By Arisha Khan

The United Nations (UN), is a body that historically pioneered human rights advocacy through the promotion of and dissemination of information and recommendations. However, the translation of its work into practice varies across nations and is often difficult to implement, enforce, and monitor. As a principal drafter of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, legal scholar and human rights advocate John Peters Humphreys acknowledged this deficit of the UN in his 1967 submission to the International League for the Rights of Man (now known as the International League of Human Rights), which is the oldest non-governmental human rights organization in the United States.[1] His submitted statement was titled the Question Concerning the Implementation of Human Rights through a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or Some Other Appropriate International Machinery.

In this statement, Humphrey proposes the merits of creating a High Commissioner for Human Rights, as the existing procedures regarding the observance of rights standards were ineffective.[2] He sees the role of the Commissioner as both a symbolic representation of commitment to implementing rights practices, and a greater recognition of the UN’s mandate of “promoting international co-operation in the economic, social, cultural, educational, and health fields, and assisting in the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.[3]

Humphrey further details the limitations of the Commissioner role, and where they would be most in need. Humphrey makes clear the Commissioner’s role would not be overstep juridical bounds and impede on the sovereignty of nations, rather they would serve to represent and simply the process of implementing and observing human rights internationally He seems to express greater interest in assisting nations to develop their capacities vis-à-vis creating conditions to even allow human rights to be promoted and protected.[4]

Humphrey recognizes the gravity of some human rights violations, especially as they pertain to racial segregation and discrimination, and apartheid, as per the resolution of the Human Rights Commission in March 1966; and the need to take a more concerted approach to aid the victims of such rights violations.[5] It is important to note that Humphrey’s audience is the broader public who is engaged in human rights work, thus he takes a stronger effort to instill hope throughout the submission.

Humphrey concludes his statement though opening the door to questions and discussion around the nuances of the commissioner’s position such as their relationship to the UN Organs and delineation of their responsibilities with existing roles. [6]Overall, Humphrey argues that the introduction of a High Commissioner will not by any means be the answer to ensuring adherence to the UN’s human rights principles, but will serve as a step in progressing these mandates.

[1] “International League of Human Rights,” International League of Human Rights, accessed March 17, 2017,

[2] MG 4127 C.18 F.363 – Question Concerning the Implementation of Human Rights through a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or Some Other Appropriate International Machinery, John Peter Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 1.

[3]“Charter of The United Nations, Chapter IV”. 2017. Un.Org. Accessed March 19, 2017.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Ibid., 5.


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