NGOs as a Piece of the Human Rights Puzzle

By Sally Hough

John Peters Humphrey is most recognized for authoring the first draft of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), which was adopted in 1948. However, he engaged with human rights issues in a variety of capacities, which often reflected and complemented each other. The UNDHR marked a major step forward in global discussions and conceptions of rights, though it, and later concrete international human rights laws, have fallen short in many ways. The Declaration has no enforcement mechanisms, so citizens and governments often overlook or take for granted its stipulations. From this need for alternative mechanisms of rights-enforcement and rights-awareness arose charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to stop rights abuses worldwide. Amnesty International is one such NGO and was founded in 1961,[1] though the Canadian branch was established in 1973. Fittingly, John Peters Humphrey served as the Canadian branch’s first President, and delivered a powerful speech at its first Annual General Meeting.

It is difficult to determine exactly who the audience of this speech was. Today, attendees to the Amnesty International Canada General Meeting are general members of the organization—donors and supporters who pay an additional yearly fee to participate in governance-related activities.[2] In 1974, Canada’s Amnesty International was composed of “a very small group of people”[3] as Humphrey explains, of which he highlights a chairman, treasurer, national director and secretary, all of whom were in the audience. Moreover, in his introduction, he mentions that human rights champion Ms. Eleanor Roosevelt would later be delivering a speech. I will then suggest that the audience of the Amnesty International Canada General Meeting in 1974 was smaller but contained many prominent figures, as opposed to today’s meetings, which have much larger audiences. This is significant as it demonstrates an expansion since Humphrey’s years of activism in who engages in human rights discourse, and how they do so. NGOs are now a frequent method for the general public to participate in human rights campaigns, and Amnesty, under Humphrey’s guidance, helped show that NGOs can facilitate the participation of all people with rights issues.

Today, Amnesty International is a household name. In fact, it is now a “global movement of over 7 million people.”[4] Naturally, Canadians are aware of the important work that Amnesty does to promote human rights at home and abroad, though the Amnesty ‘brand’ was far less known in the 1970s. This speech does not deliver a novel argument about the place of NGOs in human rights advocacy, however, it does strongly reinforce the often-forgotten role of charities and NGOs in international human rights campaigns. Though Humphrey’s speech touches on why Canadians should care about rights elsewhere, human rights problems in Canada and the logistical aspects of non-profit human rights work, I feel that the most substantive element of his speech lies in Humphrey’s discussion about the undervalued but essential capacity of Amnesty International Canada as a newly-established non-profit organization in contributing to the promotion of human rights and the prevention of abuses around the world. The tone of Humphrey’s speech could be described as nearly celebratory: despite making nods to global human rights struggles, he is largely praising Amnesty Canada for the momentous charitable work it does to advance human rights. Humphrey demonstrates that NGOs like Amnesty are key players in the legal-governmental arena in which human rights matters are commonly played out, in three major ways: firstly, its ability to fill in where laws and governments fail; secondly, its position as the arbiter of public opinion which allows it to put immense pressure on governmental actions; and finally, its capability to stop Canadians from being lulled into complacency amidst Canada’s generally “well respected”[5] rights environment.

Amongst a proliferation of human rights treatises, bills, and laws, of which the most notable was Humphrey’s own UNDHR, Humphrey critically notes that the “United Nations has not yet been able to devise effective procedures for the international enforcement of this law, but that is a defect which is common to most if not all international law.”[6] Amnesty enters where international and local politics fail, by recording rights abuses and initiating public, governmental and legal action. Humphrey specifically mentions a “successful conference […] on torture last October,” which was part of a broader campaign and helped push for the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture.[7] It is clear that Amnesty filled in where governments and international law were failing, resulting in a positive push towards human rights.

According to Humphrey, often Canadians were not aware of human rights infringements occurring at home and abroad. It becomes the responsibility of NGOs like Amnesty to bring attention to these what?, and then pursue them acting as a vehicle for expressing public outcry. Humphrey explains that “governments, including authoritarian governments, are highly sensitive to public opinion. […] We know something about this in Amnesty where public opinion is our only weapon.”[8] Amnesty mobilizes Canadian sentiment to defend human rights worldwide, although, this does have a selfish aspect. Rights abuses are “contagious,”[9] and preventing their spread to Canada requires stopping them abroad. Amnesty facilitates this multi-step process by bringing awareness to an issue, voicing Canadian outrage and then substituting for laws and governments if need be.

According to Humphrey, because human rights are fairly upheld in Canada, Canadians “are in danger of becoming, perhaps we have already become, complacent.”[10] If Canadians, as members of the global community, stop caring about fellow global citizens, they will allow rights violations to occur. This would only feed into a vicious chain of increasing violations. As Humphrey states, “human rights must be protected internationally if they are to be protected at all.”[11] The work of Amnesty revolves around Canadian interest in protecting rights locally and abroad, and so at the very core of Amnesty’s mission is to prevent Canadian complacency. By bringing awareness to human rights abuses, Amnesty is not only able to use public upset to halt the abuse, but to provide Canadians with constant reminders to remain vigilant about our own and other’s rights.

There is no foolproof method to ensure respect for human rights in every country. UN Declarations, international laws and governments all work towards this, but too often they fail. While charities and NGOs have their own faults, they fill in when other rights-mechanisms are lacking; they mobilize public opinion to put pressure on governmental action; and they force Canadians to remain attuned to local and national rights-related problems. Amnesty International is one of the most well-known and well-respected non-profit organizations bolstering human rights worldwide, and Amnesty International Canada has contributed to the achievements of its parent organization greatly since its inception in 1973. As Humphrey’s speech stresses, Amnesty is indispensable to the maintenance of human rights everywhere.

[1] “Who We Are,” last modified 2017,

[2] “AGM 2017,” last modified 2016,

[3] “Speech to Annual Meeting of Amnesty International (1974)” MG 4127, C.18, File 371, John P. Humphrey United Nations Collection, Nahum Gelber Law Library, McGill University.

[4] “Who We Are.”

[5] “Speech to Annual Meeting of Amnesty International (1974).”

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Who We Are.”

[8] “Speech to Annual Meeting of Amnesty International (1974).”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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