John Peters Humphrey Opening Address to Vème Conférence Internationale Constitutionnelle

By Shannon Cook

John Peters Humphrey is most well known for his contribution in crafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the United-Nations. In 1948, United-Nation Members signed this monumental treaty committing to the protection of basic human rights to create a platform for equality among all individuals. Included in the declaration were positive affirmations of inherent rights such as the right to a fair trial, education, to practice your religion, freedom of thought, social security, etc. Although this treaty was not legally binding, it did push forward a newfound commitment from the international community to truly protect all humans alike.

When looking at the Universal Declaration from the modern day perspective it is not difficult to point out some fundamental rights that are missing. For example, there is no protection on the basis of sexual orientation because at the time, in 1948, non-traditional relationships were not socially accepted. Another shortfall of the Universal Declaration was the lack of a right to a healthy environment. The only provision that could be interpreted to include a healthy environment is Article 25: “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family […]”[1]. This article provides a non-inclusive list of examples of well-being that must be protected, but does not mention the environment. Nearly 40 years after the Universal Declaration, the importance of a guaranteed human right to a healthy environment is discussed at the 5th Conference of International Constitutional Law in Canada, Quebec on October 1st 1987[2]. It is clear that the right to a healthy environment was previously overlooked, and it is for the very reason that this conference is of such importance.

This conference was hosted by Nicole Duplé, a professor at the Université de Laval. The name of the conference itself points out that the targeted audience were lawyers and policy makers. Constitutional law is that fuzzy space were law and politics intertwine, needing both professions to cooperate to create change. The point of this conference was to stimulate people to think about this very new field of environmental law and think about it through the lens of a fundamental human right. It is important to note that the human impact on the environment was a topic that was only beginning to be explored, thus showing the true innovation of this conference. An interesting aspect to remember about this speech and the conference as a whole is that it was being held during the Cold War, an age of nuclear threats that could ultimately have disastrous affects on the environment.

As a Canadian and Quebecer himself, John P. Humphrey was invited to be the chairman at this conference. He provides an eloquent speech to open up the session that is worth exploring. As established beforehand, the topic of discussion was the right to a healthy environment, said to be a right to become. These talks about a right to a healthy environment parallel went well with the Universal Declaration, as both were about bringing forth the importance of a particular problem that society may not be ready to accept.

John Humphrey’s opening address mainly focuses on his former colleague Eleanor Roosevelt. He talks about her experience of consistently breaking societal barriers as she was a woman working in a workplace dominated by men. He tells the story of Mrs. Roosevelt’s experience as a delegate at her first session. Men were concerned about having a woman on their team and delegated her to where “she would do the least harm”[3]. This ended up being the Third Committee which was about social, humanitarian, and cultural question. Its quite ironic that they assigned her to this position thinking it was of no importance not knowing that it would become a pivotal aspect of the United-Nations work, which ultimately led to the creation of the Universal Declaration. Mrs. Roosevelt’s hardships is analogous with the current fight taking place at this conference for the recognition of a right to a healthy environment as it is a domain overlooked and seen as a burden. Convincing state leaders to address the importance of a right to a healthy environment would be as difficult as it was for Eleanor to fight consistent patriarchy undermining her, however not impossible with determination. Looking at this speech from the perspective of the early 21st century, it is clear that the hard work to make environmental concerns legitimate by the state is now paying off. The Paris Agreement (COP21) signed in 2015[4] is the prime example of how concerns for the right of a healthy environment is now being taking seriously by the international community.

Humphrey continues his opening address by highlighting the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration that is approaching. He poses this important question: “how can the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute best mark the occasion?”[5] The answer is to highlight the power of public opinion. People have this immense power to influence their political representative by consistently voicing their opinion. Humphrey pleads that this anniversary be open to all countries, even those who weren’t yet members of the United Nations when the Universal Declaration was drafted. He wants this anniversary to have an honest impact on the world to further recognize and commit to universal human rights and equality. Humphrey argues that it is only through a commitment to listening to the desires of the public opinion on issues of human rights that nations will be bale to obtain peace amongst themselves.

Humphrey finishes his speech by emphasizing the important of inviting ‘youngsters’ to the anniversary to talk about the importance of human rights and peace. This is a message to any future conferences such as the one he is currently talking at. Young people must be included in this innovative discussion; they are the future who can bring forth new ideas like the importance of right to a healthy environment.

Overall, John Humphrey’s opening address establishes parallels between the obstacles that were faced trying to craft the Universal Declaration and Duplé’s plea for the recognition of a healthy environment as a human right. Humphrey provides hope that human rights will further expand to incorporate more what? such as the idea that an adequate standard of living includes a right to a healthy environment.

[1] The United Nations General Assembly. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 1948. (page 7).

[2] International Conference on Constitutional Law, and Nicole Duplé. 1988. Le droit à la qualité de l’environnement: un droit en devenir, un droit à définir. Vieux-Montréal, Québec: Québec/Amérique.

[3] John Peters Humphrey, “Séance d’ouvertue du Vème Conférence Internationale de Droit Constitutionnel”. 1st  October 1987. (Page 4)

[4] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Paris Agreement. 2015. [].

[5] John Peters Humphrey, “Séance d’ouvertue du Vème Conférence Internationale de Droit Constitutionnel”. 1st  October 1987. (Page 7)


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