John Peters Humphrey’s address at the Montreal museum of fine arts

By Connor Sliman

John Peters Humphrey’s address at the Montreal museum of fine arts in October 1986 was to commemorate plans to place a statue to human rights in Ottawa.  The statue in question, The Canadian Tribute to Human Rights, was officially unveiled by the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso four years after this address was given.  The location of the ceremony at the Montreal museum of fine arts, and the presence of the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Stephen Lewis, insinuates a well-heeled audience listening to this introduction.  It is important to note that Humphrey is only giving an introduction to Canada’s representative at the UN, not making a full speech.  With this in mind it makes it all the more impressive that he conveys so much about the state of the UN in so few words.  John Peters Humphrey was attempting to draw the North American public’s attention to the financial crisis wracking the United Nations during the mid-1980s.

It is key to provide context to the financial situation of the UN during the 1980’s as this becomes the crux of this speech’s thesis.  During this period President Ronald Reagan developed an increasingly hostile relationship with the United Nations, often withholding financial contributions in order to leverage political influence.[1]  One such example of this was around the time this speech was given; The UN’s “debts had leapt to more than half the total outstanding for peacekeeping and the regular budget.”  The United States then used this debt size to force alterations to budgetary voting procedure, giving them an effective veto.[2]

Looking at the primary source in of itself it’s clear that editing was done to remove portions concerning Gerard Pelletier, the predecessor to Steven Lewis, which points to him being absent for the address.  Humphrey’s introductory address served two primary purposes in commenting on human rights in the Canadian context: Firstly, to connect the Canadian public with its traditions of espousing and protecting human rights in order to invest them in the current plight of the UN’s finances.  He points out that the European press have already begun to comment on this issue, but claims that “unfortunately, the media has not yet reacted in Canada.”[3]  Secondly, and arguably more importantly, Humphrey seems to be ringing alarm bells about the diminishment of the United Nations’ capacity to safeguard human rights due to financial constraints; Actions taken by the UN General Assembly to suspend certain committee meetings is one such example of this capacity being reduced.  On the second point, it seems Humphrey’s choice of language conveys strong feelings about how dire this budgetary crisis was to the basic functionality of the United Nations as a human rights organization. He goes so far to claim that “le programme des droits de l’homme aux Nations Unies souffre la pire crise de son histoire.”  The crisis in question was a budgetary shortfall for 1986-1987 of around 100 million USD.[4]

This budgetary shortfall resulted in a report by the Secretary-General of the UN being issued in early 1986 advocating for cost-saving measures to be taken.  These included: rolling up a working group on human rights protections for migrant workers and their families into the Third Committee of the General Assembly; The deferral of Human Rights Committee meetings to the following year, and the deferral of a human rights sub-committee meeting on protections for minorities.[5]  In addition to this report, the General Assembly also made recommendations for the curtailment of the General Assembly’s session by three weeks.  The General Assembly also made proscriptions for the possibility of limiting both the Economic and Social Council, as well as the Trusteeship Council.[6]

Through this introduction, Humphrey conveys a certain degree of cynicism that, based on his experience building the human rights wing of the UN, “these cuts are aimed at the very heart of the programme.  So much so indeed that one suspects they are being welcomed by many governments.”[7]  This was likely in reference to the afore-mentioned record-sized budgetary arrears owed by the United States, and other member-states to the UN.  Humphrey also appears to be using this introduction to stoke a certain degree of caution; pointing to the UN’s financial concerns as a potential portent to the growth of violent conflict as respect for human rights falters.  He posits: “Were the gross and consistent violations of human rights in and by certain countries one of the causes – perhaps the chief cause – of the Second World War?”[8]  It’s apparent from this address that he subscribed to the line of thinking that the success of the United Nations’ aims to maintain international peace and security was dependent on its capacity to protect human rights.

John Peters Humphrey’s introductory address sought to draw the public’s attention to the financial crisis plaguing the United Nations during the 1980’s.  He utilizes the opportunity to introduce the Canadian ambassador to the UN as a pulpit from which he could preach the UN’s fundamental necessity in the protection of human rights and global peace.  He attempted to invest the Canadian audience by commenting on Canada’s contributions to the protection and codification of human rights.  Additionally, he used this speech as a means to alert the public to the diminishing capability of the UN to protect human rights due to the financial constraints caused by politicking member-states.  Ultimately, this short address conveys a great deal about the sense of urgency Humphrey felt.  As one of the fathers of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, this speech also highlights how personally invested he was in the continued support of the United Nations.


[1] Foley, The UN’s own financial crisis, 22 July 2009

[2] Global Policy Forum, UN background and History

[3] Humphrey, Canadian Tribute to Human Rights, 3

[4] Report of the Secretary-General, A/40/1102, 2

[5] Ibid., 23

[6] UN General Assembly Resolutions and Decisions, A/40/53, 40/472(a)

[7] Humphrey, Canadian Tribute to Human Rights, 3

[8] Ibid., 2


Comments are closed.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.