The Rights Revolution According to John Humphrey

By Dorothy Heinrich

There has been no more revolutionary development in the history of international law and relations that the present engrossment of the UN with human rights

                                                                                                (Humphrey, February 11th, 1965)

On February 11th 1965, seventeen years after the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), John P. Humphrey gave a speech in Montreal on human rights and the role of the United Nations. The speech is valuable as a retrospective overview of the work of the UN since 1948 but also presents an interesting argument about the possibility of a “rights revolution”. Indeed, the question of whether we have entered this “revolution” has been central to human rights discussions in recent years and is an important dimension in understanding the impact of the UDHR. Humphrey’s argument about the revolution allows us to look into the essence of the Declaration and can help us interpret the role of the U.N in this revolution.

Why did the Rights Revolution occur?

According to Humphrey, the catalyst of the revolution was the collective shock at the atrocities of World War II.  The war, and what slowly came to light about it, profoundly shocked the world by showing the potential of mankind for abject cruelty. However, Humphrey argues, it was not simply to horrors of war that made nations think about fundamental human rights, but the fact that the system’s “machinery”, had allowed it. This notion became the reason for drafting the Declaration. The other aspect that precipitated the revolution, according to Humphrey, was the difference between the United Nations and its precursor, the League of Nations. The United Nations presented a much more cohesive body than the League of Nations, which allowed for its influence to soar, ensuring a more global rights culture.

What do we mean by a Rights Revolution?

Humphrey details the argument about the possibility of a rights revolution in a systematic manner in his speech. He starts on the basis that the UDHR was seen as a fundamental document that would completely change the world. He remembers that Franklin D. Roosevelt called its work the “necessary conditions for peace” and that Eleanor Roosevelt described the UDHR as a “modern magna carta.” Building upon this framework, Humphrey first describes the institutionalization of human rights in a non-binding document as revolutionary. The document acted both as a blueprint for nation-states and as a “sounding board” for human rights ideas:

This singling out by the Charter of the promotion of human rights as a matter of  international concern, and as a proper subject of international notion was, a revolutionary development because treaties international law has always considered human rights were which certain ill defined exceptions within the exclusive jurisdiction of states.

Humphrey’s revolution was therefore the idea that the United Nations, because of its Charter and the Declaration, could have “force and authority” and be a sort of moral compass for countries to follow, given its “wide acceptance”. The institutionalization of human rights at the international level, and then more practically at the state one, provided the world with a new tool to build human rights discussions, debates, and protective legislation.

According to Humphrey however, the rights revolution did not only have legal effects, but it was also the impetus for “the great psychological changes that have occurred since the War in popular attitudes towards human rights problems.” Suddenly, human rights were at the forefront of international discussions and preoccupations. With the Declaration, the international community had established new language to talk about the rights of all.

Humphrey’s 1965 speech shows deep belief in the necessity of the UDHR and the United Nations body to provide the framework for human rights protection.  Indeed, according to his writings, the UDHR set the first spark of the revolution by “dealing with the intangible.” He notes further that “it may well be that it is precisely in such intangible ways that the UN has so far made its greatest contribution.”

However, it is in another speech called “Epilogue” and probably addressed to a teachers union or school, that Humphrey envisions the future of the revolution. Education, according to Humphrey, is the best practical way to uphold the revolution and ensure that its flicker does not die out. In fact, the right to education is enshrined in the 26th article of the UDHR and Humphrey describes this particular article as the “sanction for human rights”, as the tool necessary to create respect for human rights. According to Humphrey, it is teachers who are the guardians of human rights. It is their “duty to strengthen respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” and to circulate the future information and activism of the United Nations in that department. Education is the way to transfer the human rights vocabulary written in the Declaration, and to build a society that respects those rights. In a sense, therefore, the spark ignited by the drafting of the Declaration, can be called a revolution but only if it is continued.

The context of the 1965 speech is an example of the importance of coining the term Rights Revolution. Humphrey made this speech in Montreal, his adopted city, and in the introduction spends time talking to the audience in French about what he believed to be Quebec’s place in Canada. The year 1965 was a year where this debate was becoming increasingly important as a result of the foment of the Quiet Revolution. Humphrey talks about a new era in which French could be a national unifying characteristic of Canada. This new era is tightly connected to the rights revolution, ushering in a new way of interacting at all levels. Furthermore, in 1960 the Bill of Rights was adopted, making human rights a topic within a Canadian context. And it was during these years that, according to Humphrey, Canada had the potential to emerge as one of the “great nations of the world.” Perhaps this context can be seen as a principle goal of Humphrey’s rights revolution: making people realize that a great shift had occurred and letting them embody this change.

As for the content of these speeches, inscribing the term “revolution” in discussions about human rights is fundamental. The term allows us to better understand the tremendous shift of the United Nations’ work, and provides us with a framework to evaluate the essence of change in human rights discussions. The revolution completely changed both attitudes and language about human rights, shaping activism and discussion. And acknowledging the revolution, at least according to Humphrey, is therefore the most important step in moving forward and continuing the fight.

In conclusion, both Humphrey’s speeches are telling about his beliefs about the incredible shift wrought by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He saw the Rights Revolution as a revolution of ideas. This revolution ushered in a new era where future awareness and activism about human rights would be ensured by the fundamental right to education. Humphrey’s analysis of the Rights Revolution is therefore extremely useful to further discussions about rights, about the role of the United Nations, and about what we can do to enshrine human rights in our laws and in our minds.


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