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.

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