Humphrey’s speech to the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities

By James Flanagan

Humphrey’s speech to the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in August 1992 reveals his understanding of the moral responsibilities of the UN. Exploring the time in which it was written and the issue to which the speech is addressed, the criticisms Humphrey directs towards the Sub-Commission  reveal his belief that the UN is responsible for recognizing all cases of human rights violations. He stands by the principle that no humans rights abuses should be forgotten, even if the erasure of certain instances of human rights violations may be convenient for certain states. As such, Humphrey’s speech suggests that he saw the UN as being responsible for recognizing all human rights violations, no matter the political consequences.

Japan at the time of Humphrey’s speech bore little resemblance to the Japan of the Second World War. By 1992 it had become a strong economic and military ally with Western states, notably the United States. Nearly 50 years before Humphrey’s speech Japan had allied with Nazi Germany during the Second World War, and was responsible for gross human rights violations in its treatment of captured soldiers of the allied forces. The states making up the allied forces, United States, Britain, and others, would become close allies with Japan by 1992. The shift in Japan’s alliances from the Second World War to August of 1992 left the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in an awkward position when deciding whether or not to address Japanese treatment of prisoners of war. During the Second World War one in three of the 140,000 allied prisoners of war died from starvation, work, punishment, or disease within Japanese prisoner of war camps.[1] Given that the world of state alliances had changed drastically since the Second World War, the convenience of historical amnesia for contemporary circumstances suggests that the Sub-Committee felt uncomfortable addressing human rights abuses suffered half a century ago. Perhaps the Sub-Commission was aware that bad publicity arising from a human rights investigation into Japanese prisoner of war camps could tip an already tense relationship between Japan and the United States over the edge. It seems as though the Subcommission felt that damaging Japan-US relations to deliver justice to victims of whom many had already passed away would cause more trouble than good.

It is within this context that the Sub-Commission failed to issue a petition to the Commission on Human Rights related to Japanese treatment of allied prisoners of war. Renamed “The United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights” in 1999, the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities acted as the main subsidiary body of the former Commission on Human Rights. It was tasked to undertake studies on human rights issues and make recommendations concerning the prevention of discrimination of any kind relating to human rights and fundamental freedoms and the protection of racial, national, religious and linguistic minorities.[2] Humphrey notes in his speech that the Sub-Commission failed to issue a petition urging the Human Rights Commission to recognize Japanese human rights abuses because they did not have the power to deal with any matter relating to the Second World War, a justification seen by Humphrey as “pure nonsense” considering the fact that the war “provided the catalyst to which we owe the new world law of human rights.”[3] He criticizes the Sub-Commission’s decision in reference to Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution 1503, a procedural mechanism that empowers the Sub-Commission to refer “particular situations which appear to reveal a consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights” to the Commission on Human Rights, arguing that the Japanese treatment of prisoners of war uncontroversially represented “consistent pattern of gross…violations of human rights.”[4]

Humphrey considers the Sub-Commission’s failure to issue the petition as having “weakened” resolution 1503.[5] It would be misleading to infer that Humphrey’s view of 1503 as “one of the most useful international mechanisms for the implementation of human rights and fundamental freedoms” means that resolution 1503 was weakened in its functionality, as its content was neither threatened nor altered, only ignored. What Humphrey means, then, is that the unwillingness of the Sub-Commission to adhere to resolution 1503 is an attack on the principles that underlie it. The Sub-Commission’s refusal to implement resolution 1503 suggests that they saw the resolution as being restricted in its scope. They therefore figured it was reasonable to ignore their responsibilities under resolution 1503 if the human rights violation had occurred during the Second World War. Yet as one of the people who “drafted the Sub-Commission’s resolution that became the basis for what was done by the Economic and Social council” Humphrey insists that “neither I nor my colleagues in the Sub-Commission” wished “to impose any restrictions on what soon became resolution 1503.”[6] As such, that Humphrey understands resolution 1503 as being unrestricted in its applicability to all human rights violations hints at his philosophy regarding the responsibility of the UN.

It seems, then, that Humphrey’s condemnation of the Sub-Committee for ignoring human rights violations in Japan shows that he believes the UN ought to recognize all cases of human rights violations no matter the political consequences. Even though the case in question had occurred almost 50 years prior, Humphrey argues fiercely that it should still be investigated, because not doing so would “challenge the very heart and basis of the new world law of human rights.”[7] It follows that Humphrey believes the heart of human rights to be the unconditional recognition of all human rights abuses. Humphrey’s concern at the weakening of resolution 1503, therefore, is in reference to the weakening of its fundamental principle. And so, Humphrey’s rhetorical question as to whether the Sub-Commission “will go down in history as having weakened” resolution 1503 reveals deeply held visions of the responsibility of the UN to uphold the principles of justice and truth no matter the inconvenience of doing so.

[1] Kozak, Warren. “World War Two – Japanese Prisoner of War Camps.” History on the Net. June 08, 2014. Accessed February 23, 2017. http://www.historyonthenet.com/world-war-two-japanese-prisoner-of-war-camps/.

[2] “Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.” Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. Accessed February 23, 2017. http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SC/Pages/SubCommission.aspx.

[3] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 – United Nations Speech, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 1.

[4] “Economic and Social Council Resolution 1503 (XLVIII), 48 U.N. ESCOR (No. 1A) at 8, U.N. Doc. E/4832/Add.1 (1970).” University of Minnesota Human Rights Library. Accessed February 23, 2017. http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/procedures/1503.html.

[5] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 – United Nations Speech, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 2.

[6] Ibid, 2.

[7] Ibid.

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