1974 CBC Broadcast

By Jonathan Squibb

In a CBC talk given over the radio in 1974, John Peters Humphrey references the annual report of Amnesty International, which is an international non-governmental, non-political, human rights organization. The report indicated that a staggering number of countries, sixty to be specific, still permitted their authorities to use torture as a method of information extraction. This was a direct violation of Article 5 in the Universal Declaration of Human rights, which states; “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” United Nations member states, many of which were listed on Amnesty’s report, became morally bound to upholding the terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after its approval. So Humphrey begs the question: “how then can governments still deny their citizens the most basic of human rights?”

Claiming that a “satisfactory answer to this question would take me very far,” Humphrey clearly shows that there is no easy solution to this problem. He goes on to refer to  one of the “worst crises” in the UN’s history, and noted that people were beginning to question the credibility of the organization, which they criticized as being nothing more than an “international debating society.” The UN was confronting the challenge of how to get states to respect international law. With no effective system for the implementation or enforcement of their laws, states did not feel obligated to comply with the UN and its Declarations. They could still violate the human rights of their citizens with little international consequence.

In order to get a better understanding of the problem Humphrey was presenting, the historical background of the period must be put into context. The political climate of the period is best characterized as a period of détente between East and West, where human rights served to bridge the political divide. The Cold War presented an “enormous difficulty” for international human rights as it was hard to know what exactly was taking place behind the Iron Curtain. Détente created room for a discussion on human rights, as seen in the Helsinki Accords of 1975. Among other issues, one of the most prevalent and discussed after the ‘Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe,’ was that of human rights violations in the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviet Union showed that they were intimidated by the accusations as they attacked American support of countries such as South Africa and Chile, which were known for human rights violations of their own. This revealed two things. The first is that humans rights violations were gaining attention from the media and from the general public, and second, that even the most autonomous governments could be sensitive to public opinion.

Despite the fact that Humphrey’s speech was carried by a national radio broadcast and likely had a large audience, he dismisses the idea that human rights was of great concern to mass media in 1974. At the beginning of his speech he suggests that it’s an overlooked issue: “your newspaper may have carried the other day – but probably did not – a reference to the report of Amnesty International.” Upon observing the actual report, which can be found in Amnesty’s International’s online archives, one finds that it contains a list of “First World” countries that engaged in torture / committed human rights violations, which would leave most readers shocked. Fast-forwarding 41 years to the organization’s 2015 annual report, the number of countries that still commit humans rights violations has no doubt dwindled. Nevertheless, there are still approximately thirty states on the list, which contains several UN members including Finland.

Considering the great length of history in comparison to the more recent study of social philosophy, human rights are still a relatively new concept in the grand scheme of things. Humphrey reminds us that international law is “a radically new development in the relations of states.” The UN has achieved a lot since its establishment in 1945, but it is still a young organization and has the potential to expand greatly.

Given that the UN had no machinery to enforce its international law upon the global community, Humphrey leaves listeners with an excellent piece of advice to help make states respect their obligation to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He proposes that what “you and I can do” to make governments treat their citizens fairly is to be vocal. As is evident in the case of the USSR, even the most authoritarian governments were susceptible to public opinion. Humphrey’s CBC talk was, in a sense, conveying this message – trying to spread the word. Has this method worked so far? Well, Amnesty International reports that there has been great progress since 1974, but there is still a long way to go before all human rights are fully respected.

Bibliography:

Amnesty International Annual Report 1974/1975. Amnesty International Publications, London: 1975

Amnesty International Annual Report 2014/2015. Amnesty International Publications, London. 2015

 

 

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