Involving Youth in the Process of Enforcing International Human Rights Law

By Dorothy Apedaile

In his 1991 speech to the New Brunswick Multicultural Council, “Human Rights: A Challenge to Youth,” John Peters Humphrey emphasized his belief in international law as an important mechanism to prevent human rights abuses. He outlined the role youth could play in making his belief a reality: by harnessing the power of public opinion to enforce international law. Humphrey envisioned an active role for youth, particularly in the fight against racial discrimination. Canada’s youth have taken up his challenge and continue to be involved in human rights activism today.

Humphrey began his speech by acknowledging that Canada was a country “where racial discrimination is, despite all our rhetoric, still rife.” At the time, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was continuing the work Pierre Elliot Trudeau had done before him to promote Canada’s multiculturalism through legislation such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.[1] In 1991, Mulroney created the Federal Department of Multiculturalism and Citizenship and adopted the Canadian Race Relations Act.[2] Despite these legislative efforts, racial discrimination was, and still is, present in Canadian society.

Internationally, the United Nations had adopted a number of declarations following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that related to racial discrimination. International law was changing, according to Humphrey, from “law governing the relations of states with each other” to law that reached down to individuals. Humphrey strongly believed that “law is the nuts and bolts of human rights.” He realized, however, that “international law […] is weak law” due to the inability to enforce sanctions. While a number of mechanisms were put into place to allow individuals to petition the UN with human rights complaints, the UN could not enforce its findings. What the UN could do, however, is what Humphrey called “the organization of shame.”

Governments around the world are highly sensitive to public opinion. While the UN is unable to force governments to act in any specific way, the UN can draw attention to human rights violations. To Humphrey, this was “the ultimate sanction of human rights.” He referenced the case of Sandra Lovelace, a First Nations woman who challenged the provision in the Indian Act that stated she lost her Indian status when she married a non-Indian man. The same was not true for Indian men marrying non-Indian women. Lovelace brought her case all the way to the UN Human Rights Commission and the Commission found Canada in violation of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While the UN had no way of directly enforcing this finding, Canada did amend the Indian Act to remove the discrimination based on sex.

Humphrey was quick to realize  the active role youth could play in mobilizing public opinion to affect change. This was his challenge to youth: to make the new international law of human rights work. In doing so, Humphrey provided a place for youth in the larger human rights movement.

Youth continue to play an important role in human rights activism today. Joe Friesen noted in a Globe and Mail article on January 18, 2013 that Indigenous youth activists drew international attention to the plight of First Nations communities in Canada through the Idle No More movement. As reported by CTV News on October 7, 2013, the Idle No More protests in Ottawa coincided with the arrival of a UN official charged with reviewing the state of Canada’s Indigenous people. In 2015, the UN Human Rights Committee released a report criticizing the lack of government response to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.[3] Federal and provincial governments have begun to respond to this shift in opinion and increased awareness, with new inquiries and initiatives being announced.[4] The combination of youth activism with the UN’s international reach continues to play a significant role in enforcing human rights.

John Humphrey was a lawyer by training. He believed in the power of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the other conventions enacted by the United Nations, while also understanding their limitations. He accurately foresaw how the UN could be used to support efforts to change public opinion, which could in turn be used to force governments to act on human rights violations. Youth have taken up his challenge to make human rights legislation work, particularly in the fight against racial discrimination. Canadian youth continue to play a large role in social justice and human rights movements today.


[1] Michael Dewing, Canadian Multiculturalism. Ottawa, ON: Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Legal and Social Affairs Division, 2009.

[2] Ibid.

[3] United Nations Human Rights Committee, Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of Canada, 2015, accessed Feb. 12, 2016:

[4] Ontario, Office of the Premier, Ontario Acting to End Violence Against Indigenous Women: Premier Wynne Unveils Long-Term Strategy, Feb. 23, 2016, accessed Feb. 12, 2016:


Comments are closed.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.