How many angels can dance on the point of a pin?

By Vashti Maia Wyman

In 1984, John Peters Humphrey delivered a speech to a conference held in Moscow, to an audience comprising of members from the Association of Soviet Lawyers (ASL), the American Bar Association (ABA), and his own affiliation, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).[i] The conference was assembled by the ASL to engage in a discussion on human rights internal legislation, judicial procedure, and the use of nuclear armaments.[ii] In this particular speech, Humphrey interrupts a discussion on the legality of nuclear armaments to direct the attention of the conference to a larger issue at play: the counter-productive nature of the discussion itself. Humphrey effectively defends the notion of universal human rights in this speech while logically acknowledging and critiquing its shortcomings from a legal perspective.

It is important here to explicate both the history and the goals of the ICJ, as Humphrey speaks on behalf of this group in his speech. The ICJ is a non-governmental organization founded upon the basis of promoting the application of international law to violations of a “civil, political, social, or economic nature” using the Rule of Law to hold accountable those governments that violate rights in these areas.[iii] Humphrey sat as the Vice-President of the ICJ from 1981 to 1987, working with various organizations around the world to promote this policy.[iv] A part of the group’s mission statement is to ensure that international law effectively protects individuals, particularly the most vulnerable; it is this effectiveness that Humphrey challenges in his speech to the Moscow Conference.[v]

Humphrey begins with the assertion that the arguments of the other speakers, those regarding the legality of nuclear armaments, are unconvincing, as they draw upon treaties that are only binding to certain states that ratified them and are, therefore, not applicable on an international level. Here, Humphrey is bringing into question the difficulty of legislating universal human rights, as the binding law that prescribes them differs from nation to nation. He goes on to reference Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, which states that nothing within the Charter shall impair individual or collective self-defence until the Security Council has taken measures to maintain international peace and security.[vi] Discussions on the grounds of the legality of nuclear armaments would, in Humphrey’s words, “weaken the authority and force of international law” for there can be no effective sanction on laws regarding a force of such destructive capacity.[vii] In this sense, the magnitude and dimension of a nuclear attack on a country would not provide any opportunity for punishment or recourse. Humphrey views the inherent flaw in legalizing nuclear weapons as detrimental to the authority of the international legal system itself, for he states “a legal system which provides no sanctions for its most basic rules is a weak system”.[viii]

To contextualize the debate on nuclear armaments in the Cold War period, one must look to the International Relations scholarship of this time. John Mearsheimer is a prime example of one of the proponents for nuclear armaments who views well-managed nuclear proliferation as a necessary precaution for political stability in a state of international anarchy, where there is no overarching world power and “the system is populated with great powers that have revisionist intentions at their core”.[ix] However, even Mearsheimer and other political theorists had doubts about the reality of well-managed proliferation, for “proliferation in the midst of a crisis would obviously be dangerous, since states in conflict with an emerging nuclear power would then have a powerful incentive to interrupt the process by force”.[x]  Humphrey stood at the other side of this debate, for in his speech he brings forth the notion of disarmament and, he too, references the dangers of international anarchy during a period of such global political turmoil.

Humphrey contends that disarmament, or the control of armaments, is the most urgent problem of that period. The discussion surrounding nuclear armaments simply exacerbates state boundaries and conflicts and, in stabilizing and disarming the world, there would be no need for a discussion of this nature. As a solution, Humphrey proposes a discussion on how to diminish barriers engendered by the current world order rather than simply working within its framework.

A discussion on political security at the height of Cold War security breaching and guerilla warfare is common in this period. However, Humphrey’s final notion of breaking down “cultural, political and other barriers that divide the world” and rather producing different channels of international communication directly contradicts the Cold War era sentiments of enhanced security and nationalism. His values in this speech align with, and indomitably defend, the values of the ICJ. He provides a logical framework that breaks down the flaws of the arguments presented by his peers and effectively propagates the notion of human rights while remaining critical of its faults in the legislative process. Humphrey himself attended the conference with the hope of innovating the structure of international politics and communication for future generations to come. It is this commitment to the universal protection of rights that has propelled the legacy of John Peters Humphrey, for why “continue to debate how many angels can dance on the point of a pin” when the sanctity of human rights is being threatened?

[i] MG 4127 C.18 F.369 – First Draft of Intervention at Moscow Conference 1984, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives

[ii] Tolley, Howard B., Jr. The International Commission of Jurists: Global Advocates 

for Human Rights. Pennsylvania, U of Pennsylvania, 1994. 156

[iii] “Themes” International Commission of Jurists,

[iv] Tolley, Howard B., Jr. The International Commission of Jurists: Global Advocates 

for Human Rights. Pennsylvania, U of Pennsylvania, 1994. 158 (Table 7.2)

[v] “About.” International Commission of Jurists,

[vi] “Chapter VII.” United Nations,

[vii] “First Draft of Intervention at Moscow Conference.” Ibid

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Mearsheimer, J.J. (2001). The tragedy of great power politics. New York: W.W. 16

[x] Mearsheimer, John. “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War.” The Atlantic, Aug.


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