Humphrey and Human Rights Violations in World War II

By Jonathan Yi Jiang Hou

John Humphrey’s speech to the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in August 1992 heavily criticized the sub-commission for failing to assert its authority in dealing with human rights issues related to prisoners of war in Japan during World War II (WWII). This, despite the authority to do so by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Resolution 1503. The sub-commission was responsible for undertaking studies on human rights issues, for making recommendations to prevent discrimination relating to human rights, and for carrying out other functions for which it was entrusted.[1] Resolution 1503, on the other hand, was a procedure that dealt with communications relating to the violation of human rights and freedoms.[2] The speech reflected not only a renewed awareness of human rights violations following the end of the Cold War, but also Humphrey’s desire for human rights organizations to challenge political boundaries in the pursuit of their goals.

The speech’s timing was very significant as the speech took place less than a year after the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. With the conflict between the Western world and the Communist bloc reaching an end, it became possible to focus on human rights issues emerging from WWII that were largely put aside due to the conflict in the Cold War and the superpowers’ need to obtain positive relations with allies across the world (including Japan). Even in countries invaded by Japan, ideological conflict and economic development were considered more important issues in the early postwar period. After the end of the Cold War, however, there was a renewed interest in human rights. Yet human rights issues remained very sensitive as they could strain the relationship between Japan and other East Asian countries and evoke memories that both sides of the war wanted to forget. Humphrey’s heavy emphasis on comfort women at the end of his speech indicated his belief that attempting to forget the past was not the solution to resolve the issues surrounding WWII. Many of Japan’s victims were still alive yet there was still no justice for them.

Humphrey’s targeted audience, members of the sub-commission, was reluctant to handle issues related to Japan’s conduct during WWII. It  was an indication of how historical human rights issues were less of a concern to the sub-commission and possibly other human rights advocates. It  also reflected the fact that the sub-commission was heavily concerned with the political consequences of its decisions. Humphrey argued that these limitations were self-imposed and the sub-committee’s decision would create a precedent with harmful consequences towards the development of human rights. His decision to criticize the sub-committee reflected his concern that human rights organizations were not adequate equipped or prepared to face adversity and challenge potential limitations.

The aversion to investigations on past human rights issues also stemmed from a lack of awareness from the public, which contributed towards the destruction of historical memories that could have propelled the issue forward. While Japanese war criminals were immediately prosecuted following Japan’s surrender in 1945, the Cold War was responsible for delaying and limiting more thorough investigations into Japan’s alleged human rights violations. The consequences of this ambivalence were clear. According to Humphrey, there was a lack of determination to investigate Japan’s treatment of prisoners of war, and this in turn was inhibiting a proper investigation surrounding the experiences of the conscripted comfort women. In the case of comfort women, as they gradually passed away, there would be fewer first-hand accounts available. There was a danger that many violations might even never be accounted for and that these women might not even receive an apology and compensation before their death. It would then be very difficult to raise awareness in the public due to the limited availability of information and death of the surviving comfort women.

The speech for the sub-commission marked Humphrey’s belief that historical human rights issues must maintain their relevancy and that human rights organizations had to take advantage of the end of the Cold War to challenge their self-imposed political boundaries. The conflict between the USA and the USSR had prevented a proper investigation of Japan’s human rights violations and slowed down the growth of awareness about human rights in the world. Furthermore, as time went by after the end of WWII, issues surrounding comfort women and mistreatment of prisoners of war were left in the periphery by the public due to minimal effort  in maintaining awareness. These issues could have easily been forgotten had activists such as Humphrey not encouraged human rights organizations to revisit the issue and raise awareness. His speech was not only a reminder of how human rights violations should not be forgotten by history, but also a desire for political conflict to never limit human rights development and awareness, as was the case for the Cold War and Japan.


[1] “Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, accessed February 18, 2016, SubCommission.aspx.

[2] “Economic and Social Council Resolution 1503 (XLVIII), 48 U.N. ESCOR (No. 1A) at 8, U.N. Doc. E/4832/Add.1 (1970),” University of Minnesota Human Rights Library, accessed February 19, 2016, procedures/ 1503.html.

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