The Magna Carta of Mankind

By Théodore Poisson

In his speech the Magna Carta of Mankind, John Peters Humphrey examines the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its lasting impact on the practice of rights and their place in international law. As one of his later speeches, written in 1988, Humphrey’s impact on the struggle for human rights is made increasingly apparent. In this blog post, Humphrey’s account of the processes involved in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be discussed, along with an examination of his beliefs on the impact of the Declaration on shaping the culture of rights in an international context and universal laws—‘jus cogens’.

The speech describes the complex negotiation process that resulted in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This account lets Humphrey explore the broader international struggle for rights that took place following the Second World War. According to Humphrey, this process spanned the establishment of the first commission on human rights to the drawing-up and approval of the Declaration. By describing this progression, he conveys the atmosphere of compromise, collaboration, and co-operation that emerged between the different parties, as a means of illustrating the broader changes in the culture of rights at the time.

The universality of the struggle for human rights is also reflected in the speech with Humphrey’s reservations towards taking ownership over the Declaration’s drafting. This is apparent chiefly in how he removes himself from the immediate action when looking back at the process of drafting of the Declaration. Humphrey adopts the role of a neutral international agent, even several decades after leaving his functions at the United Nations. This is apparent in the section of the speech devoted to criticising certain countries who abstained from supporting the Declaration. Even though he is a Canadian and holds strong beliefs with regards the importance of human rights, he does not explicitly address Canada’s abstention from the vote. This demonstrates his strong belief in the Declaration being the product of a process of collective negotiations and bargaining and not of his own personal conviction.

The speech not only gives an account of the bargaining process that resulted in the drafting of the Declaration, but also tells the story of a changing culture of rights internationally. Humphrey illustrates a complete revolution in the conception of human rights, which he attributes to the post-War international processes and the subsequent drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  He argues that this culture of rights is now so engraved in our way of life that a ‘life without them [human rights], many people think, would not be worth living’. This reflects an evolution in the perception of human rights as a result of them becoming engraved in the core values of society. The  evolution of these rights as core values of society is demonstrative of Humphrey’s vision of the changing culture of rights globally in the period around the drafting of the Declaration.

The evolution of the significance of human rights, according to Humphrey’s speech, is not only reflected in a changing attitude and culture revolving around rights, but also in a change in laws internationally, encouraged by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  In the final section of the speech, he discusses the idea of ‘jus cogens’, a set of universal laws. He outlines how ‘international law now reaches down to entities other than states including individual men and women’.  The changing place of rights in international law, according to Humphrey, reflects the impact of the Declaration on changing the way human rights are represented in law.

In conclusion, the speech gives a detailed account of Humphrey’s perception of the process of negotiation that amounted to the redaction of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, the speech also effectively emphasises the changing culture of rights and the changing place of rights in international law. However, it is his humble outlook on his contribution to changing the culture of human rights internationally that makes this speech a masterpiece of autobiography on Humphrey’s part.


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