Japan 1992: Still Relevant Today

By Jessica Feuiltault

John Peters Humphrey’s “Tokyo 10 December 1992” speech discusses the role of Japan in the Second World War and the “bad image” that the Japanese created for themselves by not always respecting international laws during this time. In his address to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA), Humphrey discusses the importance of recognizing and honouring international responsibilities. Even today, international responsibilities can seem abstract and unbinding. As a result, Humphrey begins to clarify these in his explanation of how Japan violated some international rights through their treatment of war prisoners and comfort women. Humphrey’s broader discussion of human rights, their legality and the ways in which they can be protected, make his speech very relevant to current issues of international human rights.

The beginning of the 1990s marked the end of the Cold War and the dilution of tensions between East and the West. As tensions thawed, Humphrey attended a JFBA conference in Japan. The International Public Hearing  in Tokyo in 1992 tackled issues of post war compensation regarding war prisoners and comfort women.[1] Humphrey makes it clear that the Japanese government had up until that point done everything to avoid reprimand for their conduct during the war. He mentions that the Japanese prime minister had, however, formally apologized for the misconduct and atrocities, and this was considered to be equivalent to an admission of guilt.

It is most interesting that Humphrey addresses a legal association about the legalities of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as customary law. Though I doubt a bar association need reminder of the legal implications of a universal doctrine of human rights, Humphrey’s call to action to the Japanese government for the compensation the victims of war crimes such as mistreated World War II prisoners and Korean comfort women, is most important in the context of this conference.

Humphrey explains the three main ways in which violations of the Declaration of Human Rights can be reported; through periodic reports from the ratifying states to the Human Rights Committee, the Optional Protocol (a citizen petition) and a 1503 procedure, which exposed patterns of violations. He underlines the flaws in the existing procedures. Under The Covenant, the ratified states cannot be entirely trusted to report their own offences or those of a friendly neighbour.[4] Some countries, such as Japan (at the time), had not recognized the Optional Protocol and this meant petitions from their citizens could not be sent to the United Nations.4 Humphrey implies the importance of the protection of rights by individuals themselves. This echoes the concept that each individual is responsible for protecting and upholding human rights and to not taking their mere existence for granted.

It is doubtful that the JFBA needed a reminder of the prior mentioned methods, but this kind of information would be very important to the everyday citizen. Though our global community is better educated on rights issues than ever before it can sometimes be overwhelming. Portions of Humphrey’s 1992 speech could be studied at the high school level and the issues with the protection of international human rights should be implemented in school curriculums.

John Peters Humphrey’s “Tokyo 10 December 1992” speech was aimed at a very specific conference and topic but touched on the global issue of protecting Human Rights, using Japan as a specific example. Works of this nature are increasingly important because our communities are more and more global and linked by technology. There is a need for international standards in human rights and there is a need for them to be legally binding. Further more there is a pressing need to better educate the public about their rights and how to fight for them in the most effective ways. Humphrey’s speech could have been more effective had it been to a wider audience, for that reason I am glad that it is now available online.

[1] Welch, Jeanie M.. The Tokyo Trial: A Bibliographic Guid to English-language Sources. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001), 183.

[3] Hobbin, A.J. Guest lecturer: Hist 370-001. (Montreal: McGill, 2016).

[4] Ibid., 5.


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