Humphrey Speech: “United Nations Association in Canada”

By Amanda Garrido

In 1977, John Peters Humphrey addressed The United Nations Association in Canada (UNA-Canada), a national charitable organization that aims to educate and involve Canadians in the work of the United Nations and the urgent international issues that affect us all.[1] Humphrey was chosen to speak about the international protection of human rights. However, given the vastness of such a task, he decides to outline the United Nations human rights program in four areas: its development over the last thirty years, its present position, directions the UN must now take, and ways in which non-governmental organizations like the United Nations Association and ordinary men and women like ourselves can contribute to that end.  In his speech, Humphrey highlights UN setbacks in the ability to establish international law, while in the same breath, encouraging the need for non-governmental organisations—The United Nations Association in Canada and those alike—to continue their work, as their voices pressure governments who violate the UN Charter. By addressing the UN’s shortcomings, Humphrey indirectly stresses the importance of non-governmental organizations and their work as they currently fill the gap between governments and recognized international law.

Since the 1970’s, human rights movements and non-government organizations have increasingly played an essential role on the international scene; however, although government support for human rights has not entirely been realised, international organizations have expanded in power and number. Humphrey’s understanding of the world is simple to grasp —“the world has no future unless somehow we can install the rule of law at the international level.”[2] This rule of law— as described in the Charter—involves international cooperation in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.[3] Although the UN Charter has had a profound impact on the world, Humphrey believes the United Nations has failed to become an effective system that maintains international peace and protection. In regards to UN history, Humphrey stresses that the United Nation’s today lacks the “realistic idealism”[4] that motivated the men and women during the UN’s early stages—a drive that was channelled through individuals after two world wars and the barbarities they encompassed.

As Humphrey makes note of the UN’s lack of encouragement, he begins to touch upon techniques that have fallen short during the Covenants history—more specifically, reporting issues. Since 1956, the Economic and Social Council has requested that all member states report periodically on the growth and progress in the matter of human rights;[5] however, despite the participation of many states, reporting has weakened over the years. This absence in reporting is ultimately due to issues of confidentiality and the UN’s frail legal powers.[6] Humphrey suggests that if the UNA-Canada plans to make a proper suggestion as to how the UN can be strengthened, it should recommend that the Canadian delegate to the Human Rights Commission propose the setting up of an independent body of experts to critically examine the periodic reports and direct recommendations to the Commission and the Economic and Social Council to help with reporting issues.[7]

Another issue facing the UN—according to Humphrey—is the lack of unified principles and values that originate from such a diverse population. Humphrey compares the UN’s lack of authority to the success of the European Convention for Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms which includes: the European Commission of Human rights, a conciliation body to which wronged individuals may address petitions, and a European Court of Human Rights that includes the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.[8] Western Europe is a reasonably viewed as a unified community with common traditions and standards, therefore, it much easier to establish a system that handles human right violations compared to the divided world the UN incorporates. In this light, Humphrey explains how he once suggested to the Canadian Government that it should investigate the possibility of becoming a part of the European Convention; however, the Departments of External Affairs and Justice—to which his proposal was addressed—informed him that under the European Convention, only members of the Council of Europe can be authorized members.[9]

Given that the UN was established to promote international co-operation, the lack of legally binding initiatives forces Humphrey to refer to the UN as “the most elaborate waste-paper basket in the world”. [10] Although the United Nations has made some progress in enunciating a new international law of human rights, it has not formulated an effective design for legal implementation. In spite of the weak system that has been agreed on for the international implementation of the Covenant and the fact that there is little likelihood that these instruments will ever be universally ratified, Humphrey pushes for a more practical approach. He suggests that the most promising approach in dealing with the feebleness of the international implementation of the Covenant is to make use of reporting by states and communications or petitions addressed to the United Nations by individuals and groups alleging the violation of human rights. His speech highlights the fact that non-governmental can operate as an executive organ, even if they have no legal power. By addressing the UN’s lack of ability to establish the rule of law at the international level, Humphrey expresses gratitude towards non-governmental organizations as he claims they bridge governments and the possibility of the world, one day, adopting international laws in regards to human rights.

[1] “About Us,”, last modified February 23, 2017, .

[2] MG 4127 C.18 F.374—United Nations Association in Canada, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

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