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, http://canadainternational.gc.ca/prmny-mponu/media/eyes_abroad_john_peters_humphrey.aspx?lang=eng

[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.

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