John Peters Humphrey and The Case For Human Rights

By Olivia Watson

On June 18, 1985, John Peters Humphrey,  delivered a speech to the Human Rights Awareness Conference in Fredericton in his home province of New Brunswick. Humphrey’s speech, which he called “Why Human Rights?”, aimed to answer the inquiry which the title posed. To Humphrey, the answer to the question of why human rights is almost self-evident; Humphrey’s response addresses our shared humanity, stating his belief, which echoes the Universal Declaration of Human Right, that all humans are born free possessing certain rights and freedoms, and that human dignity cannot exist without their assurance. Humphrey’s speech then turns to the task of asking the question not of ‘why human rights?’ but ‘how human rights?’. Answering this question makes up the bulk of Humphrey’s speech to the conference and in the end, he concludes that in fact to secure human rights we must alter the contemporary state system and in doing so we will overcome what he sees as the greatest problem of our time; “how to maintain the peace of nations at a time when our planet is threatened by nuclear destruction”[1].

In order to understand why Humphrey places such emphasis on the threat of nuclear destruction, we must review the political climate in which he is speaking. During this period, the international system is changing rapidly. Most colonies have recently won independence and are in the process of state building, giving the issue of human rights newfound relevance. As well, Reagan and Thatcher are President of the United States and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom respectively, ushering in new economic systems in the form of neoliberalism acting in direct opposition to Article 23 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ which guarantees the right of everyone to “form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests”[2]. But most importantly, in 1985, the world is still in the midst of the Cold War. During this time, the world’s two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, competing in an arms race[3]. It is clear that this event has had a heavy influence on Humphrey’s thinking and perspective on human rights. The very prospect of nuclear war and a nuclear holocaust threatens humanity and therefore human rights.

In his speech, Humphrey mentions Jonathan Schell’s book ‘The Fate of the Earth’, published in 1982. The book, which discusses the possibility of nuclear war and the subsequent destruction of humanity, stirs something in Humphrey. He tells his audience that the possibility of a nuclear holocaust which Schell discusses, looks to him as more of a probability unless we do something about it. This emotion and conviction must be assumed to stem from the tensions and precariousness resulting from the Cold War he is witnessing.

Humphrey then references another book, this time a less contemporary one, which 200 years after it was written, he feels still has relevance in the 1985 international climate. The collection of essays compiled into ‘The Federalist’ was written after the War of Independence in the United States. Humphrey tells his audience that although Hamilton’s essay was concerned with national matters existing 200 years ago, he had inadvertently described what Humphrey saw as the chief weakness of the contemporary states system. That is, that “the constitutional weakness that was enshrined in the Articles of Confederation was also present at the international level”[4]. Essentially, to Humphrey, the inability of international systems to have any real bearing on national affairs was a crippling weakness and one that failed to appropriately protect human rights.

Humphrey is captivated by the idea of a horizontal world order versus a vertical one. This idea is at the core of his speech and it is his belief that the shift which is occurring from the horizontal to the vertical is a decisive win for international human rights and a reason for optimism. This shift represents a recognition of the rights of individuals and in doing so simultaneously limits the power of states. In proving the occurrence of this shift, Humphrey references the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. These documents confer rights on the individual level, rather than the traditional national level; proving the shift from the horizontal to the vertical.

In light of these developments, Humphrey returns to the claims made by Schell that the contemporary state system is obsolete and that it must change if humanity is to survive. His conclusion?  These changes are already happening. He tells his audience that this trend must continue if humanity and our planet are to survive. He finishes his speech by once again asking the question why human rights? Going further than simply describing all humans as being born with certain rights and freedoms without which there cannot be human dignity, he states that by helping to construct an effective international law of human rights we are also fundamentally changing the contemporary state system and in doing so we are committing to contributing to the solution of what he believes to be “the greatest problem of our time, how to maintain the peace of nations at a time when our planet is threatened by nuclear destruction”[5].

Humphrey’s ‘Why Human Rights’ speech serves as a reminder of the importance of focusing on the individual as well as the state and represents a side of a debate that continues to this day surrounding the balance of power between the national and the international. While the threat of a nuclear holocaust is no longer as imminent as it once was, the world continues to face problems, such as climate change, which it cannot solve on a national level. While ultimate power remains in the hands of the state, transnational systems have become increasingly popular since Humphrey gave this speech; the European Union being founded less than a decade after this speech was given proving that Humphrey’s words are as relevant now as they were when he spoke them.

[1]    1. John P. Humphrey,“Why Human Rights?” (speech, Human Rights Awareness Conference, Fredericton, NB, June 18, 1985).

[2] The United Nations. 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[3] “Arms Race,” History, accessed February 18, 2017,

[4] John P. Humphrey,“Why Human Rights?” (speech, Human Rights Awareness Conference, Fredericton, NB, June 18, 1985).

[5] John P. Humphrey,“Why Human Rights?” (speech, Human Rights Awareness Conference, Fredericton, NB, June 18, 1985).

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