Three Parents of Anarchy

By Daniel Jordan

Near the end of the Cold War, on April 18, 1988 John Peters Humphrey delivered a speech to the Nova Scotia Commission on Human Rights entitled The Three Parents of Anarchy. Unwavering in his advocacy for human rights, Humphrey took this particular opportunity to detail the delicate relation between peace among nations and the respect for human rights: when there is peace, human rights are generally respected. Through detailing what he believed to be the three biggest threats to international peace—the lack of individual agency under the international law and the collective responsibility for violations of international law being the most relevant, Humphrey in truth outlined the biggest threats to human rights as he saw it. Although the Cold War ended roughly 30 years ago, we are still faced with the same issue that plagued Humphrey during his life: “how to prevent war whether nuclear or conventional.” Put plainly, Humphrey’s speech is still significant and relevant today because not only have we yet to prevent war but currently we are faced with a new form of war: terrorism.  Perhaps through focusing on individual agency as Humphrey suggested we can work to prevent war and terrorism.

One of Humphrey’s final remarks was “that states are too strong and individual men and women are too weak.” This remark addresses the first parent of international anarchy—the lack of individual agency under the international law. Out of all the parents, this one is perhaps the most relevant to our current global situation because of the threat of terrorism. Terrorism has revolutionized the way in which modern warfare is conducted. What makes terrorism such a dynamic phenomenon is that it takes a ground up approach. Because our world is so focused on state relations we sometimes forget about how the choices of heads of state affect the masses.In my view, terrorism is the direct manifestation of what Humphrey described as the First Parent of Anarchy.

According to Martha Crenshaw, author of The Causes of Terrorism,  “the most basic reason for terrorism is to gain recognition or attention.”[1] Crenshaw further elaborates how “violence and bloodshed always excite human curiosity”[2] and “that publicity may be the highest goal of some groups.”[3] It is extremely unfortunate that certain people are driven to such lengths to make their needs and or interests heard. This in no way absolves terrorists of their sins nor does it advocate for the use of terrorism but there is value in understanding what terrorists are fighting for and what drove them to such lengths. The fact that people are leaving their homes to join ISIS is truly something. These are people who are leaving liberal democratic states to join ISIS. Perhaps it is time to focus on the needs of the individual rather than the state as a whole.

Humphrey details how the “law protecting the individual is there. What is lacking is adequate measures of implementation. And states, because they give such priority to…their sovereignty, show little interest.” Over the decades, countries have prided themselves on ratifying charters and treaties, pledging to uphold and respect human rights yet in practice; we find that this is not the case.  Let’s take the United States of America as an example. Not only has the United States of America ratified Geneva Conventions pertaining to behaviour in wartime, and the UN Charter, they’ve also signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite these pledges to uphold international law and human rights, recently the US has been found responsible for bombing two hospitals in Syria. Now the bombing of a hospital is a crime in and of itself. However, according to Humphrey, the fact that the US is bombing Syria at all, is a direct manifestation of the Third Parent of Anarchy. With this Third Parent, Humphrey explains how instead of directly punishing the heads of state for violating international law we punish the country as a whole. The same thing can be said about economic sanctions. Through punishing the entire country we create the environment that breeds terrorism and international instability. Rather than invading countries and stirring civil unrest, why not target those individuals who are sanctioning these invasions and or committing human rights violations, from all over the world?

In his speech, Humphrey advocated for the importance of human agency within international law and discourse. With more emphasis on individual agency we will be able to pay attention to the needs and interests of the many rather than the few. Humphrey also advocates for the individual punishment of those who have violated international law rather than collective punishment. Through the promotion of international peace we may be able to further respect human rights and hopefully someday abolish war.


[1] Martha Crenshaw, “The Causes of Terrorism,” Comparative Politics 13, no. 4 (July 1981): 386.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] International Criminal Court Office of the Prosecutor Communications, “Situations and Cases,” ICC – CPI, accessed February 24, 2016,


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