From State to World Citizen

By Nick Kasting

At 86 years old, John Peters Humphrey was in a very enviable position; The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, his brainchild, had emerged as the most important text guiding international politics. By the time of the interview, in January 1991, human rights as a universalizing concept had been awarded a decisive victory with the end of the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of openness and restructuring were liberalizing the seventy years repressed Soviet sphere, and states appeared to be moving past the notion of zero-sum sovereignty. The USSR seemed poised to become a loosely aligned federation, and Europe had long been unionizing. Patterns of integration saw Europe and North America breaking down internal trade barriers, and international economies were growing increasingly interdependent. Most exciting, for the former director of the UN Division of Human Rights, states were making serious efforts to pool their sovereignty within an “international community of states.”[1]

With this brief historical overview, it is important to understand that the interview described here was in response to Soka Gakkai International (SGI) President Daisaku Ikeda’s ninth annual peace proposal. In the proposal the controversial Ikeda outlines the challenges to peace, as well as the path to get there.[2] It is also important to understand who the interviewer might have been, and in my estimation it was probably a member of SGI. With proper context, the accompanying interview “From State Citizen to World Citizen” shows Humphrey’s reflections on the United Nations he helped shape, and his vision for its continued improvement. Full of hope, Humphrey proclaims “our loyalty, eventually, will be to the world”, and contrasts 1991 to an era when human rights abuses were beyond the reach of international concern.

In his interview, Humphrey reflects on a lecture by Ikeda in which the president of the Buddhist lay organization outlined the challenges and opportunities that existed in creating a more peaceful world. The SGI president put forward many optimistic ideas about establishing a new “post-Cold War” global order.[3] He recommended that the UN be strengthened and re-organized in order to discourage interstate aggression, and that individuals take centre stage in United Nations decision-making processes[4]. Ikeda proclaims that this stronger UN should adopt a constitution that federates international responsibilities, and reduces state anarchy.[5] In a world where ideological conflict was on the decline, Ikeda saw an opportunity for the United Nations to consolidate peace. If the UN failed, he saw a new struggle emerging between “21st-century democracy and 11th-century darkness”[6].

Clues about the interviewer are found in the text. The interview introduces Humphrey as “professor emeritus” at McGill University[7], and constantly draws parallels between SGI President Ikeda’s views and those of Humphrey – seemingly trying to legitimize Ikeda[8]. The parallels coupled with a discussion that revolves around peace implies, though inconclusively, that the interview was conducted by a member of the organization whose “aim and mission” was “contributing to world peace”[9]. If the interview was indeed conducted by SGI, it would explain why connecting the organization‘s views to Humphrey’s was so important.

Throughout the interview Humphrey reflects on the successes of the United Nations, covers a wide range of topics, and remains proud of the UN’s role in building a more peaceful world. Significantly, he identifies World War II as a global failure caused by the “inability of nations” to respect human rights. New citizen oriented international law codified in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights enabled the UN to catalyze what Humphrey believed was “revolutionary change”. Humphrey’s interpretation is significant because it has shaped a discourse that contrasts pre-human rights societies to an arguably fairer post-human rights world.

Nonetheless, Humphrey believed that human rights laws and discourses could go farther, and wished that the positive protection of minorities and the right to petition the state had been included in the Universal Declaration. Like Ikeda, he believed that “human rights and the peace of nations” were inextricably connected, and that peace requires “human sovereignty” to trump state sovereignty. These views are significant because they were ahead of their time. The first doctrine to subordinate state sovereignty to “human security” and “the way states treat their own people” was not codified until the 2005 with the General Assembly’s unanimous adoption of the “responsibility to protect”.[10] This chronology shows that Humphrey had a keen understanding of the limits of international law, and where it needed to be expanded. Additionally, when Humphrey says that he is “especially in agreement” with Ikeda’s views, he proves himself to be sympathetic to a federated UN.[11] As a long time UN employee it makes sense that he would want to expand the UN from a representative organization, to one playing a global governance role. Through both his reflections and foresight Humphrey shows that he truly believed that the UN would continue to have the capacity to orchestrate positive change.




[1] Richard Von Weizsacker quoted in: Daisaku Ikeda, “Dawn of the Century of Humanity: The Sovereignty of Humanity,” delivered on January 26th 1991,

[2] For background on the controversies surrounding Ikeda see:

[3] Ikeda “Dawn of the Century of Humanity: Introduction”

[4] Ikeda “Dawn of the Century of Humanity: The Role of the United Nations”

[5] Ikeda “Dawn of the Century of Humanity:  The Sovereignty of Humanity”

[6] Tofler quoted in: Ikeda “Dawn of the Century of Humanity: Power and Powershift”

[7] Humphrey 1

[8] Humphrey 1, 2, 5, 6

[9] Soka Gakkai International “SGI Charter”, accessed February 24th 2016,

[10]  Evan et al. “Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty” Adopted at the UN World Summit in 2005.

[11] Humphrey 1, Ikeda “Dawn of the Century of Humanity:  The Sovereignty of Humanity”


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