John Peters Humphrey: on the UNCHR

By Charles Dabda

John Peters Humphrey’s speech to the sub-commission of the UNCHR, truly embodies his prolific career and contribution toward the advancement of human rights internationally. In May of 1992, Humphrey stood before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights’ sub-commission and addressed their failures of inaction, regarding the application of resolution 1503. He spoke at the annual conference and conveyed his thoughts through a critical lens. Resolution 1503 touched upon the accountability of those who held POWs (Prisoners of War), as well as the compensation for said POWs[1]. As stated in his speech, he was a former chairman of the sub-commission, when it was known as the United Nations Division on Human Rights.[2] Humphrey called it one of the most important mechanisms for the protection of human rights worldwide[3], yet he rigidly exposed the organization’s faults. His criticisms thus acted as guidance for rectifying errors. The commission “was established to weave the international legal fabric that protects our fundamental rights and freedoms.[4]” Thus, its chieftain purpose was to uphold human rights and see that those who violate them be persecuted, and subsequently compensate harmed individuals.

The members of the sub-commission stated that the aforementioned resolution was inoperative for POWs held in Japan in virtue of the context of world war two. However, Humphrey noted that it was indeed the heinous crimes of WW2 which bore the first human rights persecutions and called for compensatory action.  Humphrey refused to accept their inadequate explanation for not applying resolution 1503.

The speech was written in 1992, as Humphrey wrote on his paper by hand, and was delivered at an ECOSOC annual subsidiary meeting. The context of 1992 was crucial for the recognition of human rights in virtue of the fact that the Yugoslav wars had begun merely a year before. Humphrey spoke before the sub-commission with regards to POWs and their reconciliation, while the Yugoslav wars were occurring, egregious crimes to say the least. Thus I argue that the circumstances of the speech reinvigorated the passion of the listeners to fight for the greater good of humanity, similar to the context of Humphrey’s draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I maintain that his speech was a call to the conscience of the international community and a plea to fight for the protection of human rights.

Humphrey expressed that in ordinary circumstances it would be his pleasure to address the sub-commission, but given the international context and human rights violations, he was less than delighted. Moreover, the sub-commission adopts hundreds of resolutions at the annual conference in Geneva, and thus it is crucial to uphold them in order to maintain their strength and legitimacy. If such resolutions were not held to the highest degree and respected, they would essentially become futile. According to International Trials and Reconciliation: assessing the impact of the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the 1990’s bore a new age of accountability[5]; which is exactly what John Peters Humphrey was fighting for on the day of his speech. As Humphrey called for accountability for those who held POWs in Japan, the international community was on the brink of intervening in Yugoslavia to prevent even more abominable crimes. Furthermore, in the same year of his speech, John Peters Humphrey was given a prestigious award at the United Nations for his exceptional contributions to the cause of human rights[6]. Thus, the context of  May of 1992 was momentous in virtue of the fact that individuals, such as Humphrey, were fighting for the protection of human rights, as egregious violations were occurring. This incessant battle, largely propelled by John Peters Humphrey himself, prevented the international community from committing the crime of apathy from their moral obligations.

Humphrey’s impactful address was firm, precise and concise. His rhetoric targeted the issue directly rather than using unnecessary terminology and remained focused on the most relevant matter of the meeting, the application of resolution 1503. He outlined the negligence  of those he was addressing and left them with a stimulating and carefully considered question, “Resolution 1503 is one of the most useful international mechanisms for the implementation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Will the Sub-Commission go down in history as having weakened it? [7]” This speech was momentous by virtue of his ability to dramatically evoke the question of the effectiveness of certain UN organizations. Humphrey had the capacity to criticize the sub-commission’s inaction, reminding its members of his work with them, and leave them with an open-ended question in order to provoke thought and consideration. This strategic ending allowed the members of the sub-commission to ponder their decision. He further critiques the sub-commission by stating that the misuse of passed resolutions “challenges the very heart and basis of the new world law of human rights.[8]” He eloquently pushed for something he dedicated his life to, inalienable rights and their protection.

In all, the importance of Humphrey’s speech in 1992 is attributable to the occurrence of the human rights violations in the Yugoslav wars. His eloquent words were significant in the push for the international community to maintain their moral obligations to protect the inalienable rights of all people. Words alone do the legacy of John Peters Humphrey no justice, his career was exuberant and the 21st century continues the fight he set the precedent for.

[1] “University of Minnesota Human Rights Library.” University of Minnesota Human Rights Library. Accessed February 18, 2017.

[2] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 — United Nations Speech, John Peters Humphrey, McGill University Archives.

[3] Ibid

[4] “UNITED NATIONS COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS.” United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Accessed February 19, 2017.

[5] Clark, Janine Natalya. International trials and reconciliation: assesing the impact of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Abingdon: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.

[6] “A tribute to the great Montrealers.” A tribute to the great Montrealers. Accessed February 18, 2017.

[7] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 — United Nations Speech, John Peters Humphrey, McGill University Archives. p.2 line 11-14

[8] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 — United Nations Speech, John Peters Humphrey, McGill University Archives. p.1 line 20-22

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