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 He cites in his article Jonathan Schell by saying that the “contemporary state system is obsolete” and proposes a more integrative approach in which the authority of international organisations should be increased against the power of states and a legal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.

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