Presentation to the Standing Committee on Defence and External Affairs, 1984


In May 1984, John Peters Humphrey appeared before the Committee on Defence and External Affairs of the Canadian Senate, and spoke regarding a bill then under consideration. Though he never states this explicitly, one can draw this conclusion from his multiple references to the Senate’s role in reviewing bills and his presence in Ottawa. As an expert in his field, it is understandable that Humphrey would volunteer, or be called, to appear before this committee. As he does not argue particularly against the bill, but instead simply points to problems that need to be addressed and means of addressing them, he succeeds in retaining a degree of neutrality fitting for someone largely seen as an international representative.

One of the aims of this unnamed bill was to create an Institute on Peace and Security, in order to work towards world peace and create favourable conditions for peace. The idea was that the institute would promote peace through disarmament however Humphrey, through his speech, argues that the proposed strategy was incorrect. Instead, he argues that the more important approach would be to take such actions as reducing virulent nationalism and individual state power in order to reduce the likelihood of state interest in, or ability to, wage war. Through examining the present military situation and the applicability of such techniques, we can come to understand the applicability of Humphrey’s speech today.

To begin, Humphrey explains that there are two issues with the proposed bill – openness for non-governmental involvement, and the focus on disarmament when this was, in fact, a fairly ineffective means for peace. With regards to non-governmental involvement, Humphrey is concerned that a lack of non-governmental involvement in the bill’s scope would limit the perspectives examined, as non-governmental interests can, and often do, differ from those of government. By establishing an institute focused on government perspectives, the Canadian government risked missing important perspectives on, or solutions to, situations of global peace.

The other issue, and perhaps the more serious one, was that of the institute’s proposed mandate. According to Humphrey, the institute’s focus on the disarmament of hostile countries is ineffective. It is a temporary and reversible means of reaching peace, and once war begins it becomes an un-enforceable pact and opens the door to the reintroduction of weapons of mass destruction. While thus not effective as a sole focus for peace, this problem of disarmament remains an important component of the peace problem along with many others. While not exhaustively listing such problems, Humphrey does explore two – fighting virulent nationalism, and curbing state power. Here, just as he elaborates in his speech “Individual Rights and the Changing Character of International Law”, Humphrey argues that the current state system is obsolete – principally as a result of states’ inherent monopoly on power and coercion. This monopoly of power was dangerous as it could be mobilized by explosive nationalism. While he does not propose any concrete solution, Humphrey emphasizes that finding concrete solutions should be the responsibility of any Canadian institute created for the study of peace.

In order to combat this  issue, Humphrey emphasizes the importance of curbing state power – particularly through increasing the power of supra-national organizations, or increasing individual human rights. As such, in order to really work towards peace, Humphrey makes the argument that the mandate of the proposed institute must be expanded to cover non-governmental organizations so as to be open to broader perspectives, and to include supra-national organizations in order to work towards reducing potentially explosive nationalism as well as curbing state power in light of the current state system’s monopoly of power.

While Humphrey’s arguments in this speech may not have been radically new and groundbreaking at the time he presented them, they nevertheless provided an important perspective for the Senate to consider while considering such a bill. While there is no particular way of determining the influence of these arguments to this day, we can nevertheless see their applicability to modern conflicts. Today, they still appear to retain some relevance, despite changes in the character of war. Principally with the War on Terror, one can see a change from more conventional wars with clear state actors to more insurgency-type wars with less clearly defined  actors such as the Taliban and ISIS. As such, Humphrey’s arguments about the role of state actors could be more useful in understanding the failure to quell such conflicts as opposed to determining strategies for peace. One cannot approach terrorist conflicts in the same way as one would approach traditional conflicts with clear state actors. As such, while Humphrey’s arguments in this speech are perhaps less relevant at this exact point in time, they could be relevant if there is a return to conventional warfare. For instance, this is conceivable if  the present conflict in Ukraine expands. Thus, examining the present military situation and the applicability of Humphrey’s techniques allows us to understand the applicability of his speech today.


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