Human Rights Day Speech (1973)

By Ayman Ashebir

On December 10th of every year, the international community celebrates “Human Rights Day” in commemoration of that day in 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.[1] At the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, John Peters Humphrey delivered a speech on the importance of the Declaration, the remarkable achievement that was its passage, and the necessity to continue to fight for the protection and recognition of human rights twenty-five years later.

John Peters Humphrey begins his remarks by identifying the adoption of the Declaration as one of the “greatest achievements of the United Nations.”[2] Humphrey describes the Declaration as a “revolutionary document” because it signified a shift away from human rights as a domestic issue, to human rights as an international one.[3] By codifying an internationally accepted framework outlining the rights of all humans across all continents, the Declaration represents a postwar consensus that human rights are a part of the purview of international law.[4]

Humphrey highlights the Second World War as an integral catalyst for the Declaration’s adoption.[1] For Humphrey, the “unprecedented violations of the most basic human rights” that occurred during the Second World War had the effect of shocking people into action.[6] Humphrey notes the fact that the Second World War caused an upsurge in sensitivity to human rights violations worldwide, even in places not directly affected by such violations.[7] It is this heightened sensitivity that fuelled a demand for a codification of basic human rights, rights that all humans – regardless of their nationhood – would have.[8]

While recognizing the successes of the Declaration, Humphrey also outlines several significant issues that the international community must tackle if it wants to fulfill the document’s original intent. For Humphrey, whether or not the international community can fulfill the promises of the Declaration is dependent on the desire – or lack thereof – of the general public to see the Declaration’s promises fulfilled.[9] While the immediate aftermath of the Second World War provided the perfect environment to which basic human rights protections could be codified, Humphrey argues that the dilemma of time has made it difficult to maintain that perfect environment.[10] Humphrey laments the fact that world public opinion regarding human rights violations has moved from heightened sensitivity in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, to indifference and disillusionment twenty-five years later.[11] The indifference comes from individuals of the democratic world who have either forgotten, or have simply never experienced the brutality with which humans can treat one another.[12] The disillusionment comes from the individuals of the authoritarian world who after twenty-five years, no longer believe in the ability of the international community to make good on its promise to protect them.[13] To that end, Humphrey poignantly notes that the anniversary commemoration may as well be about the countless lives the Declaration was unable to protect, rather than the ones that it did.[14]

The disillusionment towards the Declaration felt among the oppressed world is principally connected to its foremost goal: to provide for the establishment of an international body of laws above the sovereignty of nation-states, with an international method of enforcement to which nation-states would be accountable. As discussed earlier, Humphrey himself points to the establishment of an international body of laws as the most remarkable achievement of the Declaration.[15]  And yet, Humphrey also laments the unwillingness of some states to respect these international laws.[16] Humphrey readily concedes the ineffectiveness of the United Nations in ensuring that signatories of the Declaration are properly following its articles.[17] Humphrey addresses this by discussing the ways in which the United Nations can ensure adherence to the Declaration.

Adopted on February 5th of 1952, the International Bill of Rights consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[18] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – professing the right of all humans to “self-determination and protection under the law” – was adopted on December 16, 1966, and put into effect on March 23, 1976.[19] The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – which commits signatories to the protection of labour rights, rights to health care, and rights to education – was adopted on December 16, 1966, and put into effect on January 23, 1976.[20] While the Declaration “was never meant to be binding as part of international law”, the two covenants were for the states that chose to ratify them.[21]

The two covenants were ratified by a majority of the international community with the exception of nation-states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.[22] However, while the Covenants recognize the legality of human rights, Humphrey argues that they provide weak measures for enforcement.[23] Moreover, the most important protections take the form of optional protocols, which abolish the death penalty and provide additional individual rights.[24] Unfortunately, a nation-state has the option of ratifying the Covenants while choosing not to ratify the optional protocols.[25] Humphrey argues that whether or not a nation-state ratifies the optional protocols, symbolizes whether or not that nation-state truly believes in the human rights it agrees to protect.[26]

While the majority of nation-states have ratified the Covenant, a considerably lower percentage have ratified the optional protocols. The United States, China, the majority of Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, have yet to ratify the first and second optional protocols to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[27] Moreover, virtually none of world’s nation-states – including Canada – have ratified the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.[28]

As we look at the Declaration today, there are undeniable parallels between modern discussions of the United Nations and Humphrey’s remarks in 1973. Just as Humphrey lamented, modern discussions of the United Nations are often dominated by fiery debates as to the effectiveness of the United Nations in protecting basic human rights. And it is interesting to think about such debates within the context of what Humphrey laments as the principal reason for the ineffectiveness of the United Nations, the lack of effective enforcement. Indeed, Humphrey argues for an international body that has the power to instill fear into the hearts of authoritarian regimes who are in turn, forced to respect the laws set forth in the Declaration.[29]

John Peters Humphrey delivers his address to an audience primarily comprised of representatives from non-governmental organizations.[30] Humphrey describes non-governmental organizations as integral to the democratic process and a critical part “of the structure and operation of the United Nations.” [31] It is in this speech that Humphrey forges a new path for human rights advocates, one in which non-governmental organizations – and the press – take on the responsibility of educating the public on the need for human rights, and lobbying nation-states – using the power of the private sector – into respecting human rights laws.[32] Humphrey highlights non-governmental organizations as the new vehicles for the advocacy of human rights, in part, because of the apathy that Humphrey believes exists within the general public.[33] Humphrey blames public apathy for the lack of action on the part of governments who no longer see human rights laws as politically expedient.[34] Comparatively, the purpose of non-governmental organizations is to bring awareness to issues that the public would otherwise be indifferent to. As such, the public apathy Humphrey depicts as debilitating to the enforcement of human rights laws, could be cured by the private sector.[35]

[1] “Human Rights Day Speech December 10, 1973,” MG 4127, C.18, File 371, McGill University Archives, McGill University, 1

[2] Humphrey, 1

[3] ibid., 5

[4] ibid., 5

[5] ibid., 5

[6] ibid., 5

[7] ibid., 11

[8] ibid., 12

[9] ibid., 12

[10] ibid., 12

[11] ibid., 12

[12] ibid., 12

[13] ibid., 12

[14] ibid., 3

[15] ibid., 5

[16] ibid., 9

[17] ibid., 9

[18] “International Bill of Human Rights,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed February 22, 2017

[19] “Human Rights.”

[20] “Human Rights.”

[21] Humphrey, 8

[22] “Status of Ratification,”

[23] Humphrey, 8

[24] ibid., 8

[25] ibid., 9

[26] ibid., 9

[27] “Status of Ratification.”

[28] “Status of Ratification.”

[29] Humphrey, 13

[30] ibid., 12

[31] ibid., 12

[32] ibid., 14

[33] ibid., 14

[34] ibid., 12

[35] ibid., 16

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