John Peters Humphrey’s Speech at the General Assembly (1973)

By Michael Chen

On December 20, 1973, the 25th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), John Peters Humphrey delivered a speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations.[1] The UDHR, created by the UN Commission on Human Rights, and mainly drafted by Humphrey, established a standard of human rights conduct for all nations to follow. As a guest of the Canadian delegation[2], and not a representative of government, Humphrey was able to speak to world leaders without any political motivation, recounting the drafting and incorporation of the Declaration, reminding the world of one of our greatest achievements, “giving voice to the deepest aspirations of mankind … notwithstanding the sharp ideological differences which divided the organization.” While his speech is a commemorative one, due to the persistence of human rights abuses, Humphrey also warns the Assembly that there is still work to be done, and reminds nations to continue focusing on implementing the UDHR and advocating for human rights worldwide.

While the UDHR had been in effect for 25 years, human rights abuses were still prevalent during the time of Humphrey’s speech. Decolonization movements in Asia and Africa spurred gross violations[3], while in the US, the Watergate scandal left Americans questioning the motives of their own democratically elected leader.[4] Meanwhile, the Cold War created some of the most oppressive regimes in history, most infamously the Stasi of East Germany[5]. The 1960s saw a large membership increase in the UN from newly decolonized African nations, many of which were struggling to maintain a satisfactory human rights record[6]. In addition, East Germany became a member of the UN a mere three months before Humphrey delivered his speech[7]. When giving his speech, Humphrey spoke to many states who were not original signatories to the UDHR, notably some new UN members with poor human rights records. Because of this, Humphrey only reaffirms the need for human rights to the original signatories, he also asserts to new members that complying with the UDHR is an obligation of a UN member, and that human rights will not be forgotten.

In his speech, Humphreys first reflects upon the success that the UDHR has received in its first 25 years of existence. As one of the original drafters of the Declaration[8], Humphrey was able to share his memories of its creation, and remember his late co-creators Eleanor Roosevelt and Henri Laugier. In addition, he was able provide first-hand insight on the intended goals of the document provided by the Human Rights Committee. By creating a defined list of rights and freedoms for the entire world, the Human Rights Commission had hoped to end the violations of these enumerated rights. One of the main drawbacks of the UDHR is that it is not legally binding on any of the signatories, due to the fact that many of them would not have signed if that were the case. However, Humphrey argues that even without any legal status, the Declaration “immediately acquired a moral and political authority equaled by the Charter itself.”[9] While he may be slightly exaggerating its power, the significance of the UDHR cannot be denied, as a large majority of its articles have indeed become part of international customary law. In addition, Humphrey specifies that the Declaration is supposed to be an anonymous document, a symbolic gesture to give it power to apply to all of mankind. The success of the first 25 years of the UDHR paves the way for even more developments to come.

At the time this speech was given, Humphrey was aware that the UDHR was far from perfect. Recognizing some of these problems, Humphrey lays the groundwork for ways to improve human rights enforcement throughout the world. As previously noted, the fact that the declaration is not legally binding presents a major problem for enforcing it; implementing human rights around the world, even with the UDHR, had not always been very effective. However, it was the commission and Humphrey’s plan to incorporate the Declaration into an International Bill of Rights, which would be a multilateral treaty enforceable through international law. At the end of his speech, Humphreys challenges the General Assembly to implement this bill, calling it “the ultimate test of its ability to make the Charter’s finest purpose a reality,” and hoping it can be done within 5 years. The International Bill of Rights was introduced in 1976, three years after this speech was given, and contains three parts: The UDHR, and two covenants based on civil and political rights, and economic, social, and cultural rights.[10]

John Humphrey’s speech at the General Assembly on the 25th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminded government leaders that although human rights have come a long way since the end of the Second World War, violations are still occurring in many areas of the world, and we should not be complacent until human rights are truly shared by all people. As a representative body of the entire world, the General Assembly is responsible for committing to human rights globally, and Humphrey’s speech reaffirms the will of international community to maintain and advance these rights.

[1] (McGill University Archives 1973) Citations are incorrect. See Style Guide on MyCourses. If you want to see your piece on the class blog, please revise and resubmit with correct citations.

[2]  (McGill University Archives 1973)

[3] (Selfstudyhistory 2015)

[4] ( n.d.)

[5] (Encyclopedia Britannica 2015)

[6] (United Nations 2016)

[7] (United Nations 2016)

[8]  (McGill University Archives 1973)

[9]  (McGill University Archives 1973)

[10] (Encyclopedia Britannica 2017)

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