Human Rights and Their “Fundamentals”

By Hannah Hu

At the time of this speech, in 1991, John Peters Humphrey was profoundly distressed by what he was witnessing in the world. The inefficient and inconsistent penalties for war criminals, and the alarming implications of the Gulf War, were events that ran contrary to the aspirations of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). His address is a reflection of not only the convictions that motivated his work on the UDHR but as well as some of his more critical assessments stemming from what he saw as the international community’s shortcomings in achieving justice. His remarks are meaningful, but does he offer a different perspective on the conduct of intergovernmental organizations? In what ways do his insights contribute to our understanding on how human rights are best protected? Certainly, Humphrey acknowledges that the development of inter-governmental entities and the collective articulation of norms and behaviours are key to the maintenance of human rights. However, he argues that the fact that the United Nations sanctions nations rather than individuals is a fundamental flaw in the international system, as this often results in the persecution of the innocent rather than the punishment of the guilty. Given the ongoing conflicts at the time the speech was delivered, as well as the growing international debates on prosecuting human rights violations, his speech holds special significance and merits further discussion.

Humphrey begins with the premise that a fundamental aspect of human rights is the respect and agency accorded to the individual. As international human rights law evolved, men and women are no longer simply subjects of the law, they could also be objects of the law. He calls this a “vertical phenomenon”, wherein the rights of the state were no longer the sole and primary concern for international law. He describes the “organization of shame” as an effective deterrent for nations committing rights violations, because states are inevitably sensitive to world public opinion and are inclined to avoid undermining their legitimacy. However, he observes that the principle of collective responsibility still remains in UN conduct, and he considers this doctrine to be characteristic of traditional international law, which is highly counter-productive to the objectives of the UDHR. In discussions of rights and responsibilities, there is a presumption that a nation can be conceptualized as a homogenous unit, and can be treated as such. In reality, when accountability is indiscriminately assigned within a nation, the wrong people bear the burden of the crimes, and Humphrey sees that as a crime in and of itself. Additionally, collective responsibility is problematic because while the UDHR was intended to protect individuals from persecution or deprivation, many of the economic and material sanctions carried out by the UN actually impede the state  from fulfilling its obligations. Ultimately, human rights are best protected when there is accountability, but justice is best served only when that accountability is precise.

Given that he was speaking in Iran just months after the Persian Gulf War had formally ended, there is no doubt that he saw the conflict itself as a crucial case study for his appeals. More importantly, what had transpired at the hands of the UN disturbed him deeply: the sanctions implemented against Iraq during the conflict contributed to severe humanitarian devastation and caused the death and deprivation of countless local people. It seemed unthinkable that the intergovernmental organization responsible for protecting human rights and well-being, could be culpable for this kind of damage. He was also certainly not alone in his condemnation: Denis Halliday, the Assistant Secretary-General at the time, described the implications as amounting to “genocide”, and resigned from his position in protest.[1] Despite the controversy however, there remain defenders of sanctions as effective tools for supporting democracy and peace. The turn of the 21st century was marked by even more aggressive UN sanctions, like those in Afghanistan, Iran, and once again, Iraq.[2] Evidently, Humphrey’s contention that it is the collective responsibility of nations to hold violators of human rights accountable, but not the collective responsibility of a single nation’s people to bear the formal consequences of a violation, is still urgently salient today


[1] Jensen, Robert, “Radicalized by U.S. disregard for Iraqi People,” Baltimore Sun, August 13, 2000, University of Texas.

[2]  United States, Dpt. of the Treasury, Resource Center, Sanctions Program and Country Information (Washington, DC: Resource Center, 2016)
https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/Programs.aspx

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