Human Rights: Myth or Reality?

By Andie Vassilakis

Throughout his career, John Peters Humphrey addressed an abundance of issues regarding human rights, as well as their implication and meaning in the context of documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his speech “Human Rights: Myth or Reality?”, Humphrey tackles some key philosophical questions surrounding the discourse of rights. When asked at a Human Rights Awareness Conference in Fredericton in 1985 whether rights exist in actuality, Humphrey addresses the Chairman about the conflict between abstract notions of rights and their potential reality. In so doing, Humphrey attempts to reconcile the two. Humphrey concludes that rights do exist in their abstract form, but are evidently not always respected in reality, even with laws written for their protection. It is therefore a conscious struggle to ensure the protection of rights, one that requires constant implementation and improvement at the societal as well as the state level. This process that Humphrey refers to, is one that still persists today.

In this speech, Humphrey addresses what I believe to be one of the main problems around the existing discourse on human rights, which, as the title suggests, is the struggle between abstraction and reality. Although the notion of rights itself is consistently used, there remains a gap between what is written on paper and what occurs in everyday life. Do rights exist in themselves, apart from their being enshrined in law? And does said law really mean anything when it comes to actualizing rights? These are among the issues that Humphrey attempts to tease out in his address at the 1985 Conference.

In setting up his response to the Chairman’s question, Humphrey lays out both a philosophical as well as a legal framework. Falling short of explicitly claiming that human rights are innate, Humphrey suggests, however, that rights do exist but are wholly dependent upon society for their realization. Without a society to ensure their protection and realization, human rights are virtually unattainable. Although the idea of rights have since been translated into rules of law to ensure their meaning and their protection, rights as a concept have existed only so far as society has existed. Law, on the other hand, is something definitively real, and serves as an extension for the realization of rights. However, Humphrey makes a crucial claim that laws do not always reflect reality, and need to adapt to changing contexts as well as the society in which they are made in and meant for. It is here that Humphrey admits the shortcomings of the Universal Declaration, recognizing that even though it is as significant document, we have in no way entered an ideal world.

The mere existence of laws does not ensure obedience or societal harmony, as adopting laws is only half the battle. This holds true for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose mere existence does not mean a new stage in history. Here, Humphrey recognizes the limitations of the Declaration, as well as the importance of finding a mechanism that will ensure its observance within an ever-changing environment. For example, Humphrey highlights the procedures taken in the event of a violation of the Declaration, which he claims depends more on “political considerations that may have very little to do with human rights let alone the alleged violation” and draws our attention to the ongoing difficulty of including human rights violations onto the United Nations agenda. Mechanisms, which are only now beginning to have some impact nearly two decades after the fact, have been provided to resolve this, showing the importance of building upon established laws to address loopholes and restraints. In this way, Humphrey attempts to bridge the gap between the abstract and the real, and to demonstrate how human rights can leave the realm of myths and become more than just an idea on paper.

In drawing on the necessity of devising an effective means for observing human rights at the international level, Humphrey’s speech reflects some of the Cold War anxieties of the time. Humphrey’s speech demonstrates the clear importance attached to the peace of nations, directing the audience’s attention to the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, and noting that in the event of one, there will evidently be no need to worry about such a thing as human rights protection. It is therefore necessary to formulate an adequate mechanism to prevent such a tragedy from occurring, which Humphrey claims, at the time, had not yet been reached. Thirty years later, this concern can be seen as still relevant and significant. Building the proper mechanisms for implementing human rights remains an important problem for this generation as it did the last, as we continue to engage in the discussion on human rights. We need to recognize, as Humphrey did in this 1985 speech, the potential flaws and shortcomings in our existing mechanisms to ensure rights are more than a myth.


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