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. 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. At the time of his address, NGOs were frustrated with the UN’s stagnant progress on human rights, thus prompting this speech. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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,  a state whose signature characteristic was repressing its citizens. 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. 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. Then, in nearly the same breath, he shares his hope that these NGOs will continue to be active leaders at this conference. 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. 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. 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.
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