Speech to the Society for Ethical Culture

By Kenzia Araujo

On December 10th, 1995 John Peter Humphrey was invited to New York City to speak alongside Mrs. Roosevelt and Mr. Roger Baldwin to The Society for Ethical Culture on his platform as a servant of the international community. In his speech, Humphrey outlines the human rights program of the United Nations and discusses the main problems with the Declaration of Human Rights and proposes solutions to these issues moving forward. Humphrey defines the Human Rights program of the United Nations as an all-encompassing program. He describes it as touching upon almost every aspect of the work and activities of the United Nations. Since the United Nations was established to implement human rights, freedom from fear, war and economic insecurities it follows therefore, that even the highly political activities of the organization are also in a way part of the human rights program. Therefore, the human rights program is a vast program with unique purposes and activities under the United Nations as a whole.

Humphrey explains that although there has been progress within the realm of human rights there are still two areas in particular where the project needs improvement; discrimination and slavery. The Charter of the United Nations clearly outlines that there will be no discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, language or religion. Although there was a treaty set up in 1919 for the protection of certain national minorities, the system completely broke down after Nazi Germany came to power and began exploiting certain minorities. He argues that the United Nations has done very little in connection to this problem and although the protection of minorities is within the terms of intervention, little action has been taken. Humphrey believes this is especially true when it comes to ‘stateless persons’, a minority population defined as people who have no nationality and are without protection from the government. Furthermore, Humphrey also emphasizes how slavery still exists but has simply morphed into a different meaning. Although slavery had been abolished in the formal sense of the word it still existed within a different connotation in certain parts of the world since there are certain practices involving servitude which are more or less different branches of slavery.

Although Humphrey outlines specific human rights violations as an important aspect in trying to move forward the real point he is trying to emphasize is the way in which the program relates to the definition of human rights as well as establishing some type of international system to protect and implement these rights. The charter of the organization claims that one of its main principles is too achieve international cooperation by promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and the fundamental freedom for all, without distinctions of race, sex, language or religion. In theory, this is a huge step forward but in practice defining what these right truly are has been poorly done. Humphrey argues that the task of defining these rights has largely been done through the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In his speech, Humphrey also makes a point about power and authority in the international community, a point which still persists today. International law can be tricky when dealing with authority since states are sovereign. Most argue that the Declaration had no legal authority but still possessed tremendous moral and political authority. Humphrey extends this argument further by explaining that the Declaration is gradually acquiring the force of international customary law. According to Humphrey, national legislation had already been inspired by the Human Rights Declaration and even been invoked in courts of law. Furthermore, resolutions have been adopted by the general assembly in important matters in which the Declaration has been used as citation of conduct on the same footing as the charter itself, allowing for principles to be replicated in international treaties.

Humphrey’s audience is The New York Society for Ethical Culture which was founded in 1876 by Dr. Felix Adler and is at the cornerstone of the Ethical Movement. Members of the society believe in Ethical Culture which is a fellowship based upon a philosophy of life, emphasizing education, growth, and social service with the purpose of helping people live better lives. The mission of Ethical Culture is to encourage respect for humanity and nature and to create a better world.[1] Members are committed to personal ethical development in their relationship with others and in activities involving social justice. Keeping this in mind, Humphrey’s speech was perfectly tailored to his audience since he is speaking of human rights having an entrenched nature to them.[2] Members of the Ethical culture society believe that individuals have inherent worth and dignity which goes perfectly with the overall tone of Humphrey’s speech.

Humphrey concludes his speech by mentioning two systems that may be put in place to further protect human rights in the international world. The first system would be the creation of a human rights committee that would be elected by the international court of justice on the recommendation of state parties to be covenants. This system would act as a way to investigate complaints made by ratifying states alleging violation of the covenants by other ratifying states, ultimately acting as a state-to-state complaining system. The second option would be a reporting procedure where ratifying states would report to the United Nations on their progress towards the realization of their rights. This system would act as a supplementary method of implementation because an opportunity would be provided during the discussion of these reports to consider the situation in the different ratifying countries. This system would also allow for some measure of control within various countries.

[1] http://www.nysec.org/. “accessed 02/23/17”. See citation guide for instructions on how to properly cite a website.

[2] ibid

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