.

[11] Ibid: 3.

[12] Ibid : 4.

[13] M. Glen Johnson, “The Contributions Of Eleanor And Franklin Roosevelt To The Development Of International Protection For Human Rights”, Human Rights Quarterly 9, no. 1 (1987): 38.

[14] Humphrey, Human Rights & the United Nations: 65.

[15] “Memorial Address”: 5.

[16] Ibid: 9; Johnson, “Contributions”: 45.

John Peters Humphrey and Canada’s Obligation

By David Wainer

John Peters Humphrey played a fundamental role in the creation and legislation of human rights on the international stage. While recognition of Humphrey’s achievement is centred around his work at the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and rightfully so), little attention is given to his work on human rights after his retirement. Yet Humphrey continued to advocate on behalf of rights abuses across the world from post war Canada, in association with Amnesty International, while continuing to write and lecture. This speech, given as the final keynote address at the Conference on the Politics of Torture in Ottawa in November of 1973, affirms his ideals of rights and public opinion and the ways in which to assure human rights abuses are mitigated.

This conference was the culmination of Amnesty International’s year-long concerted campaign for the abolition of torture, which began in 1972. The campaign’s aim was “to arouse public consciousness throughout the world to the epidemic of systematic torture by governments,”[1] with the end-goal of wholly eradicating torture.  The momentum of anti-torture activism was high on the eve of this conference, as the United Nations unanimously adopted Resolution 3059 on November 2, 1973, which stated that it “rejects any form of torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of punishment.”[2] With this diplomatic victory fresh on the minds of the conference attendees, Humphrey delivered his address on what.

With brevity and humour, Humphrey kept his address light and relatively informal. However, his message was anything but. He maintained that violations of human rights anywhere in the world were inviolable to Canada’s national interests, that “the experience of the last war should have taught us that respect for human rights is indivisible.”[3] He was also firmly supportive of governments and international bodies being held to account for their actions. Humphrey endorses the concept of “shaming”, stating that “even the most authoritarian governments are sensitive to world public opinion.”[4] Given the circumstances of the conference, with a major diplomatic victory in the UN resolution, this idealistic notion of an international community organizing shame to end torture was admirable and perhaps in retrospect, somewhat optimistic. Humphrey concludes his remarks by voicing his hope that “the Canadian public will generously support an organization which is dedicated to the protection of the interests of Canadians and of national interest.”[5] This exhortation sought the cooperation of both citizens and government in guiding public opinion to take a stand against torture, thereby advancing Canadian interests.

This speech, and the larger Conference on the Politics of Torture, did not cover any new ground in the struggle to end torture as it was the culmination of an educational campaign. The significance of this speech, however, is not diminished because of this. It fundamentally affirmed that citizens, non-governmental organizations, and states all have a vested interest, and a duty, to end torture. The speech was also very timely in the context of geopolitical events: the IRA was becoming emboldened in their attacks, President Nixon had formally announced the end of the Vietnam War in January, and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War had just ended. All this meant that torture, a consequence of war, was being deliberated upon behind closed doors of most state governments.

This speech serves as a benchmark of standards to which the international community should hold itself to today. Indeed, how would this speech resonate at an international conference on torture in 2017? Humphrey’s speech was given in the context of a recent victory in the UN and there were reasons to be optimistic for the future of the anti-torture movement. Torture surely would be eradicated before long, a testament to the resolve of the international community. Sadly, this was not the case. Torture continues to be widely used due to lack of state accountability and cooperation in the decades since this conference. Even leaders of so-called advanced countries have been attracted to the use of torture, as recently evidenced by the statements of the recently appointed US President, Donald Trump.[6] His decision to step back from this position and defer decisions on torture to his Defense Secretary James Mattis[7] shows that while his position is responsive to negative feedback, it still has its supporters.

It is clear that governments, NGOs, the media and the broader community must continue to be resolute and vocal on the issue of torture. To be sure, Humphrey’s work in Canada helped the state become a “peacekeeping” state and a forefront nation in the battle against torture. But this speech, conference, and campaign as a whole signify a failed opportunity to eradicate torture in such a fruitful environment in which public opinion had the chance to grow boundlessly and have tangible impacts on torture today. The fact that torture persists today points not only to the failure of the international community but also the failure of Canadians to actualize Humphrey’s vision.

[1] Amnesty International Annual Report, 1973-74, 13.

[2] AI Annual Report, 16.

[3] MG 4127 C.18 F.371 – Concluding Remarks: Conference on the Politics of Torture, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives., 6.

[4] “Concluding Remarks”, 5.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Bradley Klapper,”President Trump Says He Believes That Torture Works,” Time, January 26, 2017, accessed February 21, 2017,

[7] Kristina Wong, “Trump: Mattis’s view on torture will ‘override'” The Hill, January 27, 2017, accessed February 21, 2017,


John Peters Humphrey’s address at the Montreal museum of fine arts

By Connor Sliman

John Peters Humphrey’s address at the Montreal museum of fine arts in October 1986 was to commemorate plans to place a statue to human rights in Ottawa.  The statue in question, The Canadian Tribute to Human Rights, was officially unveiled by the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso four years after this address was given.  The location of the ceremony at the Montreal museum of fine arts, and the presence of the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Stephen Lewis, insinuates a well-heeled audience listening to this introduction.  It is important to note that Humphrey is only giving an introduction to Canada’s representative at the UN, not making a full speech.  With this in mind it makes it all the more impressive that he conveys so much about the state of the UN in so few words.  John Peters Humphrey was attempting to draw the North American public’s attention to the financial crisis wracking the United Nations during the mid-1980s.

It is key to provide context to the financial situation of the UN during the 1980’s as this becomes the crux of this speech’s thesis.  During this period President Ronald Reagan developed an increasingly hostile relationship with the United Nations, often withholding financial contributions in order to leverage political influence.[1]  One such example of this was around the time this speech was given; The UN’s “debts had leapt to more than half the total outstanding for peacekeeping and the regular budget.”  The United States then used this debt size to force alterations to budgetary voting procedure, giving them an effective veto.[2]

Looking at the primary source in of itself it’s clear that editing was done to remove portions concerning Gerard Pelletier, the predecessor to Steven Lewis, which points to him being absent for the address.  Humphrey’s introductory address served two primary purposes in commenting on human rights in the Canadian context: Firstly, to connect the Canadian public with its traditions of espousing and protecting human rights in order to invest them in the current plight of the UN’s finances.  He points out that the European press have already begun to comment on this issue, but claims that “unfortunately, the media has not yet reacted in Canada.”[3]  Secondly, and arguably more importantly, Humphrey seems to be ringing alarm bells about the diminishment of the United Nations’ capacity to safeguard human rights due to financial constraints; Actions taken by the UN General Assembly to suspend certain committee meetings is one such example of this capacity being reduced.  On the second point, it seems Humphrey’s choice of language conveys strong feelings about how dire this budgetary crisis was to the basic functionality of the United Nations as a human rights organization. He goes so far to claim that “le programme des droits de l’homme aux Nations Unies souffre la pire crise de son histoire.”  The crisis in question was a budgetary shortfall for 1986-1987 of around 100 million USD.[4]

This budgetary shortfall resulted in a report by the Secretary-General of the UN being issued in early 1986 advocating for cost-saving measures to be taken.  These included: rolling up a working group on human rights protections for migrant workers and their families into the Third Committee of the General Assembly; The deferral of Human Rights Committee meetings to the following year, and the deferral of a human rights sub-committee meeting on protections for minorities.[5]  In addition to this report, the General Assembly also made recommendations for the curtailment of the General Assembly’s session by three weeks.  The General Assembly also made proscriptions for the possibility of limiting both the Economic and Social Council, as well as the Trusteeship Council.[6]

Through this introduction, Humphrey conveys a certain degree of cynicism that, based on his experience building the human rights wing of the UN, “these cuts are aimed at the very heart of the programme.  So much so indeed that one suspects they are being welcomed by many governments.”[7]  This was likely in reference to the afore-mentioned record-sized budgetary arrears owed by the United States, and other member-states to the UN.  Humphrey also appears to be using this introduction to stoke a certain degree of caution; pointing to the UN’s financial concerns as a potential portent to the growth of violent conflict as respect for human rights falters.  He posits: “Were the gross and consistent violations of human rights in and by certain countries one of the causes – perhaps the chief cause – of the Second World War?”[8]  It’s apparent from this address that he subscribed to the line of thinking that the success of the United Nations’ aims to maintain international peace and security was dependent on its capacity to protect human rights.

John Peters Humphrey’s introductory address sought to draw the public’s attention to the financial crisis plaguing the United Nations during the 1980’s.  He utilizes the opportunity to introduce the Canadian ambassador to the UN as a pulpit from which he could preach the UN’s fundamental necessity in the protection of human rights and global peace.  He attempted to invest the Canadian audience by commenting on Canada’s contributions to the protection and codification of human rights.  Additionally, he used this speech as a means to alert the public to the diminishing capability of the UN to protect human rights due to the financial constraints caused by politicking member-states.  Ultimately, this short address conveys a great deal about the sense of urgency Humphrey felt.  As one of the fathers of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, this speech also highlights how personally invested he was in the continued support of the United Nations.


[1] Foley, The UN’s own financial crisis, 22 July 2009

[2] Global Policy Forum, UN background and History

[3] Humphrey, Canadian Tribute to Human Rights, 3

[4] Report of the Secretary-General, A/40/1102, 2

[5] Ibid., 23

[6] UN General Assembly Resolutions and Decisions, A/40/53, 40/472(a)

[7] Humphrey, Canadian Tribute to Human Rights, 3

[8] Ibid., 2


Human Rights and Authority

By Claire Kingston

In 1969, legal scholar John Peters Humphrey delivered a speech on the topic of Human Rights and Authority, as part of a lecture series organised by the Law Society of Saskatchewan, to an audience of legal professionals and students at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law[1]. As a well-respected human rights advocate, Humphrey would have been familiar to his audience as one of the original drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, created by the United Nations after WWII[2].

Unsurprisingly, Humphrey’s speech centres around his area of expertise, but perhaps because of the audience’s familiarity with the topic he chose to narrow his focus onto one of its lesser known elements; what he calls “other side of human rights… duty, authority and order”[3]. His speech draws on the history of rights in order to propose a trajectory he sees it following going forward – and his isn’t an optimistic vision. In the 20 years since the UDHR’s ratification, he argues, social movements and anti-establishment sentiments had developed that threatened to destabilise institutions of democratic authority and enable the rise of a totalitarian state with no regard for human rights.

Humphrey begins with a survey of the ideological and social evolution of human rights, arguing that their spread should be credited to the resistance of groups and individuals against “arrogant, abusive, illegitimate or foreign” authority[4]. Over time, he argues, such threats to liberty were mitigated via the diffusion of democracy, and much later by the transition of human rights from the national to the international level through the creation of the UDHR, which would eventually become a framework for internal norms and even binding laws related to human rights.

Humphrey does acknowledge the positive changes in the realm of human rights since the UDHR’s ratification; however, in the second half of his speech the thrust is on the future of human rights, not their immediate past. There, he sees more cause for worry. He begins with a somewhat grim analysis of the status of human rights over the past 20 years, and comes to the conclusion that they might be undergoing a shift in the evolutionary path.

His main concern is that “the New Left”, the post-war generation behind the various social movements and anti-establishment politics of the 1960s, might bring about what he refers to as a “Great World Social Revolution”, directed “not so much against authoritarianism but against authority itself”[5]. Rather than targeting totalitarian or fascist forces standing in direct opposition to human rights, he sees the movement as engaging in something nearer to total warfare, seeking to destroy traditional sources of authority with no regard for distinguishing between those that serve society’s interests and those that do not. He notes specific concern for what he perceives as the movement’s strategy of attacking society’s “weakest points” – institutions like universities that, due to their democratic principles, never set up defenses against attacks and thus are most vulnerable to destruction[6]. Humphrey warns that the demolition of traditional institutions and social forces – not just universities, but religion, morals, and the family – is a real threat to human rights, as it could lead Canadian society down a path towards fascism.

It may seem like a dramatic leap to draw that conclusion, but Humphrey takes the time to explain the mechanism behind the transition. By destroying traditional social institutions, he argues that the New Left is also destroying sites that have traditionally enabled the diffusion of powers and limited the ability for political leaders to monopolise authority. This is an essential aspect of any free society, he argues; society and authority are interdependent and symbiotic social constructs, and their destruction would mean a power vacuum[7]. The inevitable result of such a vacuum would be the rise of a new form of political authority – a totalitarian one, which would lack the regard for human rights inherent in the Canada of the 1960s. He suggests this theoretical transition would come about as a result of increased fragmentation and polarisation between social factions, which would weaken the ability of citizens to act collectively as a check against the expansion of government powers. Especially in an era of government expansion and the development of technologies for surveillance and communication, he sees this as a very real threat to society[8].

The solution? Humphrey urges Canadians to demand their politicians take steps to ensure the government complies with the standards for human rights outlined in the UDHR, by developing an entrenched bill of rights, creating a federal Human Rights Commission, conducting a review federal and provincial laws to look for possible violations of the UDHR, and taking more initiative on human rights in foreign policy[9]. He also suggests we take steps to strengthen non-political institutions, especially schools, universities, and voluntary organisations, which might reduce the widespread apathy Humphrey saw in Canadian society.

Humphrey’s points aren’t inherently original. A large segment of the speech is spent talking about turning points in the history of human rights, without presenting any original arguments. His call for more political investment in human rights isn’t particularly innovative either: as he acknowledges, many other countries had already established Bills of Rights or taken proactive steps to support initiatives at the UN. His explanation of the threat to democracy posed by the concentration of powers is an old one, going back to de Tocqueville’s explanation of factors involved in the spread of tyranny after the French Revolution[10]. And criticisms of progressive social movements, whether civil rights, women’s liberation, or anti-war, were already widespread at the time.

What is fascinating about this speech is how its second half gives some insight into how Humphrey’s view of human rights changed in the years after his work at the UN. His emphasis here on authority as a precursor to human rights is, as he admits himself, not one that had always played such a large role in his work – especially not at the United Nations, where “the emphasis in the Declaration was on rights…authority [was mentioned] not at all”[11]. It seems the concern he voiced for the protection of traditional sites of authority was a more recent one, borne from his own experience living in the age of activism and anti-establishment politics of the 1960s.

Considering the era in which he delivered his speech, it’s also impossible not to draw parallels between his position and that of the New Right movement that emerged as part of a backlash against the leftist movements of the 1960s and gained speed in the 1970s and 80s. They, too, criticised the destruction of traditional institutions and counter-culture movements of the 1960s[12]. However, Humphrey’s argument stands out by extending somewhat farther. By fusing elements of the New Right and the “Old Left”, he justifies his concern about these cultural changes not because they’re inherently deviant or dangerous, but rather because of the way they might act as a catalyst for a series of events that could result in authoritarianism and the obliteration of human rights.

It’s an interesting position that arguably holds up better than partisan right-wing arguments of the time. Whether it’s justified is a different issue. Humphrey seems comfortable in arguing that are under existential threat, and doesn’t take much time to consider whether activists might be seeking reform rather than destruction, or whether movements demanding equality for marginalised groups might serve to bolster human rights rather than weaken them. But whether readers agree or disagree with his conclusions, it’s clear this speech was deeply influenced by Humphrey’s social environment, and presents a fascinating viewpoint on his own intellectual evolution on the matter.

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.374 – Human Rights and Authority, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives. 1.

[2] John Peters Humphrey Foundation. “Biography.” The Hampton. Last modified 2012. Accessed February 24, 2017.

[3] Human Rights and Authority, 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Human Rights and Authority, 10.

[6] Human Rights and Authority, 11.

[7] Human Rights and Authority, 15.

[8] Human Rights and Authority, 16.

[9] Human Rights and Authority, 20.

[10] De Tocqueville, Alexis. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. 2nd ed. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.

[11] Human Rights and Authority, 8.

[12] Cunningham, Sean. “New Right Political Movement.” Britannica. Last modified March 19, 2016. Accessed February 24, 2017.


John Peters Humphrey: on the UNCHR

By Charles Dabda

John Peters Humphrey’s speech to the sub-commission of the UNCHR, truly embodies his prolific career and contribution toward the advancement of human rights internationally. In May of 1992, Humphrey stood before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights’ sub-commission and addressed their failures of inaction, regarding the application of resolution 1503. He spoke at the annual conference and conveyed his thoughts through a critical lens. Resolution 1503 touched upon the accountability of those who held POWs (Prisoners of War), as well as the compensation for said POWs[1]. As stated in his speech, he was a former chairman of the sub-commission, when it was known as the United Nations Division on Human Rights.[2] Humphrey called it one of the most important mechanisms for the protection of human rights worldwide[3], yet he rigidly exposed the organization’s faults. His criticisms thus acted as guidance for rectifying errors. The commission “was established to weave the international legal fabric that protects our fundamental rights and freedoms.[4]” Thus, its chieftain purpose was to uphold human rights and see that those who violate them be persecuted, and subsequently compensate harmed individuals.

The members of the sub-commission stated that the aforementioned resolution was inoperative for POWs held in Japan in virtue of the context of world war two. However, Humphrey noted that it was indeed the heinous crimes of WW2 which bore the first human rights persecutions and called for compensatory action.  Humphrey refused to accept their inadequate explanation for not applying resolution 1503.

The speech was written in 1992, as Humphrey wrote on his paper by hand, and was delivered at an ECOSOC annual subsidiary meeting. The context of 1992 was crucial for the recognition of human rights in virtue of the fact that the Yugoslav wars had begun merely a year before. Humphrey spoke before the sub-commission with regards to POWs and their reconciliation, while the Yugoslav wars were occurring, egregious crimes to say the least. Thus I argue that the circumstances of the speech reinvigorated the passion of the listeners to fight for the greater good of humanity, similar to the context of Humphrey’s draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I maintain that his speech was a call to the conscience of the international community and a plea to fight for the protection of human rights.

Humphrey expressed that in ordinary circumstances it would be his pleasure to address the sub-commission, but given the international context and human rights violations, he was less than delighted. Moreover, the sub-commission adopts hundreds of resolutions at the annual conference in Geneva, and thus it is crucial to uphold them in order to maintain their strength and legitimacy. If such resolutions were not held to the highest degree and respected, they would essentially become futile. According to International Trials and Reconciliation: assessing the impact of the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the 1990’s bore a new age of accountability[5]; which is exactly what John Peters Humphrey was fighting for on the day of his speech. As Humphrey called for accountability for those who held POWs in Japan, the international community was on the brink of intervening in Yugoslavia to prevent even more abominable crimes. Furthermore, in the same year of his speech, John Peters Humphrey was given a prestigious award at the United Nations for his exceptional contributions to the cause of human rights[6]. Thus, the context of  May of 1992 was momentous in virtue of the fact that individuals, such as Humphrey, were fighting for the protection of human rights, as egregious violations were occurring. This incessant battle, largely propelled by John Peters Humphrey himself, prevented the international community from committing the crime of apathy from their moral obligations.

Humphrey’s impactful address was firm, precise and concise. His rhetoric targeted the issue directly rather than using unnecessary terminology and remained focused on the most relevant matter of the meeting, the application of resolution 1503. He outlined the negligence  of those he was addressing and left them with a stimulating and carefully considered question, “Resolution 1503 is one of the most useful international mechanisms for the implementation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Will the Sub-Commission go down in history as having weakened it? [7]” This speech was momentous by virtue of his ability to dramatically evoke the question of the effectiveness of certain UN organizations. Humphrey had the capacity to criticize the sub-commission’s inaction, reminding its members of his work with them, and leave them with an open-ended question in order to provoke thought and consideration. This strategic ending allowed the members of the sub-commission to ponder their decision. He further critiques the sub-commission by stating that the misuse of passed resolutions “challenges the very heart and basis of the new world law of human rights.[8]” He eloquently pushed for something he dedicated his life to, inalienable rights and their protection.

In all, the importance of Humphrey’s speech in 1992 is attributable to the occurrence of the human rights violations in the Yugoslav wars. His eloquent words were significant in the push for the international community to maintain their moral obligations to protect the inalienable rights of all people. Words alone do the legacy of John Peters Humphrey no justice, his career was exuberant and the 21st century continues the fight he set the precedent for.

[1] “University of Minnesota Human Rights Library.” University of Minnesota Human Rights Library. Accessed February 18, 2017.

[2] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 — United Nations Speech, John Peters Humphrey, McGill University Archives.

[3] Ibid

[4] “UNITED NATIONS COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS.” United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Accessed February 19, 2017.

[5] Clark, Janine Natalya. International trials and reconciliation: assesing the impact of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Abingdon: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.

[6] “A tribute to the great Montrealers.” A tribute to the great Montrealers. Accessed February 18, 2017.

[7] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 — United Nations Speech, John Peters Humphrey, McGill University Archives. p.2 line 11-14

[8] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 — United Nations Speech, John Peters Humphrey, McGill University Archives. p.1 line 20-22

John Peters Humphrey on the Creation of the Position of High Commissioner of Human Rights

By Cassandra Ryan

In the late 1960s, John Peters Humphrey gave the speech “Question Concerning the Implementation of Human Rights through a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or some other Appropriate International Machinery” on behalf of the International League of Rights of Man[1], a non-governmental, consultative organization to a United Nations Working Group.[2] A working group is defined as a “collection of individuals that come together to achieve a stated objective.”[3] The United Nations working group that Humphrey addressed consisted of delegates from UN member states who were tasked with discussing the creation of the position of High Commissioner as a mechanism to enforce the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).[4] Humphrey’s speech addresses the ever-present issue of how to effectively implement human rights, considering the non-legally binding nature of the UDHR.[5] Addressing fears of establishing another supra-national institution, Humphrey argues that a UN High Commissioner of human rights could in fact play a key role in implementation.

Though the exact date of the speech is not obvious upon initial examination of Humphrey’s personal copy, he does reference a March 1966 resolution of the Human Rights Commission on racial discrimination and segregation.[6] Humphrey also discusses a Costa Rican Resolution, suggesting the creation of a High Commissioner, “of last year,”[7] which was likely drafted in 1965.[8] The speech was thus likely given late 1966 or early 1967; at least after March of 1966. Although the UDHR was established in 1949, the 1960s were turbulent, and at the time of Humphrey’s speech, there were many conflicts and human rights violations in progress. The UDHR clearly had not been an instantaneous solution, and Humphrey addressed this in his speech.

Though the UDHR could not be legally binding, there needed to be a way to at least “promote and encourage observance of these standards.”[9]  Humphrey was looking at the needs and realities of the “prevailing international climate,” and was specifically addressing the Apartheid regime in South Africa.[10] South Africa, a member of the UN, along with other members, had abstained from voting in favour of the UDHR, and continued with its racist Apartheid regime.[11] Given “how unsatisfactory” the implementation of the UDHR had been, there was a real, crucial need for someone like a High Commissioner to “improve the effectiveness” of appeals, encourage judicial associations and “undertake concrete tasks to render assistance to the victims of apartheid.”[12]

Humphrey points out that many NGOs and consultative agencies were grappling with the enforceability of the UDHR, and proposed the position of High Commissioner as a solution that would hopefully solve the problem without scaring member states away from the UDHR for fear of sovereignty violations.[13] Humphrey assured his audience that the High Commissioner would not be able to intervene in a state’s internal affairs, nor exercise any judicial power.[14] However, Humphrey’s speech to the working group was not the first time that the creation of the position of Human Rights High Commissioner had been considered; nor was the Costa Rican Resolution of 1966. In fact, it had been addressed in 1949 with the very drafting of the UDHR, but had been neglected for fear that it would appear as an encroachment on member state’s sovereignty.[15]

Although the High Commissioner that Humphrey envisioned would have no judicial power, he explained that it would not be a useless position. The High Commissioner would serve as a “representative embodiment of the international public conscience- to inform, advise and assist the UN bodies and agencies concerned with human rights.”[16] The High Commissioner would be someone with an international reputation for integrity, neutrality and objectivity,” who would be elected by the UN General Assembly.[17] They would assist organizations and agencies in collecting information concerning human rights conditions, draw attention to issues, and would be authorized to make recommendations “of a general character,” without making judgements.[18] They would also be able, at the “behest of a government,” to prepare “special reports concerning a problem or situation in its country.”[19]

Despite assurances that the High Commissioner would be a neutral and objective body, the position was not created in 1967. In 1966 the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was opened to signature and ratification by the UN General Assembly.[20] The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was also in its preliminary stages in the late 1960s.[21] Both of these are legally binding for signatories and were seen by many member state representatives to do the job of a High Commissioner.[22]  The High Commissioner was therefore seen as “unnecessary in view of the completion of the Covenants”, and also as an usurper of the roles of UN organs.[23] The covenants and conventions took many years to come into force, and the High Commissioner was for a time considered as a provisional solution, but was eventually neglected.[24] The position, finally created in December of 1993, has many of the roles and responsibilities as outlined in Humphrey’s 1967 speech, focusing primarily on spreading awareness about human rights and aiding governmental bodies. [25]

Humphrey ends his speech on a hopeful note, warning against the pessimism that the High Commissioner “does not go far enough.”.[26] Even if the High Commissioner is not the ultimate solution, “a collective will exist – the way to effective implementation will be found.”[27] Perhaps the fear of sovereignty violations disappeared overtime, or perhaps the covenants were not an ultimate solution; whatever the reason, Humphrey’s belief in the need for the office of High Commissioner was not unfounded.

[1] Now the International League of Human Rights

[2] MG4127 C.18 F.363 Speeches 1990-1994, “Question Concerning the Implementation of Human Rights through a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or some other Appropriate International Machinery”, 1.

[3] “Working Group,” Business Dictionary ,accessed 19 Feb. 2017,

[4] Roger S. Clark, A United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff), 1972, 52.

[5] “Human Rights Law,” United Nations, accessed 19 Feb. 2017,

[6]  Resolution entitled “Question of the Violation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Including Policies of Racial Discrimination and Segregation, and Apartheid, in All Countries, with Particular Reference to Colonial  and other Dependent Countries”

[7] “Question Concerning the Implementation of Human Rights through a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or some other Appropriate International Machinery”, 2.

[8] Roger S. Clark, 47.

[9] “Question Concerning the Implementation of Human Rights through a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or some other Appropriate International Machinery”, 1.

[10] Ibid., p.2.

[11] “Drafting History,” Columbia University of the City of New York, accessed 20 Feb. 2017,

[12] “Question Concerning the Implementation of Human Rights through a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or some other Appropriate International Machinery”,  4.

[13] Ibid., p.2.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Roger S. Clark, 41.

[16] “Question Concerning the Implementation of Human Rights through a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or some other Appropriate International Machinery”, 2.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., p.3.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” United Nations, accessed 20 Feb. 2017,

[21] Ibid.

[22] Roger S. Clark, 55.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p.54.

[25] “What We Do,” United Nations, accessed 19 Feb. 2017,

[26] Question Concerning the Implementation of Human Rights through a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or some other Appropriate International Machinery”, 5.

[27] Ibid.

Humphrey’s Warnings and Directives: The 1980s and Quebec Separatism and Nuclear Fallout

By Brigitte Pawliw-Fry

In May of 1984, John Peters Humphrey, author of the first draft of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, gave the commencement speech for the graduating class of St. Mary’s University in Halifax, which he used to “challenge” his audience to assume the problems his generation could not solve. [1] This largely rhetorical and directive speech is significant for its register of the anxieties of the time, including Quebec separatism and nuclear fallout. It also appeals to both group rights and patriotism and warns against the perils of nationalism.

First, his content and rhetoric is largely shaped for his young, Maritime audience. Humphrey immediately identifies himself as one of them, an alumnus who still considers Halifax “home.” [2] Though putting “Nova Scotians, New Brunswickers, and Islanders…into the same boat,” and recalling his advocacy for “the union of our three maritime provinces,” he constructs a more unified sense of community and signals shared goals and directions.[3] One such goal is warding off Quebec’s separation from the union. Crafted through the lens of shared identities, Humphrey warns that the Maritimes face an uncertain future.[4]

This uncertainty was based on a sustained separatist movement in Quebec. Only four years before his commencement was the narrowly failed Quebec referendum and the re-election of Rene Lévesque’s Parti Québécois, with a majority government in 1981, with a larger margin of victory than the last election.[5] Humphrey’s fears about the continued threat of Quebec’s split could have been further encouraged by Quebec’s refusal to sign the Constitution Act of 1982, thus flaming the fire of separatism in the province.[6] His address of separatism, filtered through the language of the Maritime’s and Canada’s future, speaks to an early 1980s desire for Canadian unity and diversity, and articulates the sense that the threat of Quebec’s split was not wholly quashed – which proved to be true with the even closer defeat of separation in the 1995 referendum.

Yet, to Humphrey, Quebec’s potential separation from Canada was not the greatest challenge that this audience’s generation faced. Rather, it was nuclear fallout. The future of “Canada, or indeed of the word in which we live” appeared uncertain to him, as his “working hypothesis” of “optimism,” was being tested by the historical moment of 1984.[7] Based on this perceived threat, his speech served to directly challenge his audience to “find solutions for some of the problems that my generation has been unable to solve.” [8] If they did not, he warns that they would “have…no future either as Canadians or even as human beings.” [9]

The cautioning reads as dire, even heavy-handed, to a modern audience. Yet Humphrey’s claims did have cause. The early 1980s, with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981, saw a deterioration in relations between the Soviets and The West.[10] In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan, and the threat of nuclear war became more imminent.[11] Reagan was also more cavalier and strong-man-like in his approach to nuclear negotiations, and the Soviets were turning increasingly to isolationist policies.[12] In the context of heightened tensions, Humphrey calls the U.S. “so aggressive and in possession of such weapons of destruction that there is a very great danger that your generation will be the last to live on this planet.”[13] To Humphrey, averting nuclear fallout was the “great challenge to which your generation must respond.” [14]

His speech does provide some possible responses, including reinvigorating international organizations, giving them “effective sanctions,” [15] and curbing the power of the “modern state,” as “the contemporary state system is obsolete” [16]— positions he characterizes as “provocative.” That they were “provocative” speaks significantly to the climate of this era and suggests that the prevailing opinions were centered on the importance of nationalism and the state rather than on cooperation among nations.[17]

Building upon Canada’s difference from the ideological divisiveness of the U.S., he describes Canada as patriotic, rather than nationalistic, and argues against “nationalism that becomes an explosion,” which he saw in the Falkland Islands only two years earlier 1982, which led lead to hundreds of deaths on both sides.[18] Refuting the criticism that Canadians were “not nationalistic enough,” [19] he defines nationalism as anathema to democracy, and emphasizes the importance of “local patriotism” and bilingualism in Canada’s future. [20]

This is further affirmed by his argument for internationalism, in which nations learn from and accept more nuanced understandings of each other. For example, he suggests that it “isn’t true that all Russians are cynical aggressors or that all Americans are capitalistic imperialists.”[21] Rather than judgement, this internationalism demands that one is a “citizen of the world,” and that one “return[s] to the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.” [22] This message of his speech is one of universalism, paired with Christian idealistic teachings, as the 1980s, he believes, could no “longer afford the luxury of demagogues who say “my country right or wrong”.”[23] Thus, Humphrey’s speech registers a left, internationalist stance of the early 1980s and counters the upswing of conservatism and nationalism seen with Ronald Reagan and the Falklands War. He uses the platform of the speech to announce the problems that his generation could not address and to pass on the project of international cooperation to a new generation.

[1] Humphrey, John Peters. MG 4127 C.18 F.369. St. Mary’s University Convocation Address. May 12, 1984.

1984 p. 1

[2]J, Humphrey p. 1

[3] Ibid. p. 1

[4] Ibid. p. 4

[5] “Oui” or “Non” Canada’s future teeters on the brink as Quebecers decide if they want to remain in Confederation. Canada: A People’s History. CBC Learning. 2001.

[6] J, Humphrey, p. 2

[7] Ibid. P. 2

[8] Ibid. p. 2

[9] Ibid. P. 2

[10] Viswanathan, Vivek. “Fallout From Reykjavik: Reagan’s Stand and the Fate of Arms Control.” New York History 87, no. 1 (2006): 135-43. 135

[11] A, Kapur. P. 435 Kapur, Ashok. “Nuclear Proliferation in the 1980s.” International Journal, vol. 36, no. 3, 1981, pp. 535–555.

[12] V, Viswanathan. P. 125

[13] J, Humphrey. P. 5

[14] Ibid. p. 6

[15] Ibid. p. 10

[16] Ibid, p. 9

[17] Ibid. p. 9

[18] “Falkland Islands: Imperial pride.” The Gaurdian. February 2010.  Web.

[19] J, Humphrey p. 7

[20] Ibid. p. 3

[21] Ibid. P. 8

[22] Ibid. P. 8

[23] Ibid. P. 8

“The Canadian Charter of Human Rights and International Law”

By Brianna Ardis-Bernhardt

John Peters Humphrey gave the speech entitled “The Canadian Charter of Human Rights and International Law” at a lecture during a meeting sponsored by the Faculty of Education at the University of Western Ontario, on December 8, 1981. He was chosen to speak in order to address the international protection of human rights, specifically in reference to the impact of international human rights law in Canada. During this time, Canada was in the process of entrenching a Charter of Rights in a revised constitution. However, Canada had also assumed certain obligations to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms based on their involvement with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and United Nation Covenants.[1] Humphrey argues that Canada’s obligations under international law were not fully reflected in the proposed Charter of Rights.[2]

Under international law, Canada is bound under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two United Nation Covenants.[3] The United Nations Commission held its first session in 1947 under the chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt and began to draft an international bill consisting of: a declaration, a multilateral convention (to be known as the Covenants) and measures of implementation.[4] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted as a resolution of the General Assembly and has become a part of the customary law of many nations, including Canada.[5] The multilateral convention was decided as split into two separate conventions: one on civil and political rights and the other on economic, social and cultural rights.[6] In 1976, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights came into force, and Canada acceded to both on May 19, 1976.[7]

Humphrey believes that there are certain rights and freedoms “which are so basic to human dignity that they need to be proclaimed.”[8] This is particularly important in a country where there are racial, religious, linguistic and other minorities, which need special protection. Humphrey argues that democracy is not just a majoritarian government (where figures such as Hitler had majoritarian favour) but represents a society that respects the human dignity of individual men and women and their basic rights and freedoms, where the “rule of law obtains and is tolerant of its minorities.”[9]

According to the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, there are certain rights and freedoms, which must be respected even in time of emergency. These rights include but are not limited to the right to life, the right not to subjects to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.[10] However, the contention that Humphrey has is that the Charter of Rights does not mention such protection or mention it in the War Measure’s Act or other emergency legislature.[11]

Furthermore, due to a “notwithstanding clause” the new Canadian Charter of Rights permits Parliament or provincial legislation to decide at that any one or more of these fundamental rights of freedoms shall not be respected in Canada or any Canadian province. [12] Article 33 of the Charter, which remains in place today, declares that in any act of Parliament or of a provincial legislature “that the act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding any provision contained in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of the Charter.”[13] Therefore, an act may be made that may go against the provisions outlined in these sections (section 2 or sections 7 to 15). These rights include habeas corpus, the right to a fair trial, as well as the right not to be discriminated against based on race, national origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. However, Humphrey is not claiming that the New Charter of Rights is itself a violation of international law or the obligations that bind Canada under international law. His contention is that it will not be of as much assistance in aiding Canada respect its international obligations as most would expect.

A major issue with the proposed Canadian Charter of Rights was that while it outlawed discrimination (albeit subjected to the notwithstanding clause) based on race, religion sex, national or ethnic origin, age and mental or physical disability, it did not mention discrimination based on language as prohibited.[14] It seems clear that the drafters, according to Humphrey, did not distinguish between the protection of a language and the prohibition of discrimination based on language. Protection of a language usually entails positive action whereas discrimination is when someone is denied the enjoyment of a right for some irrelevant and prohibited reason. An example of this is if someone is deprived of the right to work because they do not understand the language of the majority when the job does not require knowledge of that language. This is in contradiction with the United Nation’s Charter by which Canada is bound. In its very first article it claims that the purposes of the United Nations is to promote respect for “human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”[15]

Humphrey’s concern for the reflection of our international obligations within our Charter of Rights is clearly well founded. The United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares that there are certain rights and freedoms that must be respected even in times of emergency, which is not protected in the War Measure’s Act or other Canadian emergency legislature.[16] The “notwithstanding clause” remains highly contentious even today and allows Parliament or provinces to override many of these fundamental rights of freedoms in certain circumstances (that are not very easily understood by the general population of Canada).[17] Another issue is that although the Canadian Charter of Rights outlaws discrimination based on race, religion, sex, among others… it does not include discrimination based on language as prohibited. Although it enacts protective measures, it does not curtail discrimination based on language. This does not reflect Canada’s international obligations as the very first article of the United Nation’s Charter includes the promotion of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or language.[18] Therefore, Humphrey is rightfully concerned that this charter does not fully reflect Canada’s obligations under international law.

[1] MC 4127 C.18 F. 369 – The Canadian Charter of Human Rights and International Law, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 1.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] MC 4127 C.18 F. 369 – The Canadian Charter of Human Rights and International Law, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 9.

[5] Ibid.,10.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 11.

[8] Ibid 2.

[9] Ibid., 2-3.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] MC 4127 C.18 F. 369 – The Canadian Charter of Human Rights and International Law, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 3-4.

[12]Ibid., 5.

[13] Ibid., 4.

[14] MC 4127 C.18 F. 369 – The Canadian Charter of Human Rights and International Law, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 6.

[15] Ibid., 7.

[16] Ibid., 3-4.

[17] Ibid., 5.

[18] MC 4127 C.18 F. 369 – The Canadian Charter of Human Rights and International Law, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 7.

Response to “Speech to Union of Bulgarian Lawyers”

By Brendan Fitzgibbon

The year 1989 was an important one in world history, but of all the regions of the world it holds the most significance for Eastern Europe. Looking at the events of 1989, one remembers the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany, the execution of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the overall chaotic restructuring of Eastern Europe’s society. Bulgaria’s experience during this period is far less known in the Western World and it was amid this social, economic and political upheaval that John Humphrey traveled to Sofia to speak to the Union of Bulgarian Lawyers. In the opening of his speech he mentions the lack of knowledge of Canadians on Bulgarian culture and history and vice versa, and the importance of mutual understanding is in order to preserve world peace[1].  By doing so, Humphrey demonstrates that he understands the Cold War was coming to a close and that the West and East would need to drastically change their perceptions of each other, and Bulgarians of themselves, in order to co-habitate. Unlike countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland, the West knew relatively little of Bulgaria but instead saw it as a somewhat backwards country that continued to be politically loyal to the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War[2]. Humphrey’s speech indirectly asks the lawyers’ aid to build institutions that banish these misconceptions of their country by promoting respect, understanding and inclusion.

A common theme throughout the speech is the necessity for international cooperation and understanding in order to prevent war. His speech is meant to remind the Bulgarians of the pivotal moment in history that they find themselves in.  The lawyers that Humphrey addressed in May of 1989 would go on to shape the identity of Bulgaria in the post-Communist world. These lawyers would likely create much of the political and legislative realm that their nation would be governed by. He reminds his audience multiple times about the origins of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the atrocities of the Second World War, many of which occurred in Eastern Europe. Indeed, for much of the speech, Humphrey seems to be reminding the Bulgarians of the responsibilities that a nation must abide by. As he explains to his audience “The General Assembly is not a world parliament and […] its resolutions do not have the force of international law […] The Declaration was […] proclaimed as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”[3]. Although the United Nations cannot force individual member states to promote human rights, the Universal Declaration is the standard by which nations are judged on. Denying certain individuals their Human Rights for regional or political objectives, only leads to ostracization by the international community. The recognition of individuals, and the human rights you share with them, is the most potent way to prevent war. The state of human rights in Bulgaria in 1989 was poor. Beginning in 1984, the Bulgarian government took aggressive policies to assimilate the Turkish minority through suppression of their cultural identity[4]. While Humphrey was giving his speech at the University of Bulgaria, the government was promoting their expulsion and by mid-June, 52 000 Turkish-Bulgarian refugees were living in Turkey[5]. Parallels to Bulgaria’s past, as a member of the Axis, would no doubt have occurred to Humphrey.

Indeed his entire speech almost sounds like a warning. A warning to the Bulgarians, and all of East Europe, to not repeat the mistakes that had led to the catalyst for the Universal Declaration. A warning not to embrace ethnic prejudice, disunity and aggressive nationalism but to create fair economic and political institutions to propel Bulgaria into the fast approaching 21st century. In his closing statements, he reflects on the dramatic change International Law had undergone in the last century[6]. He utilizes Gorbachev’s policies of restructuring and democratization known as Perestroika (Restructuring)[7] to elucidate the global revolution of human rights to his audience. No matter where a person goes, they should be treated with the dignity guaranteed to them by the Universal Declaration. Bulgaria, and the rest of Eastern Europe, stood at the threshold in 1989-90. For the first time in nearly half a century, they were no longer bound to a political, economic and social ideology exported from another country. Humphrey chooses to leave his listeners with such choice words as “radical” and “revolutionary” and evoking the philosophical expression élan vital[8], that is, our Life Force, and its eternal battle with the physical world that surrounds us and that we perceive[9]. If human rights, and our need as people for the freedoms that they entail, are our élan vital, then the popular revolutions of 1989 are just another manifestation of the physical world giving way to our instinctual need for these freedoms.

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.364- Speech to Union of Bulgarian Lawyers, John Peter Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives

[2] Ivan Kristev, “Living in the Present,” The Times Literary Supplement (London, UK) 15 May 1992. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

[3] MG 4127 C.18 F.364- Speech to Union of Bulgarian Lawyers, John Peter Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives

[4] Rossen Vassilev, “ Restoring Ethnolinguistic Rights of Bulgaria’s Turkish Minority,” Ethnopolitics 9, no.3 (2010): 295-309

[5] Clyde Haberman, “Bulgaria Forces Turkish Exodus of Thousands” New York Times (New York, NY) 22 June 1989. Web. 19 Feb. 2017

[6] MG 4127 C.18 F.364- Speech to Union of Bulgarian Lawyers, John Peter Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives

[7] 2016. “Perestroika.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition 1 Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 22, 2017)

[8] MG 4127 C.18 F.364- Speech to Union of Bulgarian Lawyers, John Peter Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives

[9] 2016. “Henri Bergson.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition 1. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 22, 2017)

Human Rights Day Speech (1973)

By Ayman Ashebir

On December 10th of every year, the international community celebrates “Human Rights Day” in commemoration of that day in 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.[1] At the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, John Peters Humphrey delivered a speech on the importance of the Declaration, the remarkable achievement that was its passage, and the necessity to continue to fight for the protection and recognition of human rights twenty-five years later.

John Peters Humphrey begins his remarks by identifying the adoption of the Declaration as one of the “greatest achievements of the United Nations.”[2] Humphrey describes the Declaration as a “revolutionary document” because it signified a shift away from human rights as a domestic issue, to human rights as an international one.[3] By codifying an internationally accepted framework outlining the rights of all humans across all continents, the Declaration represents a postwar consensus that human rights are a part of the purview of international law.[4]

Humphrey highlights the Second World War as an integral catalyst for the Declaration’s adoption.[1] For Humphrey, the “unprecedented violations of the most basic human rights” that occurred during the Second World War had the effect of shocking people into action.[6] Humphrey notes the fact that the Second World War caused an upsurge in sensitivity to human rights violations worldwide, even in places not directly affected by such violations.[7] It is this heightened sensitivity that fuelled a demand for a codification of basic human rights, rights that all humans – regardless of their nationhood – would have.[8]

While recognizing the successes of the Declaration, Humphrey also outlines several significant issues that the international community must tackle if it wants to fulfill the document’s original intent. For Humphrey, whether or not the international community can fulfill the promises of the Declaration is dependent on the desire – or lack thereof – of the general public to see the Declaration’s promises fulfilled.[9] While the immediate aftermath of the Second World War provided the perfect environment to which basic human rights protections could be codified, Humphrey argues that the dilemma of time has made it difficult to maintain that perfect environment.[10] Humphrey laments the fact that world public opinion regarding human rights violations has moved from heightened sensitivity in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, to indifference and disillusionment twenty-five years later.[11] The indifference comes from individuals of the democratic world who have either forgotten, or have simply never experienced the brutality with which humans can treat one another.[12] The disillusionment comes from the individuals of the authoritarian world who after twenty-five years, no longer believe in the ability of the international community to make good on its promise to protect them.[13] To that end, Humphrey poignantly notes that the anniversary commemoration may as well be about the countless lives the Declaration was unable to protect, rather than the ones that it did.[14]

The disillusionment towards the Declaration felt among the oppressed world is principally connected to its foremost goal: to provide for the establishment of an international body of laws above the sovereignty of nation-states, with an international method of enforcement to which nation-states would be accountable. As discussed earlier, Humphrey himself points to the establishment of an international body of laws as the most remarkable achievement of the Declaration.[15]  And yet, Humphrey also laments the unwillingness of some states to respect these international laws.[16] Humphrey readily concedes the ineffectiveness of the United Nations in ensuring that signatories of the Declaration are properly following its articles.[17] Humphrey addresses this by discussing the ways in which the United Nations can ensure adherence to the Declaration.

Adopted on February 5th of 1952, the International Bill of Rights consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[18] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – professing the right of all humans to “self-determination and protection under the law” – was adopted on December 16, 1966, and put into effect on March 23, 1976.[19] The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – which commits signatories to the protection of labour rights, rights to health care, and rights to education – was adopted on December 16, 1966, and put into effect on January 23, 1976.[20] While the Declaration “was never meant to be binding as part of international law”, the two covenants were for the states that chose to ratify them.[21]

The two covenants were ratified by a majority of the international community with the exception of nation-states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.[22] However, while the Covenants recognize the legality of human rights, Humphrey argues that they provide weak measures for enforcement.[23] Moreover, the most important protections take the form of optional protocols, which abolish the death penalty and provide additional individual rights.[24] Unfortunately, a nation-state has the option of ratifying the Covenants while choosing not to ratify the optional protocols.[25] Humphrey argues that whether or not a nation-state ratifies the optional protocols, symbolizes whether or not that nation-state truly believes in the human rights it agrees to protect.[26]

While the majority of nation-states have ratified the Covenant, a considerably lower percentage have ratified the optional protocols. The United States, China, the majority of Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, have yet to ratify the first and second optional protocols to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[27] Moreover, virtually none of world’s nation-states – including Canada – have ratified the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.[28]

As we look at the Declaration today, there are undeniable parallels between modern discussions of the United Nations and Humphrey’s remarks in 1973. Just as Humphrey lamented, modern discussions of the United Nations are often dominated by fiery debates as to the effectiveness of the United Nations in protecting basic human rights. And it is interesting to think about such debates within the context of what Humphrey laments as the principal reason for the ineffectiveness of the United Nations, the lack of effective enforcement. Indeed, Humphrey argues for an international body that has the power to instill fear into the hearts of authoritarian regimes who are in turn, forced to respect the laws set forth in the Declaration.[29]

John Peters Humphrey delivers his address to an audience primarily comprised of representatives from non-governmental organizations.[30] Humphrey describes non-governmental organizations as integral to the democratic process and a critical part “of the structure and operation of the United Nations.” [31] It is in this speech that Humphrey forges a new path for human rights advocates, one in which non-governmental organizations – and the press – take on the responsibility of educating the public on the need for human rights, and lobbying nation-states – using the power of the private sector – into respecting human rights laws.[32] Humphrey highlights non-governmental organizations as the new vehicles for the advocacy of human rights, in part, because of the apathy that Humphrey believes exists within the general public.[33] Humphrey blames public apathy for the lack of action on the part of governments who no longer see human rights laws as politically expedient.[34] Comparatively, the purpose of non-governmental organizations is to bring awareness to issues that the public would otherwise be indifferent to. As such, the public apathy Humphrey depicts as debilitating to the enforcement of human rights laws, could be cured by the private sector.[35]

[1] “Human Rights Day Speech December 10, 1973,” MG 4127, C.18, File 371, McGill University Archives, McGill University, 1

[2] Humphrey, 1

[3] ibid., 5

[4] ibid., 5

[5] ibid., 5

[6] ibid., 5

[7] ibid., 11

[8] ibid., 12

[9] ibid., 12

[10] ibid., 12

[11] ibid., 12

[12] ibid., 12

[13] ibid., 12

[14] ibid., 3

[15] ibid., 5

[16] ibid., 9

[17] ibid., 9

[18] “International Bill of Human Rights,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed February 22, 2017

[19] “Human Rights.”

[20] “Human Rights.”

[21] Humphrey, 8

[22] “Status of Ratification,”

[23] Humphrey, 8

[24] ibid., 8

[25] ibid., 9

[26] ibid., 9

[27] “Status of Ratification.”

[28] “Status of Ratification.”

[29] Humphrey, 13

[30] ibid., 12

[31] ibid., 12

[32] ibid., 14

[33] ibid., 14

[34] ibid., 12

[35] ibid., 16

A Global Law of Human Rights

By Antea Bonito

In March 1987, John Peters Humphrey delivered a speech, A Global Law of Human Rights, at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, analyzing the conditions of the revolutionary international human rights regime as it existed at the time. In his speech, Humphrey tried to propose a solution for the major challenge facing the creation of a common global regime concerning human rights – essentially, the fact that states still hold a monopoly over the control of the international system.

How did the location, and the public, influence Humphrey’s choice of topic and his way of delivering his message? It is undeniable that one of his main goals was to raise awareness among the students and professors listening to his lecture – but it could be also argued that Humphrey wanted to inspire them to take on important subjects such as the challenges facing the international system. Humphrey himself says as much at the end of his speech – that his most important message concerns the need to educate the world opinion, which is conducive to the purpose and the milieu of the speech itself. One of the main points in Humphrey’s speech concerns the fact that states are still the main actor on the international scene, and that they are the only ones capable of controlling the world order. He then points out that there is not actually much that can be done to implement a system of global laws of human rights – and that the only choice that we have is to focus on educating the people and hope for a change that comes from within states themselves. His speech pays peculiar attention to the importance of the individual – this focus can be considered as part of a larger discourse about the rising status of individuals as subjects of international law, with obligations but especially rights (Humphrey himself raises this point at the beginning of the speech).  It is particularly clear that Humphrey counts on this dialectic of individuals-states to bring about the needed change on the international scene – a change that would make it possible to have a realistic and constructive conversation about developing a discourse about a global law of human rights.

In his speech Humphrey holds that traditionally international law referred only to states – in particular, it can be said that the current international system is still a product of 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia, which gave birth to nation states and the concept of sovereignty as we still recognize it today. The international order, as he points out, was ‘purely horizontal’[1]. However, today, there is a new concept of world law, which at the same time applies to a new concept of world order. What was the factor of change that allowed this revolution to come about? Humphrey holds that it was the international law of human rights itself, and in general a new discourse about human rights which started developing after WWII, which was embodied by entities such as the UN, and its charter, as well as the UDHR and the other international covenants on human rights (the ICCPR and the ICESCR). Humphrey focuses in particular on the status of the UDHR – which is not strictly legally binding but which, he holds, is actually ‘binding as part of the customary law of nations’[2] . Humphrey emphasizes that there are also other instruments that can be put in place to keep in line states not signatories to treaties: the implementation procedures at the UN, as well as the human rights committees, or the UN Commission on Human Rights. After reviewing such topics, Humphrey gets to the point we were all waiting for – given this, what we lack are ‘sheriffs with the power to enforce the law’[3] that we all supposedly agree upon. The problem with this international policeman is that it will never come into being as long as individual nation states hold the monopoly of coercive power in the international community.  Humphrey concludes that the only thing that we can do is accept this and work through the existing mechanisms that are available to us – he holds that it is important for governments and states to educate the public opinion through the ‘organization of shame’[4], which is another term for public / peer pressure. He recognizes that it is not much, but at present times it is all we have.

The speech is interesting, but it did not propose anything new or particularly revolutionary. It seems to represent the position of someone accepting the impossibility of changing the status quo – a sort of prise de conscience, if you will. Hence, Humphrey proposes a ‘bottom-up’ approach that is supposed to start from citizens and work its way up to the states who can influence the international community. The speech in itself is both realistic and too optimistic. It is realistic because it recognizes, without much fuss, that there is not much that can be done – but, at the same time, it is maybe too optimistic in its consideration of public opinion and the efficacy of peer pressure, as well as the status of the UDHR in international customary law. As far as the UDHR is concerned, it has gained more and more relevance on the international scene, and is furthermore utilized as a ‘rule of decision or as a significant interpretative guide to the meaning of domestic constitutional or statutory provisions’[5]. The UDHR is recognized globally, and it can be ‘defended’ by states who can take it upon themselves to punish its infringement. It specifically relies, however, on international peer pressure. Now, it is true that the UDHR and the other international covenants are a part of customary international law and hold a certain power over states. However, how are violations actually punished? It is enough to look at the conditions of international relations today to notice that persistent violators of human rights are not always punished. What about the Russian actions towards Ukraine? Or North Korea? Or Erdogan in Turkey? These actions were condemned by the international community, but what effect did this condemnation really have in the end? In all these cases, peer pressure was almost useless. True, states can put in place collective coercive measures (moving from uti singuli to collective instruments, which normally ensures a wider impact). Sanctions can be put in place. There are also legal methods involving the use of force that can be resorted to – in international law this is called reprisal – but which is still subject to numerous limits to respect the bounds of legality. As of today, the UN Security Council is supposed to be the main international sheriff – but finally, even the Security Council is limited by the will of nation states who compose it and by its legal basis – it can impose targeted sanctions or work through blacklists, but those have limits and drawbacks too. Furthermore, there is no world court for human rights, and it is not likely to exist in the future. Individual states would have to give up certain prerogatives and relinquish a significant extent of their sovereignty to create such an entity – which is not likely to happen (especially when we consider that countries such as the US have signed but not ratified major international covenants, such as the ICESCR). Furthermore, if such a court did exist, it would be overwhelmed with cases, just as the ICC and the ECHR in Strasbourg are today. Also, how would access to a world court for human rights work? Today it is still very hard for people to access international remedies for alleged violations of human rights – they can only legally do so after exhausting all national channels, which is costly and time-consuming. It is true that, as Humphrey points out, there are human rights committee who hold a certain power over states because of their reports about human rights violations – and these bodies hold the view that their opinions are binding on states because of peer pressure but finally, it all comes down to individual states and how much they decide to be affected by it.

All in all, then, Humphrey’s speech is realistic and raises several good points, but it is also a tad too optimistic. It is however very well-inserted in the ‘courante’ which recognizes the importance of individuals and the individual’s new status in international law. However, it all passes through states. And, as Humphrey himself writes, as of today this is all we have.

[1] J. P. Humphrey, “A Global Law of Human Rigths”. Brigham Young University (March 1987): 2.

[2] Idem. 4.

[3] Idem. 9.

[4] Idem.

[5] Hurst Hannum, “The Status of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in National and International Law.” Digital Commons. Tufts University, (1995/1996).


Western Values in the Fight for Human Rights

By Anisha Nag

“The Charter of the United Nations reaffirmed faith in fundamental rights.” With these words from the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, John Peters Humphrey began his speech in 1975 on the state of the United Nations, thirty years after the charter was signed. The notes Humphrey made for the speech illustrate his dismay with the United Nations’ evolution up to that point, which he blamed for the deterioration of the organization’s human rights program. He claimed that since 1945, the power structures that governed the United Nations had changed, while the way the organization and its members imagined rights also transformed. These factors predicated the decline of Western influence in the international community, according to Humphrey. In his speech, Humphrey described the current state of the United Nations from his perspective, arguing that voting powers and the institutional structure of the United Nations had shaped the organization and led to the weakening of the human rights program. While his devotion to human rights is admirable, his conclusions were often misguided and based on specious assumptions of Western pre-eminence.

The nearly three decades between the ratification Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Humphrey’s speech had seen many violations of the document he drafted. Having retired from the United Nations and his role as Director of the United Nations Human Rights Division in 1966, Humphrey would be expected to want to see his lifework maintained as he envisioned it.[1] It is clear from this speech that Humphrey had a very specific idea of how the human rights program ought to be pursued, and he was troubled by the lack of enthusiasm he saw from certain Western states. The transcript does not indicate the audience of the speech, however it was clearly directed at these countries. His speech was accompanied by a sketch Humphrey had prepared for an article in the William and Mary Law Review in which planned to argue for the importance of Western influence by presenting the documents passed “when the West was in the ascendant” and juxtaposing them against those written when “the Third World was in effective control.”[2] These original notes show Humphrey’s belief in Western superiority.

Humphrey’s speech first laid out his beliefs on the status of the United Nations, then outlined his ideas on what had led to the decline of its human rights program. Humphrey described the United Nations as being in a “slough of unreality.”[3] He claimed that the organization had moved away from its original goal of upholding peace around the world and no longer “reflect[ed] political reality in the world.” This was, he claimed, because of the growing influence of developing countries caused by the influx of new member states that emerged with the end of colonialism.[4] The founders had intended for the Security Council to be the most important organ of the United Nations, however the General Assembly ended up assuming this role. Humphrey argued that this was contrary to democratic values as it gave countries who represented small populations, like Costa Rica, the same voting power as countries who represented large populations, like the United States, meaning that a citizen of a smaller country has more influence than a citizen of a large country. This was his evidence that the voting structure of the General Assembly did not reflect reality, which partly caused the decline of Western influence in the United Nations.

Humphrey went further to blame the decline of the human rights program on these changes in the United Nations. He directed a pointed critique at the Western countries who allowed their influence to decrease and described a shift in the United Nations’ conception of individual and group rights. The human rights project as he imagined it was not being fought for as ardently by certain countries as he had hoped.[5] This Western apathy was exemplified, according to Humphrey, “when the General Assembly adopted the Apartheid Convention [and] a country like Canada could find no more energetic position to abstain.”[6]

Humphrey believed that when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, the way the United Nations conceived rights was based on “a liberal tradition,” which meant protecting the individual. The decline of Western influence in the organization, argued Humphrey, coincided with its beginning to prioritize collective rights over individual rights. This idea ran in opposition to the way he imagined human rights; he stated that the notion of collective rights was “in fundamental conflict” with the ideals on which the human rights program was founded.[7] The apathetic Western states themselves were to blame for this shift as they failed, according to Humphrey, “to stand up to this kind of pressure” to change the nature of human rights.[8]

Humphrey’s conclusions were based on two assumptions. First, he assumed that protecting his conception of human rights was a worthwhile endeavour. It was this assumption that led Humphrey to chastise Western countries for giving up their fight to protect human rights. This was a sound conclusion, however his second assumption, that Western states and their values were invaluable in the effort to protect human rights, is more problematic. Humphrey saw Western states as the embodiment of the very rights ideals which the United Nations’ program sought. He equated human rights with the “tried principles on which [Western states’] political and social life was based.”[9]  He overlooked the fact that these very countries were also guilty of human rights violations, and did not see that this may have been the cause of their reluctance to support certain resolutions. Humphrey’s unfounded conclusion is significant as it showed that his understanding of human rights, and therefore the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which he drafted, was informed by this value of Western-centrism.

Humphrey believed that Western countries were inherently superior and he resented the power of majority enjoyed by the developing countries who made up the vast majority of United Nations membership. He referred to them in his speech as “so-called developing countries cum communist countries,” and blamed the “political emancipation of colonial peoples” for the loss of Western control in the United Nations.[10] The argument that the growth of this majority indirectly caused the decline of the human rights program is contradictory, as giving voices to the populations of these smaller countries next to their former colonizers promoted the values of equality and self-determination which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights encapsulates. Humphrey’s claim that the Security Council was a more democratic institution than the General Assembly did not account for the fact that democracy espouses to empower all, and the system which gives voting rights to a select few and makes the votes of some more powerful than the rest is not more democratic. This argument showed that he valued individual liberty above collective rights, and, more essentially, it was based on his assumption of the superiority of certain countries.

From a contemporary context, this argument—that the United Nations’ human rights program was faltering due to the lack of Western influence and the prevalence of developing countries—appears antiquated. With the common awareness of the deprivation of human rights caused by colonialism, the suggestion that the power and influence of new states should be minimized in order to further human rights is paradoxical. Further, his belief in the unfaltering nature of Western values sounds ironic when read with the knowledge of the rights violations committed by these very countries in the twentieth century.

Humphrey believed that the decline of human rights was caused by the weakening of Western influence in the United Nations. He blamed this directly on Western countries themselves, accusing them of “abandoning the fight.”[11] He lamented that there was no “desire on the part of the Western powers to recover their lost leadership,” and that this created the impression “that they now feel that the human rights activities have become irrelevant and that it isn’t worth an effort to take a stand.”[12] In this sense, his speech was indicative of his steadfast support for human rights. His dedication to the cause was commendable, and his influence certainly led to positive advances in the human rights program. Yet his speech also illustrated his Western-centric values. It displayed his enduring faith in the idea that the presence of strong Western values was essential to the human rights program, as it was these values that formed the foundation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He criticised the current actions of Western states, but did not question the superiority of their fundamental values. In his introduction, Humphrey asked what the future prospects were for the United Nations and its human rights program. Humphrey’s drafts were incomplete, but they displayed his belief that the human rights fight requires the active and continuing support of other countries. Humphrey would surely believe that this is still the case today.

[1] “Canada honours John Peters Humphrey, Human Rights advocate and activist,” Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations, Government of Canada, last modified January 25, 2013, accessed February 21, 2017,

[2] MG 4127 C.18 F.363 – United Nations and Human Rights in the Present Perspective, John Peters Humphrey, McGill University Archives, ii.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] Ibid., 1-2.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Ibid.,

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Ibid., 8.

[9] Ibid., 6.

[10] Ibid., 2.

[11] Ibid., 3.

[12] Ibid., 8.

John Humphrey to NGOs: Strategy and Significance

By Amanda Hills

In September 1986, John Humphrey spoke to representatives from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) around the world at the NGO Seminar of the Protection of Human Rights.[1] Forty years prior, NGOs were formally integrated into the United Nations with the passage of Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Resolution E/RES/3(II), which created the Committee on NGOs and gave NGOs consultative status with several bodies, including bodies related to human rights.[2] At the time of his address, NGOs were frustrated with the UN’s stagnant progress on human rights, thus prompting this speech.[3] This paper will first explore the historical context of this speech, examining the significance of both the suspension of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, the event that most directly caused frustration amongst NGOs, as well as the ongoing Cold War. Subsequently, it will place Humphrey’s rhetoric in the context of these events and assess the significance of his choice of language. I will argue that as the NGOs grew wary of the UN, Western countries feared appearing weak in the face of the Soviets, and thus asked Humphrey, a prominent human rights advocate, to deliver a speech that would reinvigorate the NGOs to work alongside the UN. The historical context thus helps explain the significance of this speech and the language within it.

In order to understand the importance of this speech, one must return to December 1986, when the UN General Assembly suspended the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.[4] The Sub-Commission had just submitted a series of recommendations to the UN; in its report on December 4, 1986, it emphasized the importance of its work and its belief that it needed more time to complete its job to the fullest.[5] It wrote to the General Assembly that it would be “highly beneficial” for the committee’s mandate to be extended so that it could continue to work to promote and protect the rights of all people everywhere.[6] The work of this Sub-Commission was incredibly close to Humphrey’s heart; he noted in his speech that he had been the director of the Human Rights Division at the time of the establishment of the Sub-Commission.[7] In addition, he helped pen ECOSOC resolution 1503, which gives individuals a right of petition against states “of which they are nationals”. He cites this resolution as being a key piece of legislation that was under attack.[8] His relationship to this issue means he was likely seen as a reassuring voice to the NGOs, a committed proponent of the UN’s human rights initiatives. It is therefore significant that Humphrey was chosen to deliver this address, as it is an indication that this speech was of great importance.

The geopolitical climate of 1986 sheds additional light on the consequences at stake in delivering this speech. On the second page of the speech, Humphrey notes that it was the Soviet Union that established the Sub-Commission, [9] a state whose signature characteristic was repressing its citizens.[10] This conference took place in 1986 when the Soviet Union was already crumbling, just three years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Western countries thus had an impetus to display unity and promote their image as the virtuous leaders committed to human rights in order to contrast themselves with the oppressive Soviets. There was an international cost involved in the speech; the UN could not afford to lose the support of the NGOs, many of which would have been from Western countries due to the open nature of these countries’ civil societies, as it was crucial that the West protected its reputation in order to help ensure the fall of the Soviet Union. In assessing the geopolitics of the time, some of the significance of Humphrey’s style of oratory is illuminated.

Given the historical context that makes this speech significant, a closer look at its language is necessary. Humphrey had to flatter the NGOs while praising the UN in order to encourage good faith in the body, yet these two parties were in conflict at this time. Humphrey’s attempt to strike this balance is evident throughout the speech. He begins with extensive congratulations for the NGOs, specifically naming the Anti-Slavery Society.[11] Humphrey tells them they are “putting new life” into the human rights program and cites the important role they have played in the human rights conversation since its conception.[12] Then, in nearly the same breath, he shares his hope that these NGOs will continue to be active leaders at this conference.[13] It seems as though he is elevating them in order to make them more amenable to his request for their continued support. It is also interesting that he devotes an entire section of his speech, one full paragraph, to listing his many accolades within the human rights community, as if he is trying to remind the NGOs of his stature, thus asserting both his legitimacy, as well as his authority in instructing them on this matter.[14] He also allows his language to become quite personal; on page three of his speech, he spends an entire paragraph speaking in the first person about his own views and opinions, as if to encourage the NGOs to trust him, to be at ease with him, to feel that he is being honest with them.[15] The significance of this speech is thus reflected in his choice of language.

John Humphrey was no stranger to the UN, or to the conversation on human rights; he has delivered hundreds of speeches on this topic. The political dynamics of the time help elucidate the significance of much of Humphrey’s language and rhetoric, as the NGOs’ dwindling support jeopardized the reputation of Western countries in the face of the Soviets. Throughout this speech, he worked to unite the NGOs with the UN, likely to demonstrate to the Soviets that the West was strong and genuinely committed to human rights. His language is strategic in conveying his message. This speech thus holds much significance for the UN dialogue on human rights.

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.267  –– NGO Seminar on the Protection of Human Rights, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives. 1.

          [2] “NGO, Non-governmental Organizations, United Nations, United Nations, Civil Society.” United Nations. United Nations, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.

[3] Humphrey. 1.

             [4] “A/RES/41/143. Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of

Minorities.” United Nations. United Nations, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Humphrey. 2.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

          [10] Patenaude, Bertrand M. “Regional Perspectives on Human Rights: The USSR and Russia, Part One.” FSI | SPICE – Regional Perspectives on Human Rights: The USSR and Russia, Part One. FSI | SPICE – Regional Perspectives on Human Rights: The USSR and Russia, Part One, 2012. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Humphrey. 10.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Humphrey. 2.

[15] Humphrey. 3.

Humphrey Speech: “United Nations Association in Canada”

By Amanda Garrido

In 1977, John Peters Humphrey addressed The United Nations Association in Canada (UNA-Canada), a national charitable organization that aims to educate and involve Canadians in the work of the United Nations and the urgent international issues that affect us all.[1] Humphrey was chosen to speak about the international protection of human rights. However, given the vastness of such a task, he decides to outline the United Nations human rights program in four areas: its development over the last thirty years, its present position, directions the UN must now take, and ways in which non-governmental organizations like the United Nations Association and ordinary men and women like ourselves can contribute to that end.  In his speech, Humphrey highlights UN setbacks in the ability to establish international law, while in the same breath, encouraging the need for non-governmental organisations—The United Nations Association in Canada and those alike—to continue their work, as their voices pressure governments who violate the UN Charter. By addressing the UN’s shortcomings, Humphrey indirectly stresses the importance of non-governmental organizations and their work as they currently fill the gap between governments and recognized international law.

Since the 1970’s, human rights movements and non-government organizations have increasingly played an essential role on the international scene; however, although government support for human rights has not entirely been realised, international organizations have expanded in power and number. Humphrey’s understanding of the world is simple to grasp —“the world has no future unless somehow we can install the rule of law at the international level.”[2] This rule of law— as described in the Charter—involves international cooperation in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.[3] Although the UN Charter has had a profound impact on the world, Humphrey believes the United Nations has failed to become an effective system that maintains international peace and protection. In regards to UN history, Humphrey stresses that the United Nation’s today lacks the “realistic idealism”[4] that motivated the men and women during the UN’s early stages—a drive that was channelled through individuals after two world wars and the barbarities they encompassed.

As Humphrey makes note of the UN’s lack of encouragement, he begins to touch upon techniques that have fallen short during the Covenants history—more specifically, reporting issues. Since 1956, the Economic and Social Council has requested that all member states report periodically on the growth and progress in the matter of human rights;[5] however, despite the participation of many states, reporting has weakened over the years. This absence in reporting is ultimately due to issues of confidentiality and the UN’s frail legal powers.[6] Humphrey suggests that if the UNA-Canada plans to make a proper suggestion as to how the UN can be strengthened, it should recommend that the Canadian delegate to the Human Rights Commission propose the setting up of an independent body of experts to critically examine the periodic reports and direct recommendations to the Commission and the Economic and Social Council to help with reporting issues.[7]

Another issue facing the UN—according to Humphrey—is the lack of unified principles and values that originate from such a diverse population. Humphrey compares the UN’s lack of authority to the success of the European Convention for Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms which includes: the European Commission of Human rights, a conciliation body to which wronged individuals may address petitions, and a European Court of Human Rights that includes the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.[8] Western Europe is a reasonably viewed as a unified community with common traditions and standards, therefore, it much easier to establish a system that handles human right violations compared to the divided world the UN incorporates. In this light, Humphrey explains how he once suggested to the Canadian Government that it should investigate the possibility of becoming a part of the European Convention; however, the Departments of External Affairs and Justice—to which his proposal was addressed—informed him that under the European Convention, only members of the Council of Europe can be authorized members.[9]

Given that the UN was established to promote international co-operation, the lack of legally binding initiatives forces Humphrey to refer to the UN as “the most elaborate waste-paper basket in the world”. [10] Although the United Nations has made some progress in enunciating a new international law of human rights, it has not formulated an effective design for legal implementation. In spite of the weak system that has been agreed on for the international implementation of the Covenant and the fact that there is little likelihood that these instruments will ever be universally ratified, Humphrey pushes for a more practical approach. He suggests that the most promising approach in dealing with the feebleness of the international implementation of the Covenant is to make use of reporting by states and communications or petitions addressed to the United Nations by individuals and groups alleging the violation of human rights. His speech highlights the fact that non-governmental can operate as an executive organ, even if they have no legal power. By addressing the UN’s lack of ability to establish the rule of law at the international level, Humphrey expresses gratitude towards non-governmental organizations as he claims they bridge governments and the possibility of the world, one day, adopting international laws in regards to human rights.

[1] “About Us,”, last modified February 23, 2017, .

[2] MG 4127 C.18 F.374—United Nations Association in Canada, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

The International Law of Human Rights in the Middle Twentieth Century

By Alexander Bloomfield

In 1978, thirty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, John Peters Humphrey examined the emergence of human rights in international law. As Humphrey stated, “…one of the chief characteristics of middle twentieth century international law was its sudden interest and deep concern with human rights.”.[1] His speech explored the emergence of human rights in international law, how the sudden interest of human rights in international law effects the law, how human rights law is implemented, and how jurisdiction is decided in implementing human rights law. Humphrey specifically examined the structural and institutional aspects used in the promotion and protection of human rights.

As John Peters Humphrey stated in a discussion of the Second World War, “It was as no other war had ever been a war to vindicate human rights.”.[2] This disturbing new theme that defined the Second World War brought the idea of human rights into international law, to defend rights violations in countries that the U.N would not have domestic jurisdiction. This idea of a need for international human rights protection led to the creation of the Commission on Human Rights, which held its first conference in February, 1947. Subsequently, this created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Humphrey examined how international human rights law is put into practice, and how it is implemented successfully, and not simply put into rhetoric.Humphrey examined the different implementation methods of human rights in international law. A salient example discussed, was the Advisory Services Programme. This method organized seminars discussing human rights in various countries, allowing discourse to flow and getting individuals involved to discussing these issues. These seminars brought together knowledgeable individuals, many being high ranking officials in judicial systems of these countries to discuss differing aspects of human rights. These seminars did not specifically discuss resolutions to human rights abuses, but created public opinion and discourse, that subsequently promoted respect for human rights. Humphrey stated that a lack of a public opinion that places pressure on governments slows down the promotion of rights. Thus, he stated the seminars assist in creating a public consensus on human rights. Humphrey analyzed this programme as a method that does not necessarily discuss solutions, but assists in taking the first steps in discussion of human rights, and ideally further down the line, finding solutions. It appears that Humphrey realized there would be a long and harrowing road in the implementation of human rights strategies, as this was a new concept to many. Thus, this approach brought seminars into countries where there had never been a UN conference, and became one of the core principals of the UN programme in implementing the discourse and solutions to human rights issues at the time of this essay.

A salient point in Humphrey’s speech was of the commensurability of human rights between nations with different social, governmental, and regional foundations. Humphrey argued that a regional approach is more successful than a universal approach in the international protection of human rights. He states that countries with similar social systems are more likely to agree on procedures for the implementation of human rights, thus using similar approaches for similar countries, and other procedures, such as the seminars, for countries with a different social structure. An example, is the 1968 Arab League, creating an Arab Commission on Human Rights. It is a regionally based commission on human rights, which thus allows for a better addressing human rights issues in this area, as the countries have similar backgrounds due to their shared geography and cultures.  Although Humphrey argues for a regionalized approach, he also takes into account non-homogenous regional groups, such as citing Latin America, as it had both communist and non-communist states in the same region. Furthermore, Humphrey acknowledged that many human rights issues extend beyond regions, affecting the entire international community. He successfully examined how a regional approach is more effective, whilst also recognizing the limitations of this implementation method.

Humphrey analyzed the structures of promotion and protection of human rights, highlighting both the successful aspects, and the aspects in need of change. Specifically in his critique, Humphrey acknowledged society is far from where it should be with regards to human rights equality internationally. In his concluding remarks, he speaks to this truth, stating “Majorities are still intolerant, people still suffer discrimination because of their race, sex, language, religion, and other attributes; and the great majority of people do not enjoy the economic, social and cultural rights without which there can be little human dignity”.[3] He places an important stance, by not looking at rights discourse with rose coloured glasses, but instead looking at how progress is far, far from over. Thus, Humphrey successfully analyzed the implementation of International Human Rights Law, critiquing the successes and failures of this implementation, while truthfully stating how far the movement has to go.

[1] Humphrey, John Peters. “The International Law of Human Rights in the Middle Twentieth Century .” 1978. Speech, 1.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Humphrey, John Peters. “The International Law of Human Rights in the Middle Twentieth Century .” 1978. Speech, 30.

John Peters Humphrey: Second World Congress on Human Rights, Dakar, Senegal, 1986

by Alexandre Berthelot

John Peters Humphrey was invited to address the United Nations assembly on the occasion of the Second World Congress on Human Rights held in Dakar, Senegal in December of 1986.  The occasion marked the 40th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations and the 38th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The UN also declared 1986 to be the International Year of Peace.  Humphrey chose this occasion to make explicit the link between human rights violations and conflict, explaining how the Universal Declaration, without officially having the force of law can influence the decisions of states with regards to human rights, and by extension peace.  I believe that Humphrey, on this occasion, may have overestimated the reach and effectiveness of non-binding agreements between nations.

He begins his discourse by stating that one of the goals of the United Nations included in the preamble to the Charter of the organization; “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”[1] The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution in 1982, on the recommendation of the Economic and Social Council, to declare 1986 the International Year of Peace[2] and Humphrey recognized that “peace continues to be a goal instead of an achievement,”[3] Humphrey, in his address to the Congress of Human Rights, underlined the fact that it was the also the 38th anniversary of the Universal Charter of Charter of Human Rights and sought to make explicit his vision that respect for human rights and peace were inextricably linked.

He argues, in what is likely an oversimplification of global geopolitics made for the purpose of being concise, that both of the global conflicts of the 20th century had their roots in the violation of human rights.  The “immediate cause of the First Great War” he claims “was the assassination of an Austrian archduke by a member of a disaffected minority” and that “perhaps the principal cause” of the Second World War was “persistent, cruel, and systematic violation of the most fundamental human rights perpetrated by the Nazi government of Germany.”[4]  He then reminds the audience that one of the goals of the Second Great war announced by Winston Churchill was to “to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual.”[5] Humphrey also makes reference to the preamble to the Charter of the United Nations adopted at the San Francisco Conference in 1945, which sought to usher in a global peace and “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.”[6]

In the second part of his speech, Humphrey seeks to demonstrate the achievements of the United Nations in the protection of human rights after four decades of existence. He claims that the most revolutionary of all the developments was the attribution of rights to the individual in international law which he contrasts with the old system where “states, and only states, had rights.”[7]  He also enumerated other achievements in the domain of human rights including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  Humphrey believed that even though these conventions did not constitute binding agreements between the states, “they have been invoked so often by states as having force of law that they have become part of the customary law of nations” and effectually bind even non-signatory nations.[8]

To explain this developement, Humphrey, for all intents and purposes, equates the effects of the conventions to a form of international peer pressure whose essential purpose is to “instruct global public opinion.”[9]  He believes that the condemnation of human rights violations by an international body, what he calls “the organisation of shame”[10], is enough to make offending countries react in some way and that it is therefore a sanction on its own.  To illustrate this point, he cites the 1977 example of Lovelace v. Canada in which the Human Rights Committee of the U.N. found that “Sandra Lovelace has been denied the legal right to reside on the Tobique Reserve” and declared “a breach by Canada of article 27 of the Covenant.”[11]  After this opinion, Canada amended the Indian Act and Mrs. Lovelace was able to return and reside with her tribe.  This action by the Canadian government, Humphrey claims, was motivated by Canada’s desire to “maintain its reputation as a country that respects its international obligations.”[12]  Proof, according to Humphrey, of the power of public opinion as an international sanction.

The second example Humphrey cites in his argument seems much more convoluted.  He speaks of resolution 1503 of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, which was intended to help address “flagrant and systemic violations”[13] of human rights.  He cites no specific cases of its application but yet maintains that it has had the same effect as the Lovelace decision; by “creating embarrassing publicity for the government in question, they are a form of sanction.”[14]  This argument, I believe, falls short on several levels.  First, it rests on the assumption that that no government can tolerate the reputation of not respecting international law.  For countries who engage in what can be described as systematic and flagrant violations of human rights it is likely already clear to them without the opinion of the U.N. that they are in violation of these international covenants and international opinion is likely to change very little in their approach.  To simply cite a few contemporary examples of the failure of international peer pressure to affect change we can look to the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, before which the international community was relatively powerless to act and international opinion did little to change the course of events.  We can also question the power relations between member states, when a global superpower like the United States is permitted to hold out of state military bases where torture is commonly practiced such as Guantanamo Bay before the relative silence of the international community.  Finally, we can also look at the current refugee crisis in the Middle East as a breach to the right to asylum, where signatories of the international conventions are seeking to limit the rights of asylum seekers to enter their countries.

To conclude, Humphrey was certainly right when he drew a causal link between human rights violations and war.  However, as we have seen, the effectiveness of the mechanisms that the United Nations has given itself to address the situation has varied.  For individuals, in more developed, signatory nations the Lovelace case demonstrates the efficiency of the voluntary process defined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights.  However, in my humble opinion, this speech fails to make the same argument for efficiency when addressing blatant and systemic discrimination whether it be for member or non-member states.  There is still much work to be done if we, as a global community, hope to live up to the standards and aspirations set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, Speech Deuxième Congrès Mondial des Droits de L’homme, Dakar,John Peters Humphrey, 1986, Fonds, McGill University Archives p.3

[2] United Nations General Assembly, A/Res/37/16. International Year of Peace in UN Documents : Gathering a body of global agreements, Nov. 1982, (retrieved from Feb. 8, 2017)

[3] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, , 1986, p.2

[4]MG 4127 C.18 F.367, , 1986, p.2

[5] Winston Churchill, as cited by John Peters Humphrey in MG 4127 C.18 F.367, Speech Deuxième Congrès Mondial des Droits de L’homme, p.3

[6] Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, San Francisco, 1945

[7] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, 1986, p.5

[8] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, 1986, p.6

[9] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, 1986, p.7

[10] ibid

[11] Human Rights Committee, Lovelace V. Canada, communication No. R.6/24*/sec.19 (30 July 1981) retrieved from Feb. 9 2017). Article 27 protects the right of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities to enjoy their own culture, , to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language. (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Art. 27, (1966))

[12] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, 1986, p.8

[13] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, 1986, p.9

[14] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, 1986, p.9

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.