Speech to the World Federalists of Canada, 1981

By Jonah Winer

John Peters Humphrey’s speech to the World Federalists of Canada delivered in June 1981 is enlightening and significant as it reveals Humphrey’s perspective on the issues of human rights implementation on a global scale through international Human Rights bodies as they relate to global governance. Humphrey does this by examining the pitfalls of the United States’ Articles of Confederation and emphasizing the element he believed would be essential for a successful international system: a direct relationship between this system and individuals the world over.

Before exploring Humphrey’s ideas on the shortfalls and potential good of the World Federalist movement one must first address the ideology of the World Federalists themselves. The World Federalist Movement “evolved out of a series of national organizations…as a response to the failure of the League of Nations and in the attempt of creating the kind of global order that could prevent world war.”[1]  The movement essentially formulated itself as a response to what it saw as critical problems in the League of Nations’ and later the United Nations’ ability to achieve their stated goals of “save[ing] succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”[2] At the time Humphrey addressed the movement, its members’ chief argument was that reforms such as the creation of an International Criminal Court and Commission on Sustainable Development were needed to move the United Nations towards becoming a kind of global parliament that could adequately lead the world forward into an era of peace and global democracy.

While this speech clearly displays Humphrey’s sympathy with the World Federalist movement he clearly had reservations about the implementation of the movement’s goals. He focused specifically on the need to establish a direct relationship between citizens and a world government. He did not believe it should be one mediated through federal governments. Humphrey felt so strongly about this matter that he invoked Hamilton’s turn of phrase, calling the absence of such a relationship “the parent of anarchy”[3] which doomed any kind of federated system be it the United States of America or the United Nations to conflict and breakdown.  In his speech he recognizes the success in applying international law to individuals following the Second World War, but makes clear that “the parent of anarchy” was as present then as it was in the League of Nations. At the time he gave his speech, Humphrey believed this “parent of anarchy” continued to undermine the system as a whole. He strengthens his nuanced position by giving an example of a problem inherent in the United Nations structure: the principle of the equality of sovereign states. Humphrey illustrates how equating the votes of all states regardless of population size creates a false majoritarianism that delegitimizes UN resolutions and divorces its function from the basics of democracy. With these and other serious reservations in mind Humphrey displays his pragmatic and balanced nature by maintaining that while flawed, the United Nations is the foundation on which World Federalists must build. It is therefore an institution that must be supported. Humphrey asserts that the problems with the system can be solved, the “parent of anarchy” can be removed, and all this can be done through work within the United Nations so that in can be transitioned into a system which effectively guarantees “world peace and the promotion of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”[4]

This speech is highly significant in how it reveals both John Peter Humphrey’s character and his ideas on increasingly integrated world governance. It shows Humphrey to be a carefully considered and nuanced thinker, with a strong core of human rights based values, who is able to look forward with both optimism and practicality. By addressing his specific concerns with elements of World Federalism, Humphrey begins the work that he identifies as necessary in his speech, building on the framework of the United Nations in a carefully considered manner with an eye to what kind of governance the world needs to promote peace and human rights.


[1] World Federalist Movement Institute for Global Policy. “History”. Accessed February 18, 2016. http://www.wfm-igp.org/our-movement/history.

[2] Preamble | United Nations Charter.” UN News Center. Accessed February 18, 2016. http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/preamble/index.html.

[3] Peters Humphry, John. “Speech to World Federalists of Canada” Speech at the Annual, Brock University, June 19, 1981.

[4] Preamble | United Nations Charter.” UN News Center. Accessed February 18, 2016. http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/preamble/index.html.


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.