John Peters Humphrey’s “Why Human Rights?”

By Dexter Docherty

This is an early draft of a speech John Peters Humphrey would deliver at a Human Rights Awareness conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick on June 18th 1985. In it, Humphrey attempts to explain why discussions about human rights are important in a world under constant threat of nuclear annihilation. His message is one of cautious optimism that expressed his faith that the developing system of international human rights law could see the world through the heightened tensions of an escalating Cold War.

Humphrey’s speech came months after Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration as President of the United States, and prior to any signs that he and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would work towards deescalating the Cold War—which Reagan had worked to heat back up in the early-1980s. A Hampton, New Brunswick-native, Humphrey delivered his remarks to a room full of Maritimers aware of the important role Atlantic Canada played in human rights history where Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had met in August of 1941 and issued the Atlantic Charter. [1] Like any great speaker, Humphrey began by flattering his audience with praise for a region he believed to be more beautiful than all seven wonders of the world.

Humphrey’s references to literature are an indication that he is speaking to an academic audience. Much of his speech is in conversation with the alarmist arguments forwarded by Jonathan Schnell in his relatively recently published book The Fate of the Earth. Schnell’s argument was about the inability of the existing international system to prevent a nuclear holocaust. Schnell believed that without a change to the status quo, “the world will be held perpetually at the edge of doom” and that the current path the world was on “leads to death.”[2] Humphrey provides a unique perspective on this issue, as someone who had worked to enshrine universal legal protections for every human being on earth. Humphrey believed that the very kind of work he began in the late 1940s was helping to move the world past this unstable status quo.

Humphrey reminds his listeners how deeply he once shared the concerns of Schnell, by reflecting on a paper he wrote in 1946, called “the Parent of Anarchy.” Humphrey’s article borrows its name and its central argument from Alexander Hamilton’s writings in the Federalist Papers. Humphrey believed that the international system after the Second World War suffered from the same fatal weakness that Hamilton identified with the United States in the eighteenth century. Namely, there was no direct link between individuals and the system governing relations between states, meaning that there was no means of coercing states into respecting the rights of individuals. The problem was a horizontal rather than vertical governing structure, which meant that when “resolutions” were passed by the federal government, in Hamilton’s case, or the United Nations, in Humphrey’s, they were “in practice…mere recommendations which the States observe or disregard at their option.”[3] This realization led Humphrey to conclude, much like Schnell did in the 1980s, that the international system was obsolete and incapable of preventing nuclear war. Humphrey argued that “there can be no effective government unless the governing authority possess a monopoly over all instruments of coercion.”[4] Without a government accountable to all people, there would not be sufficient safeguards against the use of weapons that could end all human life. In 1946, Humphrey did not feel the international system was sufficiently accountable to the people of the world, which the system now had the technological capacity to destroy.

By the mid-1980s, however, Humphrey’s outlook was much less grim, largely because of the evolution he had observed in international human rights law. Per Humphrey, the continuing development of human rights law was working to address the very flaws in the international system that were central to Schnell’s doomsday fears. The problem had been the “absence of any legal relationship, any lien de droit, between international law and individual men and women.”[5] The “essential thing” that had changed were the rights for individuals enshrined in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which inherently weakened the power of states vis-à-vis individuals, as well as the precedents set during the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials, wherein individuals were convicted of crimes under international, instead of national, law.[6] Perhaps because he was proud of the work he did with the Universal Declaration, Humphrey had become much more of an optimist in his later years. Though the prescriptions of his 1946 paper were not followed, his optimism was not misplaced, given the seemingly imminent doomsday never arrived. The fact that the international community had begun to pledge its support to individuals, meant that the entirety of humanity in Humphrey’s eyes was well on its way to being protected like never before.

[1] Atlantic Human Rights Centre, “Origins of the AHRC”, St. Thomas University, Visited February 21, 2017,

[2] Jonathan Schnell, The Fate of the Earth, (New York: Avon Books, 1982), 221 and 231.

[3] Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and James Madison, The Federalist Papers, “Federalist No. 15: The insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union”, December 1st 1787, The Project Gutenburg: 2009.

[4] John Peters Humphrey, “The Parent of Anarchy”, International Journal, 1(1): 11, 1946, 17.

[5] MG 4127 C.18 File 368—Why Human Rights?, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 5.

[6] Ibid, 6-7.

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