John Peters Humphrey Speech to the American Bar Association

By Benson H. Cook

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while not a binding document, nonetheless is considered by many scholars to mark the beginning of the modern ideas of “human rights” in a contemporary context.  John Peters Humphrey was an instrumental figure in the crafting of that document, yet he faced significant opposition, from both his native Canada and the United States.  A significant amount of the pressure against the Declaration came from the American and Canadian Bar Associations, who both had a fraught relationship with Humphrey in the 1940’s and 1950’s as a result.  By the time of Humphrey’s Honolulu speech to the American Bar Association, on 14 August 1974, much of this adversarial relationship had faded away.  But it is clear in the speech that Humphrey very clearly remembers the day when he faced a much more strained relationship with North America’s lawyers.  This, indeed, is the crux of this address: a critique of an organization Humphrey views as having never been on his side, and a defence of his life’s work to a skeptical audience.

That Humphrey intends to both defend his legacy and hit back at those who have criticized him is made clear in the opening lines of his speech. “It is a privilege that I never expected to have,” Humphrey explains[1], “For I have not always been friend of the American Bar Association.”   Though his sharpest words are reserved for the Association’s Canadian counterpart[2], it is clear that Humphrey has perhaps never fully forgiven his North American compatriots for their behaviour nearly thirty years ago.

Much of the first section of his speech is simply rehashing and, it sometimes seems, defending, the Declaration and its history.  This is perhaps unsurprising, given the history of friction between Humphrey and the Bar Association over the matter[3].  He then pivots to a, surprisingly, even more direct criticism of the American Bar Association, critiquing then then-chairman of the organization for misrepresenting Humphrey’s words in the 1940’s on the “revolutionary” idea of establishing a supra-national system of human rights law, a characterization that would remain relevant in American legal and political circles long enough to make it into the 1964 presidential election[4].  This then turns into a defence of the very idea of international law.

As Humphrey explains, the fact that this speech is tailored to an American audience, rather than a Canadian one, becomes clearer.  He goes out of his way at several points[5] to make clear that the international law that he has spent much of his career trying to strengthen globally is not, in fact, very strong at all.  That modern American attitudes are naturally more suspicious of the global order than those in Canada are well-documented, and it seems unlikely that Humphrey would have taken a similar line of argument, even in 1974, to the Bar Association’s Canadian counterpart.

Yet even while downplaying the efficacy of international law, Humphrey makes clear that his own personal ambitions are for it to become stronger, and he encourages his audience to advocate for this as well. He does, however, acknowledge that many in his audience may not share his views[6]. “Although many lawyers would not recognize it as such,” he says, “there does exist a growing and potentially important body of international norms which international lawyers call law.”

Humphrey implores lawyers to not only respect the emergence of this new order of law, but to respect the idea that, just like national law, international law is binding.  He obviously understands that such an idea is a very hard sell to such an organization, especially one in a culture that regards its own laws as superior to all others; or at least relatively higher than in regard to contemporary views in the Canadian legal community.  After all, this speech came just two years after the establishment of a Canadian organization dedicated entirely to the study of international law[7].  Such visible enthusiasm for international law did not exist in such a widespread way in the United States, especially at that time.

This address to the American Bar Association takes several shapes throughout its length: it ranges from vindictive and spiteful, to hopeful and encouraging, to starry-eyed and idealistic.  Ultimately, though, Humphrey’s choice of words seems to indicate the mutual suspicion these two organizations continued to hold for one another, even thirty years on from the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[1] John Peters Humphrey, “Speech to the American Bar Association, Honolulu”. 14 August, 1974. (Page 1)

[2] John Peters Humphrey, “Speech to the American Bar Association, Honolulu”. 14 August, 1974. (Page 2)

[3] “John Peters Humphrey” in The Canadian Encyclopedia.

[4] John Peters Humphrey, “Speech to the American Bar Association, Honolulu”. 14 August, 1974. (Page 6)

[5] John Peters Humphrey, “Speech to the American Bar Association, Honolulu”. 14 August, 1974. (Pages 6, 7 & 8)

[6] John Peters Humphrey, “Speech to the American Bar Association, Honolulu”. 14 August, 1974. (Page 10)

[7] “About.” International Commission of Jurists. Last modified 2015.

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