John Peters Humphrey and Canada’s Obligation

By David Wainer

John Peters Humphrey played a fundamental role in the creation and legislation of human rights on the international stage. While recognition of Humphrey’s achievement is centred around his work at the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and rightfully so), little attention is given to his work on human rights after his retirement. Yet Humphrey continued to advocate on behalf of rights abuses across the world from post war Canada, in association with Amnesty International, while continuing to write and lecture. This speech, given as the final keynote address at the Conference on the Politics of Torture in Ottawa in November of 1973, affirms his ideals of rights and public opinion and the ways in which to assure human rights abuses are mitigated.

This conference was the culmination of Amnesty International’s year-long concerted campaign for the abolition of torture, which began in 1972. The campaign’s aim was “to arouse public consciousness throughout the world to the epidemic of systematic torture by governments,”[1] with the end-goal of wholly eradicating torture.  The momentum of anti-torture activism was high on the eve of this conference, as the United Nations unanimously adopted Resolution 3059 on November 2, 1973, which stated that it “rejects any form of torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of punishment.”[2] With this diplomatic victory fresh on the minds of the conference attendees, Humphrey delivered his address on what.

With brevity and humour, Humphrey kept his address light and relatively informal. However, his message was anything but. He maintained that violations of human rights anywhere in the world were inviolable to Canada’s national interests, that “the experience of the last war should have taught us that respect for human rights is indivisible.”[3] He was also firmly supportive of governments and international bodies being held to account for their actions. Humphrey endorses the concept of “shaming”, stating that “even the most authoritarian governments are sensitive to world public opinion.”[4] Given the circumstances of the conference, with a major diplomatic victory in the UN resolution, this idealistic notion of an international community organizing shame to end torture was admirable and perhaps in retrospect, somewhat optimistic. Humphrey concludes his remarks by voicing his hope that “the Canadian public will generously support an organization which is dedicated to the protection of the interests of Canadians and of national interest.”[5] This exhortation sought the cooperation of both citizens and government in guiding public opinion to take a stand against torture, thereby advancing Canadian interests.

This speech, and the larger Conference on the Politics of Torture, did not cover any new ground in the struggle to end torture as it was the culmination of an educational campaign. The significance of this speech, however, is not diminished because of this. It fundamentally affirmed that citizens, non-governmental organizations, and states all have a vested interest, and a duty, to end torture. The speech was also very timely in the context of geopolitical events: the IRA was becoming emboldened in their attacks, President Nixon had formally announced the end of the Vietnam War in January, and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War had just ended. All this meant that torture, a consequence of war, was being deliberated upon behind closed doors of most state governments.

This speech serves as a benchmark of standards to which the international community should hold itself to today. Indeed, how would this speech resonate at an international conference on torture in 2017? Humphrey’s speech was given in the context of a recent victory in the UN and there were reasons to be optimistic for the future of the anti-torture movement. Torture surely would be eradicated before long, a testament to the resolve of the international community. Sadly, this was not the case. Torture continues to be widely used due to lack of state accountability and cooperation in the decades since this conference. Even leaders of so-called advanced countries have been attracted to the use of torture, as recently evidenced by the statements of the recently appointed US President, Donald Trump.[6] His decision to step back from this position and defer decisions on torture to his Defense Secretary James Mattis[7] shows that while his position is responsive to negative feedback, it still has its supporters.

It is clear that governments, NGOs, the media and the broader community must continue to be resolute and vocal on the issue of torture. To be sure, Humphrey’s work in Canada helped the state become a “peacekeeping” state and a forefront nation in the battle against torture. But this speech, conference, and campaign as a whole signify a failed opportunity to eradicate torture in such a fruitful environment in which public opinion had the chance to grow boundlessly and have tangible impacts on torture today. The fact that torture persists today points not only to the failure of the international community but also the failure of Canadians to actualize Humphrey’s vision.

[1] Amnesty International Annual Report, 1973-74, 13.

[2] AI Annual Report, 16.

[3] MG 4127 C.18 F.371 – Concluding Remarks: Conference on the Politics of Torture, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives., 6.

[4] “Concluding Remarks”, 5.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Bradley Klapper,”President Trump Says He Believes That Torture Works,” Time, January 26, 2017, accessed February 21, 2017,

[7] Kristina Wong, “Trump: Mattis’s view on torture will ‘override'” The Hill, January 27, 2017, accessed February 21, 2017,


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