An Introduction to Two Canadian Contributors of International Human Rights

By June Gleed

Throughout his successful career in the fields of international law and human rights, John Peters Humphrey was able to deliver hundreds of compelling speeches around the globe. This particular speech was given at his alma mater, McGill University, at the Convocation in which Ronald St. John Macdonald received an honourary degree on 7 June 1988. This speech given by John Peters Humphrey offers historians a look at two renowned Canadian lawyers who advocated for human rights internationally in the post-war period. Humphrey, the one delivering the speech on Ronald St. John Macdonald, offers insight into the way that human rights are perceived both in Canada and abroad from 1948 to when he delivers the speech in 1988. In his speech introducing Macdonald at the convocation, Humphrey proves how Macdonald was both a great Canadian citizen and a civis mundis.

In his speech, Humphrey is presenting Ronald St. John Macdonald his honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. Macdonald was an international jurist who worked on multiple human rights programs throughout the world. A Montreal native born on 20 August 1928, Macdonald obtained degrees from “St. Francis Xavier University (BA, 1949), Dalhousie (LLB, 1952), London and Harvard (LLM, 1954-55)” in addition to his honorary degrees from “McGill, Dalhousie University and Carleton University”[1]. At the time that this speech was given, “Macdonald [was] the only non-European sitting on the European Court of Human Rights, despite the fact that Canada [was] not a party member to the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”[2]. Macdonald also became an Officer of the Order of Canada and Queen’s Counsel for his work in 1984[3]. The recognition of his contributions to the field of international law and human rights was fittingly delivered by John Humphrey, another Canadian who passionately advocated for human rights during the same period. Humphrey was both a previous colleague of Macdonald at the United Nations and co-author of their book ‘The Practice of freedom: Canadian essays on human rights and fundamental freedoms’. At the time of delivery, John Humphrey was retired from the UN Human Rights Secretariat for over twenty years and was a professor of law at McGill University. Humphrey notes that while he could continue the long list of notable achievements that Macdonald had accomplished in the field, he was “told not to read out a curriculum vitae” by his superiors at the University[4].

After declaring Professor Macdonald as a great Canadian citizen and a civis mundi (citizen of the world), he speaks of how he met Macdonal in 1965 when they were both part of the Canadian delegation to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Humphrey was the officer in charge of the World Organization’s human rights program. In light of their previous relationship working together at the United Nations, and that they were both internationally known in the field of international law, it comes as no surprise to historians that it was Humphrey who introduced Macdonald for his honorary degree. While it is not clear whether this convocation was just for the honorary degree of Macdonald, or other graduates from the law program of 1988, it can be inferred that the audience would have been other faculty from McGill. The introduction of Macdonald by Humphrey would act as the precursor to either Macdonald’s own speech or the delivery of his honorary degree.

Humphrey offers the argument that the change in Canada’s public attitude towards human rights from 1948 to 1965 can be attributed in part to the work that Macdonald had done. Humphrey notes that during the twenty years spanning from the 1946 to the 1946 while he personally was in charge of the World Organization’s human rights program, that “Canada had given it little support”. He cites the example of Canada abstaining “along with all the communist countries” in a key vote in 1948 on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[5]. This offers historians a significant perspective to see how Canada has evolved with their adoption of human rights from 1948 to 1965, and from 1965 to present. During this period when Humphrey was in charge, Macdonald was a member of the Canadian delegation to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Humphrey says that he always believed that Macdonald had a role in transforming Canada’s approach towards these human rights declarations to be more accepting. To this point, he argued that Canadians should thank Macdonald and that he is truly a great Canadian.

Humphrey’s second argument regarding Macdonald was that he is a civis mundis. He was able to adapt and contribute to the European Court of Human Rights, despite not being a European himself. The point that Humphrey makes about Macdonald is that he had a significant role in not only shaping the adoption and enforcement of human rights in Canada but also abroad. From this it can be inferred that the voice of human rights that Macdonald brought to the table was international in scope. Humphrey adds his personal belief that “there is a close relationship between respect for human rights and the peace of nations”. He seems to imply that Macdonald fulfills both of those conditions, thus he is a civis mundi.

John Humphrey’s short introduction of Ronald Macdonald at the McGill convocation offers a clear picture of what Macdonald had achieved. He outlines that he had helped make the advancement of human rights in Canada and abroad. The speech possesses an air of admiration and appreciation for Macdonald. This is expressed in the way in which Humphrey shows the evolution of attitudes towards human rights coming from the Canadian Government. In summary, Humphrey is giving a salute to Macdonald for his work in bringing Canada to the forefront of the human rights discussions by being a remarkable ambassador to Canada in all the works he has done.

[1]Historica Canada. “Ronald St.John Macdonald”. Accessed February 20, 2015.

[2] “Convocation McGill University, June 7 1988”.  MG 4127 C.18 F.365. McGill University Archives.

[3]Historica Canada. “Ronald St.John Macdonald”. Accessed February 20, 2015.

[4]  “Convocation McGill University, June 7 1988”.  MG 4127 C.18 F.365. McGill University Archives.

[5]  Ibid.

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