John Peters Humphrey: Second World Congress on Human Rights, Dakar, Senegal, 1986

by Alexandre Berthelot

John Peters Humphrey was invited to address the United Nations assembly on the occasion of the Second World Congress on Human Rights held in Dakar, Senegal in December of 1986.  The occasion marked the 40th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations and the 38th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The UN also declared 1986 to be the International Year of Peace.  Humphrey chose this occasion to make explicit the link between human rights violations and conflict, explaining how the Universal Declaration, without officially having the force of law can influence the decisions of states with regards to human rights, and by extension peace.  I believe that Humphrey, on this occasion, may have overestimated the reach and effectiveness of non-binding agreements between nations.

He begins his discourse by stating that one of the goals of the United Nations included in the preamble to the Charter of the organization; “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”[1] The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution in 1982, on the recommendation of the Economic and Social Council, to declare 1986 the International Year of Peace[2] and Humphrey recognized that “peace continues to be a goal instead of an achievement,”[3] Humphrey, in his address to the Congress of Human Rights, underlined the fact that it was the also the 38th anniversary of the Universal Charter of Charter of Human Rights and sought to make explicit his vision that respect for human rights and peace were inextricably linked.

He argues, in what is likely an oversimplification of global geopolitics made for the purpose of being concise, that both of the global conflicts of the 20th century had their roots in the violation of human rights.  The “immediate cause of the First Great War” he claims “was the assassination of an Austrian archduke by a member of a disaffected minority” and that “perhaps the principal cause” of the Second World War was “persistent, cruel, and systematic violation of the most fundamental human rights perpetrated by the Nazi government of Germany.”[4]  He then reminds the audience that one of the goals of the Second Great war announced by Winston Churchill was to “to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual.”[5] Humphrey also makes reference to the preamble to the Charter of the United Nations adopted at the San Francisco Conference in 1945, which sought to usher in a global peace and “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.”[6]

In the second part of his speech, Humphrey seeks to demonstrate the achievements of the United Nations in the protection of human rights after four decades of existence. He claims that the most revolutionary of all the developments was the attribution of rights to the individual in international law which he contrasts with the old system where “states, and only states, had rights.”[7]  He also enumerated other achievements in the domain of human rights including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  Humphrey believed that even though these conventions did not constitute binding agreements between the states, “they have been invoked so often by states as having force of law that they have become part of the customary law of nations” and effectually bind even non-signatory nations.[8]

To explain this developement, Humphrey, for all intents and purposes, equates the effects of the conventions to a form of international peer pressure whose essential purpose is to “instruct global public opinion.”[9]  He believes that the condemnation of human rights violations by an international body, what he calls “the organisation of shame”[10], is enough to make offending countries react in some way and that it is therefore a sanction on its own.  To illustrate this point, he cites the 1977 example of Lovelace v. Canada in which the Human Rights Committee of the U.N. found that “Sandra Lovelace has been denied the legal right to reside on the Tobique Reserve” and declared “a breach by Canada of article 27 of the Covenant.”[11]  After this opinion, Canada amended the Indian Act and Mrs. Lovelace was able to return and reside with her tribe.  This action by the Canadian government, Humphrey claims, was motivated by Canada’s desire to “maintain its reputation as a country that respects its international obligations.”[12]  Proof, according to Humphrey, of the power of public opinion as an international sanction.

The second example Humphrey cites in his argument seems much more convoluted.  He speaks of resolution 1503 of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, which was intended to help address “flagrant and systemic violations”[13] of human rights.  He cites no specific cases of its application but yet maintains that it has had the same effect as the Lovelace decision; by “creating embarrassing publicity for the government in question, they are a form of sanction.”[14]  This argument, I believe, falls short on several levels.  First, it rests on the assumption that that no government can tolerate the reputation of not respecting international law.  For countries who engage in what can be described as systematic and flagrant violations of human rights it is likely already clear to them without the opinion of the U.N. that they are in violation of these international covenants and international opinion is likely to change very little in their approach.  To simply cite a few contemporary examples of the failure of international peer pressure to affect change we can look to the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, before which the international community was relatively powerless to act and international opinion did little to change the course of events.  We can also question the power relations between member states, when a global superpower like the United States is permitted to hold out of state military bases where torture is commonly practiced such as Guantanamo Bay before the relative silence of the international community.  Finally, we can also look at the current refugee crisis in the Middle East as a breach to the right to asylum, where signatories of the international conventions are seeking to limit the rights of asylum seekers to enter their countries.

To conclude, Humphrey was certainly right when he drew a causal link between human rights violations and war.  However, as we have seen, the effectiveness of the mechanisms that the United Nations has given itself to address the situation has varied.  For individuals, in more developed, signatory nations the Lovelace case demonstrates the efficiency of the voluntary process defined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights.  However, in my humble opinion, this speech fails to make the same argument for efficiency when addressing blatant and systemic discrimination whether it be for member or non-member states.  There is still much work to be done if we, as a global community, hope to live up to the standards and aspirations set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, Speech Deuxième Congrès Mondial des Droits de L’homme, Dakar,John Peters Humphrey, 1986, Fonds, McGill University Archives p.3

[2] United Nations General Assembly, A/Res/37/16. International Year of Peace in UN Documents : Gathering a body of global agreements, Nov. 1982, (retrieved from Feb. 8, 2017)

[3] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, , 1986, p.2

[4]MG 4127 C.18 F.367, , 1986, p.2

[5] Winston Churchill, as cited by John Peters Humphrey in MG 4127 C.18 F.367, Speech Deuxième Congrès Mondial des Droits de L’homme, p.3

[6] Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, San Francisco, 1945

[7] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, 1986, p.5

[8] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, 1986, p.6

[9] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, 1986, p.7

[10] ibid

[11] Human Rights Committee, Lovelace V. Canada, communication No. R.6/24*/sec.19 (30 July 1981) retrieved from Feb. 9 2017). Article 27 protects the right of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities to enjoy their own culture, , to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language. (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Art. 27, (1966))

[12] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, 1986, p.8

[13] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, 1986, p.9

[14] MG 4127 C.18 F.367, 1986, p.9

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