John Peter Humphrey’s Speech at the Conference on Population Problems

By Nina Rowan

At the Conference on Population Problems, held in April 1979 at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, John Peters Humphrey gave his unique perspective about the consequences of, and solutions to, the issue of overpopulation.  Being the Director of the United Nations of Human Rights and the original drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is no surprise that Humphrey’s speech was about the relationship between overpopulation and human rights.  While Humphrey was, admittedly, not an expert in overpopulation, his wealth of knowledge about human rights and extensive experience allowed the attendees of the conference to gain a fresh and nuanced view about the problems associated with an explosive population.

Overpopulation is a topic that is currently discussed frequently by many news outlets, especially since issues like resource scarcity and climate change have become increasing relevant.  However, in 1979, when Humphrey delivered this speech, the impact of the rapid population growth was barely visible.  Although it was not the most significant issue of the time, overpopulation was clearly on the radar of some scientists and academics, since it was deemed important enough to devote an entire conference at a prestigious university to this topic.  In the mid-twentieth century, the world’s total population had started growing at a rate never seen before in human history; at the time Humphrey delivered this speech, the world’s population was around 4.4 billion people, when just two decades prior, in 1960, the population was only 3 billion people.[1] The Medical Revolution that began in the nineteenth century produced ground-breaking and life-saving treatments and technologies, such as anesthesia, x-rays, insulin and antibiotics.[2]  These advancements dramatically increased the average life-expectancy, particularly in developed nations, and thereby created a surge in the overall population trend.  An upsurge in agricultural science in the mid twentieth century, gave rise to new farming techniques, technology and mechanisms, which resulted in a substantial growth in crop production.  This improvement in agricultural production and the subsequent increase in food yield, known as the Green Revolution, had a considerable impact on growing population trends in developing nations.[3]

While it is safe to assume that other speakers at the Conference of Population Problems likely focused their discussions on the ecological consequences of overpopulation, Humphrey’s speech was centred on the impacts the growing population had on human rights and vice versa.  Humphrey argues that people cannot enjoy human rights when they do not have a certain degree of material and social well-being. Furthermore, if and when overpopulation does not allow individuals to meet this basic level of well-being, they will not be able to enjoy human rights.  Humphrey is optimistic, however, that the advancement of human rights is a powerful tool in lowering birth rate trends.

Humphrey admits that, in 1947 to 1948, when the United Nations was drafting the Declaration of Human Rights, addressing the issues arising from the growing population in the Declaration was not high on the Commission’s priority list.  With that said, Article 16 of the Declaration states that “men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.”[4] As Humphrey mentions, however, the right to found a family is subject to qualifications and limitations indicated in successive articles.  Article 29 of the Declaration states that parents ought to determine responsibly the number and spacing of their children.  Does Humphrey believe that this clause has any material impact in actually reducing the birth rate?  The answer is no.  Like all other declarations the UN has put forth, it is not a law, it is simply precedent.  It is up to individual states, especially those with explosive population trends, to give teeth to Article 29.

Humphrey briefly mentions how effective China had been in controlling its huge population by encouraging couples to marry later in life.  So impressed with the results of this effort, Humphrey even toys with the idea that perhaps a minimum age for marriage ought to be incorporated into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  A few months after Humphrey delivered this speech, China would launch the One-Child policy.  This system has been hotly contested for years, both for its (alleged) infectivity and going against individuals’ human rights.[5]  It can be safely assumed that Humphrey, an advocate for human rights, would be fundamentally opposed to this policy and would prioritize an individual’s right to found a family (if done so responsibly) above society’s long term interests.  This highly disputed debate over population control and its impact on human rights continues to the present day. It is therefore it is interesting that Humphrey touched on the subject almost forty years ago.

While noting that lawyers and states’ control of the population can be effective, Humphrey noted that it is also limited.  He thereby proposed that improving the condition of women was the only valid way to control the population.  Humphrey’s argument that the population can be constrained by improving the status of women was both a revolutionary idea at the time and perhaps the most significant idea put forth in his speech.  As women, with the help of the United Nations and other organizations, gain more opportunities to have an education and employment, fertility rates have been proven to have decreased.[6]  The vast majority of the studies that show the correlation between women’s education and the birth rate have been done in recent years.  It is therefore significant that Humphrey presented this argument decades ago.  Early on, Humphrey championed that the United Nations ought to focus on improving the status of women.  Humphrey’s many positions, such as director of the International League for Human Rights and member of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, allowed him to set into motion his belief that the condition of women ought to be improved.

The majority of discussions around issues of overpopulation often focus solely on the ecological impact of an exponential population growth, so much so, that individuals often forget about the many social and legal causes and consequences.  However, in his 1979 speech on population problems, Humphrey sheds light on the impact overpopulation has on human rights and conversely, the impact that human rights have on overpopulation.  This allowed the attendees of the conference to view the issues of overpopulation through a new lens. Humphrey frames the complex issue of overpopulation, which is often discussed at a macro level, as an issue that is, in essence, a human rights issue and can be ameliorated through improved human rights and specifically women’s rights.  This approach to the population problem is empowering as it brings an aspect of humanity to a discussion that often neglects the human experience.

[1] Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser, “World Population Growth,” Our World in Data, accessed

February 19, 2017, https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth/

[2] Lester S. King, “The Medical Revolution,” Quarterly Bulletin of Northwestern University Medical School 34, no. 4 (1960): 358-9.

[3] Prabhu L. Pingali, “Green Revolution: Impacts, limits, and the path ahead” PNAS 109, no. 31 (2012): 1203, accessed February 19, 2017, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0912953109.

[4]  United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948): Article 16.

[5] Michael Potts, “China’s One Child Policy,” BMJ: British Medical Journal 333, no. 7564 (2006), 361.

[6] Brigid Fitzgerald Reading, “Education Leads to Lower Fertility and Increased Prosperity,” Earth Policy Institute, accessed February 18, 2017, http://www.earth-policy.org/data_highlights/2011/highlights13

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