Human Rights and Authority

By Claire Kingston

In 1969, legal scholar John Peters Humphrey delivered a speech on the topic of Human Rights and Authority, as part of a lecture series organised by the Law Society of Saskatchewan, to an audience of legal professionals and students at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law[1]. As a well-respected human rights advocate, Humphrey would have been familiar to his audience as one of the original drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, created by the United Nations after WWII[2].

Unsurprisingly, Humphrey’s speech centres around his area of expertise, but perhaps because of the audience’s familiarity with the topic he chose to narrow his focus onto one of its lesser known elements; what he calls “other side of human rights… duty, authority and order”[3]. His speech draws on the history of rights in order to propose a trajectory he sees it following going forward – and his isn’t an optimistic vision. In the 20 years since the UDHR’s ratification, he argues, social movements and anti-establishment sentiments had developed that threatened to destabilise institutions of democratic authority and enable the rise of a totalitarian state with no regard for human rights.

Humphrey begins with a survey of the ideological and social evolution of human rights, arguing that their spread should be credited to the resistance of groups and individuals against “arrogant, abusive, illegitimate or foreign” authority[4]. Over time, he argues, such threats to liberty were mitigated via the diffusion of democracy, and much later by the transition of human rights from the national to the international level through the creation of the UDHR, which would eventually become a framework for internal norms and even binding laws related to human rights.

Humphrey does acknowledge the positive changes in the realm of human rights since the UDHR’s ratification; however, in the second half of his speech the thrust is on the future of human rights, not their immediate past. There, he sees more cause for worry. He begins with a somewhat grim analysis of the status of human rights over the past 20 years, and comes to the conclusion that they might be undergoing a shift in the evolutionary path.

His main concern is that “the New Left”, the post-war generation behind the various social movements and anti-establishment politics of the 1960s, might bring about what he refers to as a “Great World Social Revolution”, directed “not so much against authoritarianism but against authority itself”[5]. Rather than targeting totalitarian or fascist forces standing in direct opposition to human rights, he sees the movement as engaging in something nearer to total warfare, seeking to destroy traditional sources of authority with no regard for distinguishing between those that serve society’s interests and those that do not. He notes specific concern for what he perceives as the movement’s strategy of attacking society’s “weakest points” – institutions like universities that, due to their democratic principles, never set up defenses against attacks and thus are most vulnerable to destruction[6]. Humphrey warns that the demolition of traditional institutions and social forces – not just universities, but religion, morals, and the family – is a real threat to human rights, as it could lead Canadian society down a path towards fascism.

It may seem like a dramatic leap to draw that conclusion, but Humphrey takes the time to explain the mechanism behind the transition. By destroying traditional social institutions, he argues that the New Left is also destroying sites that have traditionally enabled the diffusion of powers and limited the ability for political leaders to monopolise authority. This is an essential aspect of any free society, he argues; society and authority are interdependent and symbiotic social constructs, and their destruction would mean a power vacuum[7]. The inevitable result of such a vacuum would be the rise of a new form of political authority – a totalitarian one, which would lack the regard for human rights inherent in the Canada of the 1960s. He suggests this theoretical transition would come about as a result of increased fragmentation and polarisation between social factions, which would weaken the ability of citizens to act collectively as a check against the expansion of government powers. Especially in an era of government expansion and the development of technologies for surveillance and communication, he sees this as a very real threat to society[8].

The solution? Humphrey urges Canadians to demand their politicians take steps to ensure the government complies with the standards for human rights outlined in the UDHR, by developing an entrenched bill of rights, creating a federal Human Rights Commission, conducting a review federal and provincial laws to look for possible violations of the UDHR, and taking more initiative on human rights in foreign policy[9]. He also suggests we take steps to strengthen non-political institutions, especially schools, universities, and voluntary organisations, which might reduce the widespread apathy Humphrey saw in Canadian society.

Humphrey’s points aren’t inherently original. A large segment of the speech is spent talking about turning points in the history of human rights, without presenting any original arguments. His call for more political investment in human rights isn’t particularly innovative either: as he acknowledges, many other countries had already established Bills of Rights or taken proactive steps to support initiatives at the UN. His explanation of the threat to democracy posed by the concentration of powers is an old one, going back to de Tocqueville’s explanation of factors involved in the spread of tyranny after the French Revolution[10]. And criticisms of progressive social movements, whether civil rights, women’s liberation, or anti-war, were already widespread at the time.

What is fascinating about this speech is how its second half gives some insight into how Humphrey’s view of human rights changed in the years after his work at the UN. His emphasis here on authority as a precursor to human rights is, as he admits himself, not one that had always played such a large role in his work – especially not at the United Nations, where “the emphasis in the Declaration was on rights…authority [was mentioned] not at all”[11]. It seems the concern he voiced for the protection of traditional sites of authority was a more recent one, borne from his own experience living in the age of activism and anti-establishment politics of the 1960s.

Considering the era in which he delivered his speech, it’s also impossible not to draw parallels between his position and that of the New Right movement that emerged as part of a backlash against the leftist movements of the 1960s and gained speed in the 1970s and 80s. They, too, criticised the destruction of traditional institutions and counter-culture movements of the 1960s[12]. However, Humphrey’s argument stands out by extending somewhat farther. By fusing elements of the New Right and the “Old Left”, he justifies his concern about these cultural changes not because they’re inherently deviant or dangerous, but rather because of the way they might act as a catalyst for a series of events that could result in authoritarianism and the obliteration of human rights.

It’s an interesting position that arguably holds up better than partisan right-wing arguments of the time. Whether it’s justified is a different issue. Humphrey seems comfortable in arguing that are under existential threat, and doesn’t take much time to consider whether activists might be seeking reform rather than destruction, or whether movements demanding equality for marginalised groups might serve to bolster human rights rather than weaken them. But whether readers agree or disagree with his conclusions, it’s clear this speech was deeply influenced by Humphrey’s social environment, and presents a fascinating viewpoint on his own intellectual evolution on the matter.

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.374 – Human Rights and Authority, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives. 1.

[2] John Peters Humphrey Foundation. “Biography.” The Hampton. Last modified 2012. Accessed February 24, 2017.

[3] Human Rights and Authority, 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Human Rights and Authority, 10.

[6] Human Rights and Authority, 11.

[7] Human Rights and Authority, 15.

[8] Human Rights and Authority, 16.

[9] Human Rights and Authority, 20.

[10] De Tocqueville, Alexis. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. 2nd ed. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.

[11] Human Rights and Authority, 8.

[12] Cunningham, Sean. “New Right Political Movement.” Britannica. Last modified March 19, 2016. Accessed February 24, 2017.


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