Education, Knowledge, and Human Rights: A Primary Source Analysis of John Humphrey’s “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt”

By Shaden Hetu-Frankel

Broadly speaking, John Peters Humphrey was one of the most important and influential figures in the history of human rights. In many ways, his work has helped shape the culture and politics of human rights in countries across the world. For two decades at the United Nations, Humphrey was extremely active in promoting rights and protections for all global citizens. As an international civil servant, he oversaw the implementation of sixty-seven international conventions, and the constitutions of over a dozen countries.[1] Humphrey, during his time at the UN, worked in a number of areas including freedom of the press, racial discrimination, and the status of women. Among other things, he is famous for his contribution to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[2] As the Director of the Human Rights Division in the UN Secretariat, Humphrey wrote the background document that would eventually lead to the initial draft of the Declaration. Following his extended service at the United Nations, Humphrey returned to Canada and continued his distinguished human rights work both at home and around the world. He would go on to deliver countless speeches on a wide-range of issues related to human rights.

Amongst Humphrey’s public record is his “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” delivered in 1987 at the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.[3] In this speech, Humphrey discussed the pivotal role of Eleanor Roosevelt, as both First Lady of the United States and chair of the Commission on Human Rights. He highlighted, among other things, Eleanor’s unparalleled influence and commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition, Humphrey’s text also emphasized the need to raise awareness about human rights globally, and promote an educated “public opinion” internationally. Altogether, Humphrey’s “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt” offers significant insight into the role of education and knowledge in strengthening human rights across the world.

As aforementioned, the speech was originally delivered by Humphrey at the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in 1987. This organization, which formed through the merger of the Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Foundations, is a private, non-profit corporation that has supported scholarship on the “Roosevelt years,” and funded various humanitarian and development projects across the United States.[4] In its infancy, the institute, for example, sponsored the Eleanor Roosevelt Better Schools Project, which worked to strengthen educational opportunities across public schools in New York City.[5] In more recent years, the organization has helped establish a research program in the Netherlands known as the Roosevelt Study Center. For almost thirty-years, the Roosevelt Institute has served to carry forward the legacy and progressive values of both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as to improve peace and social justice everywhere in the world.

Humphrey’s speech was addressed to members of the Roosevelt Institute, and more specifically those involved with the organization’s sponsoring of the 1988 World Conference on Human Rights.[6] Given the context, it is clear that his speech was written for an audience concerned with promoting human rights and peace internationally. In speaking about the Holland conference, Humphrey suggested that the Roosevelt Institute should invite “knowledgeable people” from across the world to participate, and that the topic of the event should focus on the impact of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[7] He ultimately believed that the organization and its members had an important role to play in the upcoming conference, and more generally, in advancing the causes of human rights and prosperity. All in all, Humphrey delivered his speech in front of a very pragmatic, forward-thinking audience, altogether engaged in tackling issues of human rights globally.

Among other things, Humphrey’s speech provides significant insight into Eleanor Roosevelt’s extraordinary career and life. Although the speech was relatively short, the author offered the audience a unique perspective into the complicated and fascinating legacy of Eleanor. According to Humphrey, she was an unparalleled figure who thrived in a period where women faced a wide-range of social, economic, and political barriers. Her work at the United Nations started as a member of the American delegation appointed by President Harry Truman in 1946. The American delegation, headed by Secretary of State James Byrnes at the time, would assign Eleanor to the Third Committee on Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Affairs.[8] As Humphrey reminded his audience, Eleanor’s appointment to this unit “pleased” her American colleagues, who believed that by “sending her to the Third Committee… she would do the least harm.”[9] Little did they know, however, that the Committee would become one the most important and productive in the United Nations. Although she was never a great statesman or intellect, Eleanor overtime became one of the most influential members of the United Nations. As a diplomat, her greatest assets were her unwavering humanitarian convictions and faith in human dignity and worth. As discussed by Humphrey, she had a warm sympathy and interest for people, as well as an extraordinary understanding of human nature. It was these qualities, he asserted, that allowed her to play such an important role at the United Nations.[10] Above all, Eleanor’s work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be her greatest achievement. Her passion and commitment for human rights, among other things, proved to be the driving force behind the Declaration. As a whole, Humphrey referred to Eleanor as “the most important person in the United Nations Human Rights Program.”[11] In many ways, Eleanor’s legacy and achievements have helped widen opportunities for women across the world, and broaden the scope of human rights internationally.[12] Altogether, Humphrey’s speech offers an important account of Eleanor’s long-lasting impact on both the United Nations and its human rights activity.

Perhaps the most significant part of this speech is Humphrey’s advocacy for education as a tool to promote public opinion and human rights globally. At the height of his speech, Humphrey emphasized the importance of education and knowledge, particularly amongst younger generations, in fostering peace and stability across the world. He asserted that organizations like the Roosevelt Institute had a responsibility to “contribute not only to the cause of human rights … [but] also to preserve in this nuclear age the planet as a place where we and our children could continue to live.”[13] In his mind, Humphrey believed that an educated public opinion and respect for human rights were key to ensuring world peace. His message, among other things, is significant given the national and global human rights issues that continue to persist today. From an American electoral campaign marked by discriminatory and xenophobic rhetoric, to countless human rights abuses in Syria, it is clear that the world is still far from realizing the ideals first envisioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[14] Even after sixty-nine years, it is fair to say that the Declaration is more a dream than a reality. While human rights are recognized by most countries around the world, violations continue to take place in every part of it. As a whole, Humphrey’s speech serves as an important reminder that human beings are constantly engaged in a “race between education and catastrophe.”[15] Both in his time and today, Humphrey’s words offer insight into the significance of education and knowledge in promoting the growth of societies centered on respecting human rights and holding governments accountable for their actions. As he described, without an educated “world public opinion” and respect for human rights globally, the planet would continue to fall into conflict and despair. In all, Humphrey was a passionate idealist when it came to human rights, and his speech reflects his ever-lasting commitment to rights ideals and protections.

All things considered, the “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt” stands as only one of many speeches published during the course of Humphrey’s exemplary career. Among other things, Humphrey was a hard-nosed and pragmatic lawyer, and a remarkably passionate human rights activist. Equally at home and abroad, he would have a long-lasting impact on human rights ideals and protections. He worked tirelessly to advocate the need for rights and protections across the world. In his speech, Humphrey highlighted the multi-faceted career and life of Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman who represented her years, and more notably, moved beyond them. Moreover, Humphrey explored the importance of education and knowledge in shaping the fabric of peaceful and stable societies. He believed that a country founded on a respect for human rights and an educated public opinion was necessary to ensure the preservation of the planet for future generations. His speech ultimately touched on several key aspects of human rights and related issues. Altogether, Humphrey’s work has had a major influence in shaping the culture and history of human right both in Canada and across the world.

[1] “John Peters Humphrey and the UDHR,” John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, accessed February 17th, 2017,

[2] Glen Johnson and Janusz Symonides, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A History of its Creation and Implementation 1948-1998 (Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1998), 24.

[3] MG 4127 C.18 F.366- “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 7.

[4] Henry R. Beasley, Maurine H. Beasley, and Holly C. Shulman, The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001), 338.

[5] Beasley, Beasley, & Shulman, The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia, 338.

[6] “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” 7.

[7] “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” 7.

[8] A. J. Hobbins, “Eleanor Roosevelt, John Humphrey and Canadian Opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Looking Back on the 50th Anniversary of UDHR,” International Journal Vol. 53, No.2 (Spring, 1998): 335.

[9] “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” 2.

[10] “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” 5.

[11] “Roosevelt, Eleanor,” Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, accessed February 18th, 2017,

[12] Hobbins, “Eleanor Roosevelt, John Humphrey and Canadian Opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 330.

[13] “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” 7.

[14] “Amnesty International Report 2016/2017: The State of the World’s Human Rights,” Amnesty International, accessed February 15th, 2017,

[15] “Speech about Eleanor Roosevelt,” 7.

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