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, http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/working-group.html

[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, http://www.un.org/en/sections/universal-declaration/human-rights-law/

[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,  http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/udhr/udhr_general/drafting_history_10.html.

[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,  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CCPR.aspx.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Roger S. Clark, 55.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p.54.

[25] “What We Do,” United Nations, accessed 19 Feb. 2017, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/AboutUs/Pages/WhatWeDo.aspx

[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.

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