John Peters Humphrey: Statement to the World Philosophy Congress, August 25, 1983

By Sydney Roy

On August 25, 1983, John Peters Humphrey delivered a speech to the World Philosophy Congress and presented the audience with some of his good humour, but also with pertinent arguments regarding the 35th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the effectiveness of international law, and the extreme importance of peace in the midst of the Cold War. Although this speech was not presented to the Canadian public, it remained a relevant reflection of concerns in Canadian politics regarding the applicability of human rights, arms hostilities, and international peace and accountability. Throughout this analysis, Humphrey’s main topics in his speech will be contrasted with events in, and outside Canada, that were affecting the lives of Canadians throughout the year of 1983.

The 1983 World Philosophy Congress and was held in Montreal from the 21st to the 27th of August. During that time there were 2500 participants that came from 75 different countries.[1] The theme of the Congress was culture, particularly “its capacity to lead a better future for humanity.”[2] The talks and delegations were plenty, and they were composed of “forty round tables, twenty special sessions, twelve poster sessions, and a dozen workshops and fifty-sex session of contributed papers.”[3] In respect to human rights, culture set the frame very well for Humphrey’s discussion of the international community, and the impact of the rights culture in the international sphere.

It is under this context that Humphrey elaborated on the success of the UDHR since its birth 35 years prior. He explained that in that time it had been invoked “many times as law both within and outside the United Nations that it can now be said that it is binding as part of the customary law of nations” and because of this, it had changed the conception of rights, and the accountability of governments in international law.[4] The success of the UDHR, Humphrey argued, changed the typical understanding of international relations to one that was more vertical, as individuals themselves could now be recognized and protected.[5] This, he praised, allowed for a new ability to hold states and individuals accountable for their crimes, and he told the Congress “the developing international law of human rights is indeed the best example of the radical changes that are occurring in the content and nature of international law.”[6]

Despite these advances in international law, Humphrey advocated for the need for peace for any of these successes to be meaningful. He told the Congress; “there can be no respect for human rights without peace; and it is becoming just as obvious that there will be no peace without respect for human rights.”[7] And considering this address was taking place during the Cold War, Humphrey explained international laws on human rights are “of the greatest importance… because it points the direction that world law must take if… we are to have some hope of peace in a thermo-nuclear world.”[8] Ultimately, Humphrey understood that peace, international relations, and human rights all went in hand in hand, and for there to be any success in any one of these endeavours, the other two needed to be successful as well.

In the Canadian context, these concerns were relevant to the politics of the time. April of 1983 marked the one year anniversary of the new Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada and the political arena was strife with rights talk. During April of that year, the House of Commons question period was devoted to assessing amendments to the constitution and changes to the legal system as a whole.[9] There still was not a clear consensus on the applicability of the Charter, and many judges and courts were “taking a conservative view of the charter.”[10] Despite this, the Charter was being effectively used by peace groups to fight against Canada’s finalization of agreements with the United States for the testing of American cruise missiles over Canadian land. The outcry was extensive, and the public demonstrations against it were reminiscent of the 1960s peace movements.[11] On a positive note however, in September of that year, a federal court judge successfully used the charter to rule that “the peace groups were entitled to challenge the tests on the grounds that they violated charter guarantees of life, liberty, and security.”[12]

Although there were debates regarding the Charter, in regards to peace, the feeling was more unanimous. Peace was heavy on the mind of Prime Minister P.E. Trudeau, and he was involved in numerous peace initiatives: in a news conference in April Trudeau spoke out against American intervention in Grenada and in May he took part in peace agreements in South America[13]; and in the fall of 1983 he pioneered his own peace agreement that had the aim of putting “pressure on the five major nuclear powers to meet and discuss the limiting of their nuclear arsenals.”[14] Also, during 1983, Canada remained active in the United Nations, and in February of that year, Canada promoted arms control priorities, that included a “comprehensive nuclear test ban, a more effective non-proliferation regime, a chemical weapons convention and the prohibitions of all weapons in outer space.”[15]

In addition to this, following the tragic shooting down of a Korean Airlines passenger plane by the Soviet Union on August 30th, (just 5 days after Humphrey delivered this speech to the Congress), Canada imposed numerous sanctions on the Soviet Union, and the Department of External Affairs wrote to the Soviet Union on September 8th that the incident was “a flagrant breach of general principles and international law as well as of well-established rules and procedures of international civil aviation which could not be justified on legal, moral, or other grounds.[16] Following the incident, in the United Nations General Assembly on September 20th, Allan MacEachen, the Secretary of State for External Affairs, “stressed the need to ‘make more creative use of the existing provisions and mechanisms of the Charter’” of the United Nations in order to hold nations accountable for their actions.[17]

In light of these events going on before, during, and after Humphrey’s speech to the World Philosophy Conference, it is evident that his speech spoke volumes to the many issues facing Canadian politics at the time. Human rights were in question in regards to the new Charter and in addition to this, Canada was advocating for peace internationally, and for accountability on the world scale in regards to nuclear weapons and hostile events abroad. Although Humphrey’s speech was not heard by the Canadian public, it reflected events and policies that were effecting them directly, both as Canadian citizens, but also as individuals living in the Cold War and the threat of a nuclear war. In this way, Humphrey’s speech was significant as it was indicative of a changing (and turbulent) time in international relations and human rights globally and at home. Ultimately, Humphrey was able to put to words the multiple dynamics of human rights and peace at play in 1983.

[1] Venant Cauchy, foreword in Vol. 1 of Philosophie et Culture: Actes du XVIIe congrès mondial de philosophie. (Éditions du Beffroi and Éditions Montmorency, 1986), 19.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] MG 4127 C.18 F.369 – Statement to the World Philosophy Congress 1983, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 4.

[5] Ibid, 7.

[6] Ibid, 8.

[7] Ibid, 5.

[8] Ibid, 8.

[9] Robert J. Drummond. “Parliament and Politics,” in Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs, 1983, ed. R.B. Byers. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), 25.

[10] Ibid, 27-28.

[11] R.B. Byers, editor. Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs, 1983. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), 4.

[12] Donald C. Wallace. “Ottawa and the Provinces,” in Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs, 1983, ed. R.B. Byers. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), 75.

[13] David Leyton-Brown. “External Affairs and Defence,” in Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs, 1983, ed. R.B. Byers. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), 171.

[14] Drummond, Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs, 1983, 38.

[15] Leyton-Brown, Canadian Annual Review of Public Affairs, 1983, 196.

[16] Ibid, 168.

[17] Ibid, 180.

Comments are closed.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.