Human Rights and the Peace of Nations, 1983

By Phoebe Warren

John Peters Humphrey gave the speech “Human Rights and the Peace of Nations” in September 1983 to examine the state of human rights protection around the world. In his first sentence, he notes that September 1983 was only a few months ahead of the 35th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As one of the primary drafters of the document, Humphrey recognizes the great influence the United Nations (UN) and UDHR had on international law and international awareness of human rights up to that point. He states that though atrocities continued to occur, human rights conditions worldwide had continued to improve as international awareness of the issue grew. As a result, Humphrey declares, “The developing world law of human rights may yet, if we have the time, lead us away from international anarchy towards world peace”. This statement is so bold, so universal and so optimistic given that only 35 years prior, almost 70 million people worldwide gave their lives in the fight to end this international anarchy.[2] It shows both the UDHR and this speech as beacons of light emerging from the ashes of war and capable creating a new world order.

Humphrey stresses the fact that “public opinion still remains the most effective sanction of international law, including the international law of human rights”. This is a powerful statement, implying that even in the 1980s (and most certainly today) the protection of human rights required not only the cooperation of governments and international organizations but also the general public. He then moves on to discuss the relation between human rights protection and what he refers to as “the peace of nations”. This term initially struck me as a potential jab at the League of Nations, the ineffective predecessor to the United Nations; I doubt this was purposeful by Humphrey but it made me laugh. He then continues to discuss the immense potential brought to the world by the advent of international human rights law. Had this law existed before, perhaps the human rights violations that occurred during the two World Wars could have been avoided or at least mitigated. However, I argue that as it pertains to this opinion in particular, perhaps Humphrey sees the world with rose-colored glasses. Whether or not one believes that humans are inherently good or evil, the threat of repercussions does not always halt heinous people from committing atrocious acts. However, Humphrey points out that with the advent of international human rights law stemming from the UDHR, mechanisms such as the Nuremberg Trials and the World Court have brought hope for victims after tragedies occur. Since Humphrey gave this speech, international human rights law and its mechanisms have gained greater importance than perhaps ever before with the current Syrian refugee crisis. We can see Humphrey’s legacy through the work  of the two-time Nobel Peace Prize winning United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.[6] In his final paragraph, John Peters Humphrey states, “…thirty five years is a very short time in the history of man – but it points in a new direction”. It has now been 68 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is true that 35, even 68 years is a short time in the history of man, but great positive change has been seen since the end of World War II. We have not yet achieved Humphrey’s desired “peace of nations” but defenders of human rights, diplomats, politicians, and even ordinary people fight to find this peace each and every day. As a future diplomat, woman, and member of the LGBTQ community I feel honored to have had the opportunity to peruse the archives of a man whose actions have so significantly and personally influenced the course of my life thus far.

[2] World War 2 Guide, How Many People Died in World War 2?

[6] Norwegian Nobel Committee, All Nobel Peace Prizes,


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