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The New Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canada’s Obligations under the International Bill of Rights

By Christina Tzovanis Manolias

As one of the principal architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is little doubt that John Peters Humphrey devoted substantial attention to the issues of human liberty and freedom. For years following the declaration’s adoption in 1948, Humphrey remained deeply preoccupied with the implementation of human rights legislation. This notion is clearly evidenced in Humphrey’s “The New Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canada’s Obligations under the International Bill of Rights.” Penned in the early 1980s, the work lays out the inconsistencies between Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its covenants. Humphrey’s comparative analysis of these pieces of legislation reveals that on multiple counts, the drafting of the Canadian charter failed to incorporate human rights principles proclaimed by the UDHR and its covenants. Along with revealing the tensions that exist between international and national law, the content of Humphrey’s work suggests that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, from its inception, was rather circumscribed in its adoption of human rights principles.

Humphrey’s essay illuminates the incongruities that exist between international and national legal jurisdictions. Perhaps most notably, the author’s interpretations illustrate that the measures designed to implement the rights stipulated within the UDHR and its covenants were insufficiently robust. As Humphrey’s analysis reveals, states that ratified the declaration along with its covenants, like Canada, were under no explicit legal obligation to entrench these laws within their respective constitutions. In Humphrey’s words, “There is no rule of international law which says that our international obligations must be reflected in the constitution.”[1]Consequently, international statutes were not necessarily woven into, or enforced by, a state’s constitutional policies. Humphrey’s point touches upon the absence of uniformity among legal jurisdictions, rendering national and international legislation irreconcilable. The author’s observations infer that due to the absence of precise legal measures, a state’s constitutional laws may, in fact, compromise the enforcement of human rights. It is precisely this concern that prompts Humphrey’s detailed analysis of the Canadian charter.

The author’s comparison of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms with the UDHR and its covenants is grounded in certain stipulations outlined by these legal instruments. As noted by Humphrey, Article 2 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires that state parties “take the necessary steps, in accordance with their constitutional processes, to adopt such legislative or other measures as may be necessary to give effect to the rights recognized by the instrument.”[2]Thus, even though state parties were not legally obliged to enshrine international legislation into their respective constitutions, they were indeed compelled to respect certain international standards. Furthermore, one of the principal intents of the Canadian charter was to provide equality before the law for individuals who had traditionally faced discrimination because of their “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability.”[3]Thus, when considering the charter’s premise and the international standards to which Canada was bound, Humphrey’s comparative analysis aims to determine the degree to which the 1982 charter reflected international human rights legislation.

The author’s interpretations reveal that the Canadian charter was limited in its integration of human rights legislation as outlined by the UDHR and its covenants. Humphrey first criticizes the charter for its failure to clearly establish permissible limitations on the rights it lays out: “Neither does it [the Canadian charter] adequately deal with the matter of permissible limitation on the exercise and enjoyment of the rights proclaimed by it or of derogations in time of national emergency. There is indeed no mention in it of such emergencies, and the War Measures Act is still on the statute book.”[4]Failing to model itself on the language of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Canadian charter granted greater discretion to the courts to ultimately decide what constituted a permissible limitation on rights. This is problematic for multiple reasons. Firstly, whereas the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights considers certain freedoms to be so fundamental that they must be respected even in times of emergency such as the right not to be subjected to torture and the right not to be enslaved, these receive no mention in the charter. Second, the vague formulation of permissible limitations as inscribed within the charter consequently suggests that individual human rights may be violated as the government sees fit.

But perhaps the most glaring shortcoming of the Canadian charter is evidenced in Article 33 which outlined that: “Parliament or the legislature may expressly declare in an act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter.”[5] It is precisely these sections that outline liberties related to the freedom of religion, expression, association, and the like. Thus, the charter, in its formulation, held little guarantee for safeguarding such rights. Though lawyers and academics alike have debated the repercussions of the infamous “notwithstanding clause,” the intricacies of this issue lie beyond the scope of this analysis.[6] Rather, Humphrey’s observations indicate that the integration of human rights legislation in Canada has been profoundly limited by the reification of sovereign  authority.

The jurist’s impassioned analysis penned sometime in the early 1980s- this chronology is reasonably assumed as the author alludes to the document as “the new Charter”- offers more than a scathing critique directed at the charter’s draftees. Rather, Humphrey’s work is a significant reminder of the inconsistencies and dilemmas that persistently thwart the implementation of human rights legislation. Humphrey’s interpretations draw attention to the inherent power struggle that exists between international and national legal jurisdictions. The author illustrates how, at least within the Canadian context, sovereign authority can still sidestep and altogether override international obligations. For anyone even mildly familiar with Canada’s initial attitudes to the UDHR, this is perhaps unsurprising. Indeed, from its inception, the political right regarded the UDHR with great hostility and the Canadian government approved it with substantial reluctance.[7] Bearing this in mind, Humphrey’s analysis of Canada’s 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms illuminates important continuities with the past. The vague language of permissible limitations, the authority extended to the courts, as well as the “notwithstanding clause” together carry on the tradition of sovereign supremacy. Though attitudes towards human rights have undoubtedly evolved in Canada since 1948, Humphrey’s work is an important reminder that it would be a mistake to presume that legislative procedures have followed the same trajectory.


[1] McGill University Archives, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, MG 4127 C.18 F363 – The New Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canada’s Obligations under the International Bill of Rights (item)

[2] Ibid.

[3] J.M. Bumsted, The Peoples of Canada A Post-Confederation History (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 1992), 538.

[4]McGill University Archives, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, MG 4127 C.18 F363 – The New Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canada’s Obligations under the International Bill of Rights (item)

[5] Ibid.

[6]Bumsted, The Peoples of Canada  (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 1992), 539.

[7] A.J. Hobbins, “Eleanor Roosevelt, John Humphrey, and Canadian opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,”International Journal 53, no. 2 (1998): 338-9.


John Humphrey’s Speech To The Students Of Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School: Will The Kids Be Alright?

By Isabel Plaa

John Humphrey’s speech “Talk to the Students of Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School” is a call to action to youth to understand the importance of keeping peace through the notion of a universal set of human rights. His speech is based on his absolute conviction that everyone deserves the right to be treated equally and that youth had an important role to play. Humphrey reminded the students that they would be the ones creating the future. However, let us not forget that his audience members were high school students and that this undertaking is not as simple as it sounds.

Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School opened its doors in the 1970’s for both English and French speaking West Islanders[1]. In the 1980’s it became an English school that remained Catholic until 1998, when Quebec’s Catholic and Protestant schools were replaced with a secular system[2]. Why was Humphrey asked to educate the students of this school in particular? Although Humphrey was not a strongly religious man himself[3], it was important for him to spread the message about educating oneself about rights and how the Declaration of Human Rights would play into the students’ lives in the future.

The Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. According to Humphrey, the document represents an “international consensuses regarding those basic human rights and fundamental freedoms without which there can be no human dignity and which belong to everyone without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”.

On September 24th 1982, Humphrey began his speech to the students of PCHS by stating that “there is be no peace unless there is also respect for human rights.” In doing so, he was informing the PCHS students about the absolute importance of knowing ones rights and striving for peace. Without the hope for peace, Humphrey argued, society would cease to function. He then went on to explain to the students that they should “learn (the Declaration) by heart” in order for the students to understand that without respect and without peace, there can be no rights.

However, Humphrey remains vague throughout his speech as he advocates for the students to learn about their rights but refrains from providing practical guidance. How can they put the theory into practice if they do not know where the theory applies? Building Classroom Discipline discusses educational scholar Fred Jone’s main strategy, which is “keep[ing] students actively and purposefully involved in lessons and enable them to follow directions of their own.” [4] Such interaction is clearly missing throughout this speech.

Humphrey emphasized throughout the speech the significance of the students’ roles in the future of society. He states, “The reason I am emphasizing the connection between human rights and peace is because your generation has a greater interest in the [connection] of peace between nations then any other generation that has ever served on this planet.” Humphrey began his call to action regarding the future of society by informing them on their rights and the absolute necessity for them to understand what the Declaration of Human Rights could do for the world. Humphrey stresses this point throughout this speech because he wants the future citizens to understand that “where there are rights there are also duties”.

The Declaration of Human Rights created a customary law through which all states are united. In creating this “customary law of nations”, the Declaration has enabled violations to rights to be brought forward to the General Assembly. Humphrey’s speech to the students of PCHS stresses that their voice is protected as a result of these customary precedents.  Even though the Declaration is not bound absolutely in law, it is proof that international organization and agreement is more than possible. Humphrey acknowledges in his speech that though the world is not perfect, without striving for peace and the respect towards it, it will not have a future.

Yet, the idea that these students are the ones forming the future is a big jump. Throughout the speech there is a lack of clarification about what Humphrey means by “voice”, “respect” and “rights”. Students do not witness much politics during their education, and if they do, it is very generalized. There is also a gap between what the students can do (because it is their right) but what about after that? Educational researcher H.C. Edwards discusses in his book Classroom Discipline and Management that students are allowed freedom, but they are “expected to assume responsibility for what they do [or say][5]”. But Humphrey does not mention this. There is a lack of information in this speech on where and how these rights and freedoms apply to the kids. Does it apply when Sally hits Bobby?

John Humphrey’s speech to the students of Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School is a vague call to action to youth. He sees them as the future and argues that they need to strive for respect and for peace in order to have a peaceful society. He does not tell them how to apply this theory in practice but declares only that the students will inherit the future and will be faced with many more challenges. Humphrey concludes that if they keep some “dedicated, faith and hard work”, their work will give the generation after them a future worth working towards. While this represents a heavy responsibility, the spirit Humphrey’s speech is in the right place. He understands that the next generations need to be educated on topics such as human rights, but there is a gap between the “do” and the “how”.

[1] “Our History.” Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School.Feb. 22, 2016.

[2] Bordonaro,Tino. Lecture. Policy Issues In Quebec Education. McGill University, Oct. 29th 2014

[3] Hobbins, A. J. “Guest Lecture on John Humphrey.” Lecture. Topics In Canadian Political History Human Rights In Canada: A Rights Revolution? McGill University, Montreal, Feb. 1, 2016.

[4] Charles. Building Classroom Discipline; Fred Jones On Keeping Students Willingly Engaged in Learning p.138-155.

[5] Edwards. Classroom Discipline and Management: Logical Consequences: Rudolf Dreikurs. 24.


Speech to United Nations Commission on Human Rights

By Shuyue He

The Humphrey speech I chose is a petition to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHRC) in February 1993 on the subject of compensation for Canadian Prisoners of War (POWs).

The speech was part of the War Amputees of Canada’s (the War Amps) project for reparations for Canadian POWs held captive by the Japanese. Founded in 1918, the organization provides a voice for Canadian amputee war veterans while also taking care of their needs. In 1987, H. Clifford Chadderton, the chief executive of the War Amps at that time, established a task force with a team of delegates (including Humphrey) to assist thalidomide victims as well as the Canadian Hong Kong veterans who had suffered as Japanese prisoners of the war.

Humphrey was a co-drafter of the declaration presented by the War Amps to the UN Commission on the right to compensation for victims of gross violation of human rights. His speech reflected one of the central points in the War Amps’ declaration: the concept that individual rights cannot be waived by treaty. In his speech, Humphrey argued that what Japanese did to the Canadian prisoners in WWII was a gross violation of human rights under international law. He therefore called for the  UNHRC to acknowledge that Japan was guilty of crimes against humanity. Although the speech was a part of the War Amps’ campaign for POW compensation, he did not address this issue in the speech, stating he would leave this for other forums. Instead, what he was “asking” for was “that the Commission decide that Japan is guilty of gross violations of Human Rights.”

In his speech, Humphrey not only supported the War Amps’ project, but more profoundly, he reinforced and propagated the concept of individual human rights. Canadian foreign policy in the mid-20th century was far more concerned with protecting state sovereignty rather than human rights, as exemplified by Canada’s hesitant acceptance of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By the 1980s, Canadian government negotiations with Japanese-Canadians for redress took place almost simultaneously with the War Amps’ lobbying for compensation from the Japanese. From 1990 onwards, Humphrey observed an increased focus on Japan’s war crimes and crimes against humanity both by the Canadian government and in a global context, so he grasped this opportunity to bolster the War Amps’ claims. His letters from 1990 repeatedly mentioned his hope that “I am particularly anxious that the compensation study becomes closely related with the U.N decade for the Development of International Law. It may well turn out that we have started something very important on the one”.[1]

In the meantime, Humphrey noted that although recent changes in international law had been “no less than revolutionary”, they still failed to “address the question of the right of the individual to compensation” in the face of gross violations.[2] For example, the petition of compensation was ineffective under the resolution 1503 of the Economic and Social Council. Hence in the speech, Humphrey referred to a report of the sub-commission to the commission, which stated that “the procedure governed by the resolution 1503 could not be applied as a reparation or relief mechanism in respect of claims of compensation for human suffering or other losses which had occurred during the Second World War”. An another obstacle to their claims for compensation was the fact that a peace treaty had been signed in 1952 by the Canadian and Japanese governments in which Canada agreed not to ask for Japan for further compensation for its World War II prisoners of war.[3] Humphrey addressed this issue in his speech:

Let me speak for a moment as international lawyer. There is an important principle of international law known as jus cogens which means that governments cannot by treaty negate the fundamental rights of individual men and women.

Similar content was recapitulated in the proposed declaration that he wrote for the War Amps—the concept that individual rights cannot be waived by treaty. What he argued was that the 1953 Treaty between Canada and Japan obscured the individual rights of the veterans. He argued further that the Canadian government had violated international law by effectively signing away the right of the veterans in its effort to come to an agreement.[4]

Despite the constant efforts of the War Amps and Humphrey, the outcome turned out to be “bittersweet”, as the War Amps did not never obtained financial compensation from the Japanese government.[5]  But Humphrey was aware that this project was by nature a difficult claim, noting that “there is even controversy as to what compensation means – certainly in law”.[6] In the end, The War Amps’ claim was financially realized in 1998 when the Canadian government announced that it would foot the bill for a compensation package and give $24,000 to each surviving veteran or their widow.[7] Later, in 2011, Japan issued a formal apology to Canadian veterans of Hong Kong on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Hong Kong, but by this time, only 59 veterans were still alive to hear it.[8]

In conclusion, Humphrey’s speech called for the UNHRC to acknowledge the fact that Japanese was guilty of grossly violating the human rights of POWs. Even though the speech did not address the claims of compensation, a major theme of the War Amps’ project at that time, it reinforced the concept the individual human rights. The speech stated that the concept of individual human rights cannot be waived by 1952 Treaty under jus cogens. The result of the project was “bittersweet” as their claims for financial compensation were realized in 1998 by the Canadian government rather than the Japanese government. Whether the campaign for compensation directly promoted the development of international law’s emphasis on individual rights is not clear, further study should be conducted in this area.


[1] Letter from Humphrey to Forbes, 21 August 1990, The War Amputations of Canada – Correspondence; 1990-1991, Box 16, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[2] Luncheon Speech: Conference on the Right to Compensation, 1989, Speeches – 1989, Box 18, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[3] CBC Digital Archives, Canadians captured in Hong Kong receive compensation, Online video, 2:38, 1998,

[4] “Government Failure to Protect POWs in Japan Consistent from 1941 to Date,” The War Amps Newsroom Archives, last modified November 19 1996,

[5]  CBC Digital Archives, Canadians captured in Hong Kong receive compensation, Online video, 2:38, 1998,

[6] Luncheon Speech: Conference on the Right to Compensation, 1989, Speeches – 1989, Box 18, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[7] “War Amps Acknowledges Importance of Japan Finally Apologizing to Canada’s Hong Kong Veterans,” The War Amps Newsroom Archives, December 8 2011, ; CBC Digital Archives, Canadians captured in Hong Kong receive compensation, Online video, 2:38, 1998,

[8]  “War Amps Acknowledges Importance of Japan Finally Apologizing to Canada’s Hong Kong Veterans,” The War Amps Newsroom Archives, December 8 2011,


The Pressing Issue of Human Rights in Eastern Europe

By Alexander Sheaf

On March 28 1977, Humphrey gave a speech in Ottawa to the assembly of the Canadian Committee of Captive European Nations, discussing the obligations that the Canadian government, Soviet Bloc governments and states of the world had in respect to the maintenance and protection of universal human rights. The speech itself was marked by praise for the Committee and its causes, and the state of international interaction and cooperation regarding the protection of universal human rights.

The Canadian Committee of Captive European Nations, the group he addressed, is rather research unfriendly. Records, minutes of meetings and other committee documents have proven elusive. A number articles in the Ottawa Citizen in 1977 however reveal much about the nature of the group and its purpose.  As Linda Goyette noted in an article on November 2, 1977, a five hundred person strong congregation outside the Soviet Embassy gathered “In a double barrelled protest against mistreatment of dissidents in the USSR, and Canadian indifference to it.” One of the chief organizers of the protest, the Committee chairman Tad Pachulski, gave an interview with the Citizen, stating “We are here to support people who cannot support themselves… we lost our freedom long ago, now we are fighting for the freedom of others left behind.” Two days later in the Citizen, an advert posted by the Committee reads “Fellow Canadians: What the communist revolution achieved in the past 60 years amounts to this: Millions of people put to death, millions of people held in slave labor camps… All western countries are threatened from inside and outside. In order to survive, democracy needs your support.” Evidently the Committee that Humphrey addressed on March 28 was one primarily concerned with the fight for human rights in Eastern Europe; to assist dissidents and to fight for the restoration of independence in the Communist dominated countries of the region. Members of the committee would seemingly then take the form of activists, former dissidents, academics and any other Canadian citizens united in the fight for the rights of dissidents and the populations of soviet bloc countries.

The main focus of Humphrey’s speech is concerned with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, to which the United States, Canada, Western European Nations, The Soviet Union & Soviet Bloc countries are party to. Humphrey describes the nature of the agreement, and how Soviet governments and others partied to it are not upholding their obligations outlined in the declaration regarding human rights. Points 8 and 9 of the declaration read “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief” and “Equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”[1] This was a concession of sorts made by the Soviet Bloc, one which the West met by recognizing Soviet Borders and sovereignty in the final declaration. Considered an important occasion of Cold War multilateral international cooperation, it was one of the hallmarks of the mid to late 70s cold war détente.

The declaration itself was not legally binding as it lacked treaty status. Nevertheless, it encouraged a wave of dissident activity within and outside of Soviet Bloc borders concerning the advancement of human rights. In October of 1977, months after Humphrey’s speech, the Belgrade conference served as a review of all parties human rights records in relation to the obligations signed up to in the Helsinki Declaration. Humphrey however declares the Helsinki declaration “legally irrelevant”, citing the 1966 (legally binding as of 1976) Convention on Civil and Political rights as a legally binding treaty, ratified by the majority of Soviet Bloc countries, and the UN charter and Universal declaration, of which all states are party to. He acknowledges the shortcomings of the enforcement capabilities of said treaty, and in particular criticizes Canada for failing to push for stronger enforcement capabilities, which could thus put the agreement on a par with one such as the European Convention on Human Rights.

Thus, his speech brings light to the shortcomings of the Soviet Bloc Governments in respect to their committed obligations to Human rights, the ponderings of the Trudeau government about how to further the cause of human rights in the region, the mechanisms of the international system in protecting human rights and their shortcomings, and the legal basis which rendered governments of Eastern Europe responsible for gross violations of human rights they pledged to uphold. Perhaps most hearteningly, his respect and warm sentiment to the cause of association of dissidents and activists that he addressed on that March day runs through the speech like a golden thread, revealing much about the man so revered here at McGill and beyond.

[1] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Helsinki Accords”, accessed February 24, 2016,

La Sécurité Collective, 1991

By Kirsten Whelan

Presented partially in French and partially in English[1] to the Conseil québécois de la paix, a Montreal-based anti-imperialist group perceived to have had pro-Soviet sympathies[2], less than a month after the conclusion of the Gulf War, “La sécurité collective” briefly outlines the historical thought behind United Nations mechanisms that are designed to “maintain the peace of nations,” otherwise defined as the status quo. Humphrey’s speech reveals assumptions regarding the meaning of peace and raises provocative questions as to the ways in which UN Resolutions have been adopted and employed by member states. He acknowledges that, in light of the Gulf War, UN measures appeared to have failed to keep the peace — yet neglects to incorporate a substantive critique of this fundamental failure.

Humphrey begins his speech with the question of whether or not the mechanisms created by the Charter of the United Nations are adequate for conserving peace, and if not, how more effective measures could be created. “At first glance,” he suggests, “we would be inclined to think that in this case — the role played by the United Nations in this Gulf War — they did exactly the opposite. Didn’t these mechanisms authorize the most brutal war since the Second World War?” It is a question Humphrey refuses to answer, however, deferring to the audience.

Instead of pursuing this line of questioning, he elects to “trace the history of an idea which, if we could put it into practice, would be a means to abolish all wars.” Beginning with the European balance of powers, which he dates to 1805, Humphrey proceeds to outline the logic behind the notion of collective security. Jumping to the interwar period, he isolates Article 10 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which implored signatories to respect and to protect from all outside aggression the territorial integrity of any member state.

“Simple as it may be to understand,” Humphrey claims, “collective security is not easy to put into practice. At the basis of the concept is the necessity that the status quo be respected, unless all countries agree to change the status quo.” Perhaps most noteworthy here is that this assumption — that peace is synonymous with the status quo — remains unquestioned. Defining peace, implicitly, as territorial sovereignty and the absence of interstate aggression, appears to deny any possibility that the status quo may, in reality, not be ideal.

Humphrey then turns to the UN Charter, contending that the UN Security Council resolution that authorized the Gulf War was not consistent with the relevant articles of the Charter, Articles 41 and particularly 42, which reads as follows:

Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.[3]

Resolution 678 “authorizes Member States co-operating with the Government of Kuwait … to use all necessary means [to uphold prior and future resolutions] and to restore international peace and security in the area.[4]” Humphrey’s argument appears to rest upon a technicality: his comparison to the Korean War, where soldiers intervened under the UN flag rather than those of individual states, suggests that his issue is with regard to who holds the governing power over the intervening forces. Article 42, however, seems broad enough to allow member states to intervene independently with UN authorization. Moreover, even if the problem lay strictly with Resolution 678, Humphrey fails to address whether that absolves the Charter of responsibility for its ineffectiveness.

Whether or not his case is strong, Humphrey suggests here that UN Resolutions have been adopted and employed by member states in a number of ways that may violate international law. Yet because this is the end of his speech, he does not substantially address this provocative claim. His focus on the particular resolution that sanctioned the Gulf War instead of on the UN Charter itself deflects discussion away from the Charter’s weaknesses.

Humphrey begins and ends with unanswered questions that seem to lay bare a fundamental flaw underlying the premise of collective security: its evident failure to promote peace, regardless of how peace might be defined. He outlines the inapplicability of the balance of power to modern international relations, but hesitates to actually criticise the UN Charter’s ineffectiveness, instead isolating a single resolution as having potentially been legally untenable. Ultimately, Humphrey’s speech offers an implicit answer to the first part of the opening question that he refused to address: the mechanisms of the UN Charter are not adequate to maintain peace. Yet he fails to engage in a dialogue as to how this may be improved.

[1] Translations are my own.

[2] Roger Julien, “Les bonnes et les mauvaises,” Le Devoir, April 23, 1982.

[3] UN General Assembly, Charter of the United Nations, “Article 42,” June 26, 1945, Emphasis added.

[4] United Nations Security Council (SC), Resolution 678, “Iraq-Kuwait,” November 29, 1990,


The Necessary Conditions of Peace

By Madeline Ford

Although the students of Brigham Young University may not have realized it in March of 1987, they were being presented with a topic, by a founding father in International Human Rights – John Peters Humphrey – that needed immediate international attention. In his speech, The Necessary Conditions of Peace, Humphrey argued that through the promotion and implementation of individual human rights and the exercising of fundamental freedoms from an individualistic perspective, international cooperation could be achieved. Instead of using global disarmament as a condition to achieve the highest possible standard of universal human rights, Humphrey analyzed the issue through an alternative lens, noting that the implementation of fundamental human rights were ultimately the conditions for international peace. It is important to understand that the nature of the audience was not lost upon Humphrey. As a human rights activist, he found it imperative to impress his point upon a young and educated audience, as these were the actors that held the potential to alter the monopolization of state power in the present and in the future.

After Humphrey retired from the United Nations as the director of the United Nations Human Rights Division in 1966, he chose to return to McGill and continue his academic career as a law professor until he chose to fully retire in 1994 (Historica Canada, 2011). The fact that Humphrey remained at the university until a year before his passing showed his dedication to enlightening young minds; but moreover, it displayed his sense of urgency in persuading the younger leaders of the generation to take action against human rights violations on an international scale. During his late academic career, Humphrey gave the speech in question to the students at Brigham Young University located in Provo, Utah. The tone of the speech is far from light hearted, as it challenges future generations to advocate for a change in the international order, and to eliminate war zones globally. Simultaneously, it is somewhat threatening, warning people of the potential consequences if the world is left to idle hands. This tone of urgency plays into the fact that Humphrey wanted the younger generation to act, and essentially become the “necessary conditions for peace”.

Human rights were born to prosper in an environment where human dignity is respected and equal rights are inherent to all. It is clear that once these building blocks are established, the world can rest upon them in a peaceful manner. Humphrey relies on two historical examples to solidify his claim: The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a the member of an oppressed minority, which led to World War One, and the gross violations of human rights in World War Two. Overall, “The principal cause of that war had been the consistent, persistent, systematic and cynical gross violations of the most fundamental human rights.” Therefore in turn, honoring human rights as the necessary conditions for peace allows international peace to be achieved.

It is incredibly important to the present-day that Humphrey viewed human rights as the fundamental conditions for peace in the global community instead of seeing disarmament as the necessary condition for universal rights because it signified a solution being built from the bottom up. Instead of pursuing an international weapons ban, which was sure to be contested and potentially create more conflict, a bottom-up approach allowed the solution to come from within. Once human rights are completely solidified and respected by all, this will lead to a peaceful situation on a global scale, therefore providing no purpose for weapons nor war. So why isn’t peace occurring? This question leads us to realize that international law is still weak, as it does not always successfully lead to the persecution and conviction of violators. Humphrey notes that this is because certain individual nations continue to control the monopoly of coercion, which allows anarchy to rule. In order for this to change, the world needs young leaders to step up and work together in order to advocate for structural change in the international order.

Although this specific John Peters Humphrey’s speech seemed to go unnoticed on a large scale in 1987, it had a significant impact on those to whom it was being projected. Without the generations of activists in the past, the universal human rights movement would not have the concrete foundations that it does today. However, with global conflict persistently increasing, it is clear that more change needs to occur, starting with a united respect for individuals and their inherent human rights.

Works Cited:

Bonikowsky, Laura. Kaplan, William. “John Peters Humphrey”. Historica Canada. March 16th, 2011. Web.


From State to World Citizen

By Nick Kasting

At 86 years old, John Peters Humphrey was in a very enviable position; The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, his brainchild, had emerged as the most important text guiding international politics. By the time of the interview, in January 1991, human rights as a universalizing concept had been awarded a decisive victory with the end of the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of openness and restructuring were liberalizing the seventy years repressed Soviet sphere, and states appeared to be moving past the notion of zero-sum sovereignty. The USSR seemed poised to become a loosely aligned federation, and Europe had long been unionizing. Patterns of integration saw Europe and North America breaking down internal trade barriers, and international economies were growing increasingly interdependent. Most exciting, for the former director of the UN Division of Human Rights, states were making serious efforts to pool their sovereignty within an “international community of states.”[1]

With this brief historical overview, it is important to understand that the interview described here was in response to Soka Gakkai International (SGI) President Daisaku Ikeda’s ninth annual peace proposal. In the proposal the controversial Ikeda outlines the challenges to peace, as well as the path to get there.[2] It is also important to understand who the interviewer might have been, and in my estimation it was probably a member of SGI. With proper context, the accompanying interview “From State Citizen to World Citizen” shows Humphrey’s reflections on the United Nations he helped shape, and his vision for its continued improvement. Full of hope, Humphrey proclaims “our loyalty, eventually, will be to the world”, and contrasts 1991 to an era when human rights abuses were beyond the reach of international concern.

In his interview, Humphrey reflects on a lecture by Ikeda in which the president of the Buddhist lay organization outlined the challenges and opportunities that existed in creating a more peaceful world. The SGI president put forward many optimistic ideas about establishing a new “post-Cold War” global order.[3] He recommended that the UN be strengthened and re-organized in order to discourage interstate aggression, and that individuals take centre stage in United Nations decision-making processes[4]. Ikeda proclaims that this stronger UN should adopt a constitution that federates international responsibilities, and reduces state anarchy.[5] In a world where ideological conflict was on the decline, Ikeda saw an opportunity for the United Nations to consolidate peace. If the UN failed, he saw a new struggle emerging between “21st-century democracy and 11th-century darkness”[6].

Clues about the interviewer are found in the text. The interview introduces Humphrey as “professor emeritus” at McGill University[7], and constantly draws parallels between SGI President Ikeda’s views and those of Humphrey – seemingly trying to legitimize Ikeda[8]. The parallels coupled with a discussion that revolves around peace implies, though inconclusively, that the interview was conducted by a member of the organization whose “aim and mission” was “contributing to world peace”[9]. If the interview was indeed conducted by SGI, it would explain why connecting the organization‘s views to Humphrey’s was so important.

Throughout the interview Humphrey reflects on the successes of the United Nations, covers a wide range of topics, and remains proud of the UN’s role in building a more peaceful world. Significantly, he identifies World War II as a global failure caused by the “inability of nations” to respect human rights. New citizen oriented international law codified in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights enabled the UN to catalyze what Humphrey believed was “revolutionary change”. Humphrey’s interpretation is significant because it has shaped a discourse that contrasts pre-human rights societies to an arguably fairer post-human rights world.

Nonetheless, Humphrey believed that human rights laws and discourses could go farther, and wished that the positive protection of minorities and the right to petition the state had been included in the Universal Declaration. Like Ikeda, he believed that “human rights and the peace of nations” were inextricably connected, and that peace requires “human sovereignty” to trump state sovereignty. These views are significant because they were ahead of their time. The first doctrine to subordinate state sovereignty to “human security” and “the way states treat their own people” was not codified until the 2005 with the General Assembly’s unanimous adoption of the “responsibility to protect”.[10] This chronology shows that Humphrey had a keen understanding of the limits of international law, and where it needed to be expanded. Additionally, when Humphrey says that he is “especially in agreement” with Ikeda’s views, he proves himself to be sympathetic to a federated UN.[11] As a long time UN employee it makes sense that he would want to expand the UN from a representative organization, to one playing a global governance role. Through both his reflections and foresight Humphrey shows that he truly believed that the UN would continue to have the capacity to orchestrate positive change.




[1] Richard Von Weizsacker quoted in: Daisaku Ikeda, “Dawn of the Century of Humanity: The Sovereignty of Humanity,” delivered on January 26th 1991,

[2] For background on the controversies surrounding Ikeda see:

[3] Ikeda “Dawn of the Century of Humanity: Introduction”

[4] Ikeda “Dawn of the Century of Humanity: The Role of the United Nations”

[5] Ikeda “Dawn of the Century of Humanity:  The Sovereignty of Humanity”

[6] Tofler quoted in: Ikeda “Dawn of the Century of Humanity: Power and Powershift”

[7] Humphrey 1

[8] Humphrey 1, 2, 5, 6

[9] Soka Gakkai International “SGI Charter”, accessed February 24th 2016,

[10]  Evan et al. “Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty” Adopted at the UN World Summit in 2005.

[11] Humphrey 1, Ikeda “Dawn of the Century of Humanity:  The Sovereignty of Humanity”


The Individual in an Obsolete International Order

By Se Jeong Park 

The Universal of Human Rights (UDHR) is hailed as a major achievement of the United Nations in international law. However, its actual impact in international politics is rather questionable. Notably, the Declaration envisioned a universal basis for human rights, but there are marked differences in the applications of these rights across nations. The disjunction between vision and reality is tied to the continued vulnerability of the individual in a state-centric international order.

John Peters Humphrey perceives several factors that stunt progress for universal human rights. Namely, Humphrey problematizes the centrality of the state in determining international decisions, for the state often works against the individual for national security. In his speech “Three Parents of an Obsolete International Order,” given at Tufts University, Massachusetts in 1989, Humphrey discusses weaknesses of the international system in order to inspire his audience to fix what he perceives as an obsolete international system. Humphrey argues that the international system is obsolete because its traditional state-centered approach counters the advancement of universal human rights. Humphrey sees in universal human rights the potential to create global peace. All states are composed of individuals; therefore, by the creation of a universal legal code applied equally to all individuals, all states would be governed by the same unifying law. Ultimately, Humphrey highlights the value of restructuring the international order by strengthening international law, a change that can happen when the focus of the international system is shifted from the state towards the individual.

Humphrey identifies three factors – the parents – that engender state sovereignty at the expense of the individual. The first – absence of the individual at the international level – is the most problematic because it simply denies the individual a “legal personality” within the international order. To have a legal personality is to have rights and duties under the legal system. It therefore follows that the lack of a legal personality implies no rights under the law.[1] Certainly, international law applies across all states, and the UDHR embodies universal rights extending to all individuals. International legislation, even as customary laws such as the Declaration, affects individuals. Nevertheless, the effect of international law on the individual is indirect, for an individual’s right is contingent on the intermediary interpretation of the law by the state. In other words, individuals, though proclaimed to have rights enumerated in the Declaration, are de facto denied direct obtainment of their rights.

The second parent – unequal representation of individuals across states – further highlights the obstruction of individual rights by the state. “Sovereign equality of states” gives equal weight to all states, yet states are not all equal in size and population. Consequently, disparities arise in the representation of individuals at the international level according to their citizenship, nationality, residence. In other words, a person of one state is not considered on the same basis as a person from another state, is granted different rights even though the same legislative document is used.[2]

The third parent – collective responsibility – also works against a person’s individuality. States are the most basic unit of actors in international politics[3]; states are led by a select group of elites. Regardless, responsibility for state actions are held against the people of that state as a collective identity. As such, not only is a person deprived of her own individual character, but she shares liability for actions and decisions in which she had no input. Individuals, at the international level, do not stand on their own; they are not perceived as individuals but rather as members of states.

While exposing flaws in the international order, Humphrey does not give real solutions to the problems he raises.[4] However, this speech embodies Humphrey’s vision for the future of human rights and international law. Humphrey recognises the progress represented by the codification of universal rights in the Declaration.[5] However, Humphrey cautions against a uniquely celebratory view of the Declaration as the scope and extent of its influence have been limited. The current international order supports state interests and sovereignty, both of which curtail achievement of individual, universal human rights. Humphrey therefore re-emphasises the centrality of the individual under international law and when constructing an international order supportive the Declaration’s visions for universal bases of human rights.

[1] Rosalyn Higgins, “Conceptual Thinking about the Individual in International Law,” British Journal of International Studies 4, no. 1 (1978), 1-2.

[2] It is important to keep in mind that Humphrey’s fundamental assumption is that all humans are born equal and are inherently endowed equal rights as enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[3] John Mearsheimer, “Why We Will Miss the Cold War,” Atlantic Monthly, August 1990 (1990), 42.

[4] “Adequate implementation measures” is the only, generic solution Humphrey offers. Humphrey also admits that he does not know how the problems in the international order can be overcome. He just knows that they need to be addressed and solved.

[5] It is noteworthy that the doctrine of “universal jurisprudence” emerged shortly after, as a reaction to authoritarian regimes in Latin America and following the fall of the Soviet bloc. While there may not have been a direct causation between the two, Humphrey’s concerns were not isolated, and were important in consideration of international law.


Human Rights: Myth or Reality?

By Andie Vassilakis

Throughout his career, John Peters Humphrey addressed an abundance of issues regarding human rights, as well as their implication and meaning in the context of documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his speech “Human Rights: Myth or Reality?”, Humphrey tackles some key philosophical questions surrounding the discourse of rights. When asked at a Human Rights Awareness Conference in Fredericton in 1985 whether rights exist in actuality, Humphrey addresses the Chairman about the conflict between abstract notions of rights and their potential reality. In so doing, Humphrey attempts to reconcile the two. Humphrey concludes that rights do exist in their abstract form, but are evidently not always respected in reality, even with laws written for their protection. It is therefore a conscious struggle to ensure the protection of rights, one that requires constant implementation and improvement at the societal as well as the state level. This process that Humphrey refers to, is one that still persists today.

In this speech, Humphrey addresses what I believe to be one of the main problems around the existing discourse on human rights, which, as the title suggests, is the struggle between abstraction and reality. Although the notion of rights itself is consistently used, there remains a gap between what is written on paper and what occurs in everyday life. Do rights exist in themselves, apart from their being enshrined in law? And does said law really mean anything when it comes to actualizing rights? These are among the issues that Humphrey attempts to tease out in his address at the 1985 Conference.

In setting up his response to the Chairman’s question, Humphrey lays out both a philosophical as well as a legal framework. Falling short of explicitly claiming that human rights are innate, Humphrey suggests, however, that rights do exist but are wholly dependent upon society for their realization. Without a society to ensure their protection and realization, human rights are virtually unattainable. Although the idea of rights have since been translated into rules of law to ensure their meaning and their protection, rights as a concept have existed only so far as society has existed. Law, on the other hand, is something definitively real, and serves as an extension for the realization of rights. However, Humphrey makes a crucial claim that laws do not always reflect reality, and need to adapt to changing contexts as well as the society in which they are made in and meant for. It is here that Humphrey admits the shortcomings of the Universal Declaration, recognizing that even though it is as significant document, we have in no way entered an ideal world.

The mere existence of laws does not ensure obedience or societal harmony, as adopting laws is only half the battle. This holds true for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose mere existence does not mean a new stage in history. Here, Humphrey recognizes the limitations of the Declaration, as well as the importance of finding a mechanism that will ensure its observance within an ever-changing environment. For example, Humphrey highlights the procedures taken in the event of a violation of the Declaration, which he claims depends more on “political considerations that may have very little to do with human rights let alone the alleged violation” and draws our attention to the ongoing difficulty of including human rights violations onto the United Nations agenda. Mechanisms, which are only now beginning to have some impact nearly two decades after the fact, have been provided to resolve this, showing the importance of building upon established laws to address loopholes and restraints. In this way, Humphrey attempts to bridge the gap between the abstract and the real, and to demonstrate how human rights can leave the realm of myths and become more than just an idea on paper.

In drawing on the necessity of devising an effective means for observing human rights at the international level, Humphrey’s speech reflects some of the Cold War anxieties of the time. Humphrey’s speech demonstrates the clear importance attached to the peace of nations, directing the audience’s attention to the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, and noting that in the event of one, there will evidently be no need to worry about such a thing as human rights protection. It is therefore necessary to formulate an adequate mechanism to prevent such a tragedy from occurring, which Humphrey claims, at the time, had not yet been reached. Thirty years later, this concern can be seen as still relevant and significant. Building the proper mechanisms for implementing human rights remains an important problem for this generation as it did the last, as we continue to engage in the discussion on human rights. We need to recognize, as Humphrey did in this 1985 speech, the potential flaws and shortcomings in our existing mechanisms to ensure rights are more than a myth.


The Individual in the Eighties

By Kate Bauer

John Peters Humphrey’s speech, “The Individual in the Eighties”, was given seven months before the 1980s began. The central argument of his talk is that the 1980s were going to be a time in global politics where the most tenuous relationship in the domain of human rights – that of rights of the individual and rights of the collectivity/group – would dominate the lives of much of humanity. This speech is significant because it uses contemporary political affairs (for example, humanitarian aid and Bill 101 in Quebec) to highlight how these two types of rights affected the daily lives of Canadians and the world population. It also demonstrated Humphrey’s belief that individual rights were far more sacred than those of the collectivity in many scenarios. Indeed, this speech is about “the Individual in the Eighties,” – had he wanted to argue otherwise, he would have titled it “the Collectivity in the Eighties.”

Near the start of his speech, Humphrey confirms his belief in the individual as the most important figure in human rights: “After God, the individual is my religion and ultimate value.” Thereafter, he clarifies this statement by asserting that humans are also social animals, and are subject to the laws of both nature and the state they live in. The “moral, religious, legal and economic” limitations placed on human rights belong to the realm of collective rights. Both of these types of protections for human rights are laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 29) and therefore are both important to the safety and wellbeing of humanity. Nevertheless, Humphrey cautions his listeners against letting the collective rights overpower the sacredness of individual freedoms. It is this conflict that he uses as the basis for all of his discussions about contemporary events in the body of his speech. Humphrey thus establishes where his biases lie and his own personal understanding of the world of human rights. He does not approach the discussion objectively: his own political and ideological views colour his discussion of government and international organizations throughout the whole speech in which he emphasizes that the individual in the eighties should be cautious of “the size and influence of…the bureaucracy.”

The first example he uses to demonstrate collective rights overpowering individual freedoms is that of UNESCO’s New World Information Order, a program through which the organization’s staff stepped in to regulate press in developing African countries so that information could be tailored towards promoting economic development. In a 1974 pamphlet published by UNESCO in Paris, the organization described its work in Africa as “building up communication media and using them to provide economic and social improvement.” Humphrey argues that the “right of development” in this example has completely overshadowed the (individual) freedom of the press and of expression. This example is significant because Humphrey foresees the impact of the growing trend of wealthy, Western nations stepping in to help the modernizing process of smaller, developing nations that would become so popular in the 1980s (think of the Band Aid song from 1984, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”). In trying to boost collective wellbeing, these initiatives often overstepped many of the individual freedoms associated with self-governance and self-determination.

Humphrey also mentions the impact of language laws in Canada and their effect on individual freedoms. Historian Michael C. MacMillan claims that “Bill 101 reinforce[s] the conclusion that language rights are not collective, but group rights,” and Humphrey is critical of the impact they will have on the daily freedoms of individuals in Quebec. Like UNESCO’s project, Bill 101 was passed in an attempt to protect the right for Quebec to develop according to the ideals of the majority, but ended up infringing on freedom of language for individual Anglophone citizens. He puts it simply: laws that seek to protect or encourage a style of development (whether economic or linguistic) that benefits only the majority of a whole, while denying rights and freedoms to certain individuals are “self-defeating” and “paradoxical.”

Humphrey’s speech was given at a McGill-affiliated conference at the University of Toronto and was likely heard by an audience of academics. While no documentation of this event exists, we know from his speech that he was asked to talk about human rights and the role of the individual in the coming decade. With only his knowledge of recent events (ie. UNESCO New World Information Order in the mid 1970s and Bill 101 in 1977) and his personal convictions about the nature of human rights, the significance of his speech can be summed up as such: according to Humphrey, the 1980s were going to be characterized by ideological conflict and the growth of the population, governments and the economy of the world. Still, Humphrey believed that humanity must not lose sight of the inherent right for the individual to self-determine and continue to fight for the protection of individual rights in a rapidly changing global setting.

Works consulted

…To Reach the Village…: Unesco and rural newspapers in Africa. Unesco in Action. France: La Néogravure, 1974. Pamphlet.

MacMillan, Michael C. The Practice of Language Rights in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Quote from page 101.




Speech at the Conference of Human Rights and Religious Freedom in Europe

By David Mancini

The 1988 Conference of Human Rights and Religious Freedom in Europe was a significant convention concerning human rights violations, specifically in Eastern Europe. At the conference, Western delegates put pressure on the Soviet Union and other satellite states to respect the religious rights of their citizens.[1] The conference seemingly made headway judging on the dialogue between eastern and western state representatives.[2]

John Peters Humphrey was one of the guests invited to address the conference, which he decided to use as a platform to discuss the successes and failures of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The purpose of this paper will be to examine Humphrey’s discourse on the effectiveness of the UDHR in practice. In his speech to the conference, Humphrey, one of the UDHR’s original authors, addresses the disparity between providing a definition of rights and actually protecting those rights. I argue that the UDHR has defined transnational standards for protecting the rights of individuals without offering an effective mechanism of enforcement. Humphrey’s speech is very significant as it addresses the issue of the UDHR’s true efficacy, which still remains relevant today.

Before addressing the content of Humphrey’s speech, it is imperative to understand the setting of this 1988 Conference. From the end of the Second World War to the early-1990s, there was a clear divide between east and west in Europe. The west often represented democracy, capitalism and a reasonable adherence to the UDHR. The east stood in opposition as the Soviet Union and its satellite states represented varying levels of authoritarian, communist governments that were often in violation of their citizens’ rights as defined by the UDHR. The conference was a non-governmental event concentrated on issues of religious freedom in the Soviet Union and other socialist states.[3] The Soviets were loosening their grip on the east through Perestroika and Glasnost- the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.[4] There was a real sense of change felt by those who attended the conference, but anything concrete actually happening relied almost entirely on the Soviet Union’s will to implement reforms. This represents the habitual reality that states will value their sovereignty before anything else in international politics.

Humphrey gave this speech on the fortieth anniversary of the UDHR’s drafting, in which he played a fundamental role. He opens his speech with praise and pride toward the UDHR as one of the most influential documents in humanity’s recent history. The “world law”, as Humphrey refers to it, is something he considers/believes strengthens the status of individuals everywhere while simultaneously weakening the power of the state. This statement is qualified with reference to the importance of individuals understanding and embracing more responsibilities. It is also important to note that the adoption of these rights as “universal” has in many instances been a catalyst to the creation of domestic laws throughout states within the United Nations. Providing individual states with an exemplary model to form domestic laws has been one of the rare examples when rights defined in the UDHR have been effectively protected.

Humphrey checks the benefits of the UDHR by questioning whether or not the declaration is actually effective in practice. His answer is not a straightforward yes or no, but he states that the UDHR is certainly not as effective as it should be. “The General Assembly is not a world parliament; and except in house-keeping matters like the appointment of a Secretary General, its decisions are not binding by international law.”  This substantiates the notion that it is the responsibility of each individual state to decide whether or not to follow the UDHR. All states will naturally value the importance of their sovereignty over international agreements or pacts like the UDHR. This is not to say that states won’t comply with the UDHR, but it does imply that they must be willing to follow and self-enforce the guidelines of such agreements. There is essentially no real effective mechanism to reprimand states that do not comply. Sanctions can certainly act as a mechanism, but Humphrey alludes to the idea that traditional sanctions will hurt the collective within the state more so than the individuals in power who are responsible for potential rights’ violations. He concludes that the most effective sanction is public opinion, which both democratic and authoritarian states are sensitive to.

Humphrey asked questions in 1988 about the effectiveness of the UDHR that are still unanswered today. There are councils and conferences that address and monitor human rights abuses, but there is still no effective enforcement mechanism in place. The truth that human rights are universally defined, but not protected is something that will continue to be an issue as long as a state sovereignty remains of supreme importance.

[1] Bloed, A., and P. Van Dijk. The Human Dimension of the Helsinki Process: The Vienna Follow-up         Meeting and Its Aftermath. Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1991, 178.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.


Why Teach Human Rights? The Race Between Education and Catastrophe

By Michael Dougan 

According to his speech, John Peters Humphrey saw the aftermath of both World Wars as a time in which the world was in a state of profound sorrow over the fate of humanity. A focal point of this speech for Humphrey was being able to learn from the past in order to engender hope for the future by fostering the development of an educated public opinion regarding human rights. Humphrey believed the purpose of educating the public about human rights was to perpetuate an environment of lasting world peace. In order to accomplish the task of educating the masses, Humphrey stressed targeting youth throughout his speech. An examination of Humphrey’s emphasis on the need to educate youth about human rights as the foundation for developing an educated public opinion will show an aspirational view of society in which the people of the world would become a higher power to hold governments and nations accountable for their actions, lest the world succumb to the despair brought forth by human rights violations once again.

This speech was given during the Conference on the Teaching of Human Rights held by the Canadian Human Rights Foundation (CHRF). The CHRF was created in 1967 with the purpose propagating human rights education both in Canada and abroad.[1] The speech itself has no date, however, the CHRF became Equitas during the 1990s’, and as a result, this speech can be situated sometime within the latter part of the twentieth century.[2] It was during this time that a number of initiatives related to human rights education figured prominently in international discourse. For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) held the International Congress on the Teaching of Human Rights in Vienna in 1978.[3] The 1978 Congress in Vienna is relevant to this speech because both emphasize the importance of early education regarding human rights in the maintenance and promotion of world peace. Humphrey wrote:

You teachers […] know that it is important to get your message to students when they are still young and before they have absorbed the prejudices that otherwise they may keep for the rest of their lives.

These sentiments appear in the proceedings from the 1978 Vienna Congress where the authors state, “attitude formation in regard to human rights begins in infancy and early childhood.”[4]

The parallels in language demonstrate a profound belief that the provision of human rights education early in life would be beneficial to society by instilling in youth the alleged values needed to maintain and foster peace. For Humphrey, these values were articulated in Article 13 of the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Humphrey understood the purpose of these values to be enabling the full participation in democratic society of all people by promoting “understanding, tolerance, and friendship” between all peoples through education. Humphrey believed that in order for this to be successful, human rights had to be taught in the primary grades. Teaching those same concepts after societal attitudes and prejudices have been internalized would have been significantly more difficult in Humphrey’s opinion.

The comparison between Humphrey’s speech and the 1978 Congress shows the interplay between the individual and a broader audience by embedding the words of a single person within the scope of a global arena. This is a strategy that figures prominently throughout Humphrey’s speech. He uses a form of rhetoric that creates a degree of rapport between himself and his audience based on a common identity. Humphrey uses his shared identity with the attendees to draw a link highlighting his understanding of the bidirectional interdependence between the individual, society, and the world. Another example of Humphrey’s use of the impact a single person on a larger scale was Sandra Lovelace’s appeal to the Human Rights Committee. Humphrey argues that she was successful in amending the Indian Act because the Canadian Government was scared of the negative public opinion surrounding their handling of her case. This is an important point for Humphrey, because he was convinced that public opinion was fundamental to ensuring the respect of human rights within the international context of the nuclear age. Humphrey himself questioned the very future of world peace in an era of nuclear weaponry if there was not widespread education to perpetuate the importance of lasting peace through the study of human rights.

Educating youth fosters the development of a learned society predicated on respecting human rights to hold governments accountable for their actions. In Humphrey’s mind, an educated public opinion about human rights was to be the ultimate authority required for persevering world peace. The place to start developing an educated public opinion was through teaching children because as Humphrey wrote,  “we tell our students that the future belongs to them.” Without children there would be no future, and without an educated public opinion there would surely be another catastrophe.


[1] Nazzari, Vincenza, Paul McAdams, and Daniel Roy. 2005. “Using Transformative Learning as a Model for Human Rights Education: A Case Study of the Canadian Human Rights Foundation’s International Human Rights Training Program.” Intercultural Education 16(2): 172.

[2] Equitas- International Centre for Human Rights Education. 2016. “About Us: Our History.” Equitas. Accessed February 24, 2016,

[3] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. 1978. “International Congress on the Teaching of Human Rights.” Final Document. Vienna. United Nations Education, Cultural, and Scientific Organization. Accessed February 24, 2016,

[4] Idem.



The Role of Canada in the International Promotion of Human Rights

By Hannah Dawson

Canada, today, is known around the world for its commitment to human rights, multiculturalism and tolerance. With a new Prime Minister who has reiterated these values at home and on international platforms, that image could not be clearer. Yet, as John Peters Humphrey notes in his speech, “The Role of Canada in the International Promotion of Human Rights”, this image of promotion and acceptance of human rights has not always rung true – for a period there was little discussion of human rights by the Canadian government on the international stage. Yet, by the mid-20th century, political leadership across Canada was facing a new wave of interest in human rights in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the newly formed United Nations was pressing for international covenants on human rights. While the Canadian government initially limited its involvement and interest in the human rights treaties and summits, the country’s foreign policy evolved on issues of race, religion, social structure and national rights to promote individual human rights around the world. There is little doubt that the Canadian delegations, as Humphrey explains, faced external pressure that immensely influenced what might otherwise have been a much different path to Canada’s internationally known human rights position and peacekeeping role.

Humphrey’s speech was inspired by the recent publication on the United Nations by the Department of External Affairs after a review of Canadian foreign policy. He immediately took the opportunity to criticize that human rights are not once mentioned in the publication. While the booklet refers to “focusing attention on two major international issues – race conflict and development assistance”, the sheer lack of reference to human rights in a publication on the United Nations is shocking. Humphrey explains that, despite the common belief about Canadian international policy on human rights at the time of his speech, the government’s actions did not demonstrate interest or involvement in human rights issues. He explains that “Canada’s general approach to human rights issues in the United Nations has tended to be cautious”, using the example that, as a country, we “played no role whatsoever in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. He goes on to explain that we “distinguished ourselves by abstaining in the vote on the Declaration in the Third Committee of the General Assembly – along with the communist countries, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.” Our record of the promotion of human rights, at the time, was on par with countries that had no rights for women, and a country that had a nation-wide policy of racism and discrimination. Our human rights promotion internationally appeared non-existent at the time.

Humphrey explains that within the “the first 15 years of the [United Nations] history [it cannot be argued that Canada] attempted to play a role in the United Nations’ programme for the promotion of human rights”. The lack of support for human rights can be argued as a reflection of the domestic political landscape of its time. After the Second World War, Canada’s interests were not focused on human rights. There was also extensive pressure from groups who were also pressuring the State Department against the Declaration, alongside a push for a good working relationship with the United States to ensure trade partnerships. As the primary trade partner for Canada, it was important to ensure that Canada did not promote human rights in ways that might have contradicted the actions of the United States, especially with the Korean War and the Cold War causing international tensions. It can be seen that the relationship with the United States likely, unintentionally, slowed Canada’s development as a promoter for human rights on the international stage

Humphrey notes that only in 1965 did Canada begin to play an active role in international bodies to promote human rights with its role in the work of the Third Committee on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination “in promoting the suggestion that the General Assembly appoint a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights”. Canada also had become such an important trade partner of the United States that it likely had more leverage, and more abilities to speak on the world stage. Canada has evolved to demonstrate its involvement in the United Nations and had, at the time of the speech, “become a leading protagonist among the developed western countries, in its opposition to the racist policies – to the point that Canada played a leading role in opposing the sale of arms to South Africa by Britain”.

Humphrey’s speech outlined Canada’s foreign policy with respect to human rights as flawed and slow, initially. It was not a priority for the Canadian government to promote these rights on the international stage, due to external pressures to ensure good relationships with other countries. Yet, Canada developed and grew to promote human rights within international bodies, especially with respect to issues of race. His speech outlined an argument that was not often shared as Canada’s human rights record often became entirely about its peacekeeping efforts, with its history largely left out of the conversation. He shared an educated perspective, as a Canadian who had promoted human rights around the world, that the government was not doing an adequate job of promoting human rights internationally. According to Humphrey, Canada made great strides forward after 1948 but there was much to be done and the nation still had much to prove.


Another Road to Serfdom

By Alexander Smith

For those interested in the history of human rights in Canada, John Peters Humphrey’s “Another Road to Serfdom” – delivered to Acadia University’s graduating class of 1980 – is a speech worthy of note in several key respects.

Humphrey clearly possessed a keen understanding of his audience and he cleverly adapted his rhetorical strategy so as to be maximally effective in an academic environment. Addressing a reasonably historically and politically literate audience, (they were, after all, college graduates) Humphrey littered the speech with references to ideological movements from across the political spectrum and commented at length on the ways in which each ideology failed to uphold the individual civil and political rights of citizens in a variety of contexts.

While Humphrey’s arguments against the pernicious effects of these ideological movements are certainly worthy of note, the true significance of “Another Road to Serfdom” lay in Humphrey’s skillful navigation of the long-standing tension between collective and individual rights. By equating the privileging of collective rights over those of the individual with nefarious historical forces (Nazism, Stalinism under the guise of Marxism etc.) Humphrey performs a kind of rhetorical power play which grossly obfuscates the complicated interrelation between individuals and their obligations to the larger collectivities in which they live. Nevertheless, by pivoting his argument on past atrocities – particularly those carried out in the first half of the twentieth century – Humphrey takes part in a rhetorical tradition which did a great deal to advance the ‘rights revolutions’ seen from 1945 onward.

However to fully understand the significance of “Another Road to Serfdom,” it is necessary to briefly explore the contentious Canadian political climate of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Anxieties brought about by the passage of Bill 101 in August 1977 and the introduction of a slew of linguistic restrictions on Quebec residents – no matter their background or ethno-linguistic identity – were only exacerbated by the referendum on Quebec sovereignty of 1980. Facing the percieved threat of Quebecois nationalism and its potentially damaging effects on non-French speaking Quebeckers, Humphrey depicts the privileging of the collective right of the majority to live and work in French as an affront to the individual right to self determination and linguistic freedom.

Throughout “Another Road to Serfdom,” Humphrey cautioned against conflating what he considered to be legitimate collective rights (broadly conceived of as economic, social, and cultural rights) with ‘the rights of the nation,’ which in actual practice, for him, generally meant the advancement of “the rights of the majority” in the service of narrow, xenophobic aims.

Humphrey’s apprehensions over the potential consequences of the privileging collective over individual rights were fuelled, in large part, by his own keen awareness of human rights abuses borne out by the historical, ideological and political forces of the first half of the twentieth century, many of which were, at their core, antithetical to the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism. According to its critics, Marxist thought – one of the chief targets of Humphrey’s speech – focused on the well-being of the collective (more specifically, the proletariat) at the expense of individual liberties. Likewise, the totalizing ideology of fascism placed the well-being of the nation state above all else –civil liberties and individual freedoms included.

Humphrey’s poignant criticisms of Marxism are especially interesting considering his own personal flirtation with Marxist systems of thought. Humphrey argues that in the context of the financial calamities of the early 1930s, many, including himself, had effectively been “brainwashed” into a belief in Marxism – a system which purported to “scientifically guarantee” freedom and social justice. Humphrey’s willingness to concede his own fallibility and naiveté – no matter how obliquely he may have addressed it – actually proves to be a remarkably effective rhetorical strategy in that it highlights the ways in which difficult historical circumstances (economic hardship, etc.) drive individuals, no matter how sophisticated, well educated or liberally inclined they may be, toward ideologies and modes of thoughts fundamentally incongruous with the advancement of individual civil and political liberties.

Ultimately, by equating the ills of fascism and Marxism to nationalist sentiment and linguistic reform in Quebec, “Another Road to Serfdom” is emblematic of the popular rhetorical tendency to analyze potential domestic human-rights violations through the loaded historical lens of the World War II experience.



John Peters Humphrey On Quebec Secession

By William Ayotte-Rideout

Over the last 40 years, the Province of Quebec has made two attempts under the political leadership of the Parti Québécois (P.Q.) to achieve sovereignty, and separate from Canada.[1] The first referendum was in 1980, under the political leadership of René Lévesque, and the second in 1995 under Jacques Parizeau.[2] Both attempts failed, as the majority of Quebecers voted ‘No’, yet this majority was small.[3] In 1995, for example, only 50.58% voted against separation.[4] Thus the logic behind the Quebec separatist movement is important. Sovereigntists argued that Canada ought to recognize Quebec’s right to self-determination, if it succeeded in obtaining the popular vote through democratic procedure.[5]

John Peters Humphrey discusses the idea of granting Quebec’s right to self-determination in his speech, titled Quebec and the Right to Secede. Humphrey’s speech was delivered in the United States in the mid-1970s[6] between Quebec’s general election of 1973, and the upcoming provincial election of 1976. At the time, the political climate in Quebec was not as intense as it would later become from 1976 to 1995.[7] Humphrey was speaking at a time when polls indicated that only 24% voters were in favour of independence.[8] Humphrey was among those people who were against Quebec sovereignty.  Humphrey also expressed his doubts that the P.Q. would be able to get enough support in the election of 1976. Thus many were caught by surprise when the P.Q. was get elected with only 41.4% of the popular vote.[9] Humphrey’s speech is important as it shows us that in the mid-1970s the right to self-determination was not understood as a legal right, either internationally or in Canada. Furthermore, Quebec sovereignty was viewed as a dangerous threat to cultural stability within Canada, and to the country’s unity. This is an important argument to understand as we look at the evolution of the nationalist debate in Quebec, following the first referendum in 1980, and key developments since then.

Humphrey begins his speech to his American audience, by discussing the idea of ‘a right to national self-determination’ in the international context. He notes that while the United States clearly does not ascribe to this right at home, given that they did not grant the South the right to secession and fought a Civil War to prevent this from happening, Woodrow Wilson, an American, advocated for the right to self-determination internationally. However, Humphrey states that Wilson did not view this as a legal right, but as a principle. Significantly, he also highlights the fact that nowhere in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the right to self-determination identified as a legal right. He concludes that the right to self-determination applied only in colonial circumstances. For example, Nigeria was given the right to secede from Great Britain. However, there is no international recognition, Humphrey states, that there is a right for for a ‘people’ within a country to secede. Thus he states “French Canadian Separatist can find little comfort in international law”. Moreover, he notes that Canadian law also did not recognize the legal right to self-determination. This is important, as it shows Humphrey is not convinced that Quebec has the legal right to self-determination, both according to international standards, as well as within Canada. Thus he turns to politics.

Humphrey takes a clear position against Quebec separation (although he does not explicitly state it). While he expresses his doubts that the separatists were going to be able to garner enough support in the next election, he also believes that if they did, the federal government would not necessarily view an elected P.Q. government as “a mandate for independence” and thus grant their sovereignty. Moreover, Humphrey believed Quebec separatism was bad for both Canada and French Canadian culture. Humphrey acknowledges that in the past, some people understood Canada as having two separate nations, but he makes the point that English Canadians are beginning to see that the strength of Canada as a nation depends on “their ability to find accommodation with Quebec.” Moreover, he argues that French Canadian culture would be better protected in Canada than in a sovereign Quebec. He notes that at this time, the federal government was beginning to consider recommendations of having a federal government that can communicate in both languages anywhere across the country. He also noted that there was a growing sense among Anglophones, that speaking French “is now the ‘in’ thing”. He believed that an “Independent Quebec would be a weaker guardian of the French fact than a Quebec which is part of a strong Canada, a Canada which is also bilingual and bicultural”. Humphrey further states that Canada is a much more decentralized federation than the U.S., and so he predicts that if Quebec were to separate, Canada would fall apart as a country, and the U.S. would have to “pick up the pieces”.

Humphrey’s arguments are important to reflect on. His ambitions about a growing movement of acceptance, leading Quebec to develop a sense of belonging in Canada did not unfold perhaps as he would have hoped. By the end of the 20th century, many Quebecers were dissatisfied in their place within the Canadian federation.[10] The motivations behind the Referendum of 1995 were in large part due to the failures of the Meech Lake Accords, in which “a large majority of Canadians outside of Quebec (between 60 and 70%) opposed the agreement, mainly because of the distinct society clause for Quebec”.[11] Many Quebecers wanted recognition of their special status as a distinct nation within Canada.[12] It seemed as though Quebecers were looking for accommodation, but other Canadian provinces were not willing to give it.[13] Laforest argues that as a result, many Quebecers fell into a state of internal exile from Canada, and have had to orient themselves following the long-term consequences of the patriation of the Constitution in 1982.[14] Another interesting  development was the passing of the Clarity Act in 2000.[15] This piece of legislation allows the federal government to determine whether a referendum was legitimate, as well as judge whether a majority vote was clearly obtained.[16] Significantly, the Clarity Act also prohibited unilateral succession from Canada, making it illegal for a province to declare independence without a constitutional amendment.[17] Therefore, if Quebecers decide they want to pursue the right to national self-determination today, they may find it more difficult. In conclusion, Humphrey’s understanding of the right to national self-determination within the Quebec-Canadian context seems to have evolved amongst today’s politicians and policymakers. In a way, the federal government has recognized the possibility of Quebec succession, but has passed legislation limiting its potential.


[1] François Rocher. 2014. “Self-determination and the Use of Referendums: the Case of Quebec”. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society. 27 (1): 25.

[2] François Rocher, “Self-determination and the Use of Referendums,” 25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 39.

[5] Ibid, 43, 25.

[6] Humphrey probably wrote this speech in early 1974, as he talks about the upcoming federal election, which took place in July 1974.

[7] François Rocher, “Self-determination and the Use of Referendums,” 25.

[8] Ibid, 28.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 42.

[11] Ibid, 35.

[12] Guy Laforest. 2009. “The Internal Exile of Quebecers in the Canada of the Charter”, in James B. Kelly and Christopher P. Mandfredi (eds). Contested Constitutionalism: Reflections on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Vancouver: UBC Press: 256.

[13] François Rocher, “Self-determination and the Use of Referendums,” 35.

[14] Guy Laforest. 2009. “The Internal Exile of Quebecers in the Canada of the Charter”, 252.

[15] François Rocher, “Self-determination and the Use of Referendums,” 42.

[16] Ibid, 41

[17] Ibid. [LM9]Given the focus of your earlier analysis on group rights, the conclusion should focus on this point.

The Canadian Charter of Human Rights and International Law, 1981

By Andrew Matheson

On December 8th, 1981, John Humphrey gave a speech at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario about international human rights and their connection with Canadian law. At the time of this speech, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his Liberal government were in the process of repatriating the constitution and drafting what would become the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This speech offers an important insight into the challenges of writing and implementing international law, namely the difficulties in reconciling national sovereignty and international law.

One of the main issues with international law is the enforcement of the codified laws set out in treaties and declarations. Generally, any law needs to be enforced through executive (police) and judicial (court system) bodies. With international law, however, this would require international executive and judicial bodies. Today there are mechanisms in place to support international law, primarily the International Court of Justice, established in June 1945 in the United Nations Charter and elected in February 1946.[i] These mechanisms, however, directly challenge the principle of national sovereignty and the ability for nations to create and enforce their own laws.

As mentioned previously, Humphrey’s speech was given at the time when the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau was in the process of drafting the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms within a revised constitution. Humphrey argues that the proposed Charter did not “reflect certain obligations which bind Canada under international law.” His primary concern seems to be in relation to the idea that the Charter only guarantees – as outlined in article one – the rights and freedoms of Canadians within “reasonable limits”. He notes that according to the United Nations covenant on Civil and Political Rights (as well as other international laws), there are certain rights and freedoms that must be protected at all times. These include the right to life, recognition as a person before the law, and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. At the time, the proposed Charter did not mention any protective measures against transgressions of these rights in times of emergencies. It left the ambiguous “reasonable limits” clause up to the court’s discretion.

Furthermore, the controversial section 33 of the Charter suggests that federal or provincial governments can enact any temporary law that can override the fundamental freedoms set out in sections 2, and 7-15 of the Charter without any court challenge.These include the freedom of conscience, religion, thought, peaceful assembly, and association (section 2a-d), as well as the legal rights to “life, liberty, and security of the person” (section 7a).[vi] Humphrey rightly expresses concern about this clause, noting that this “definitive” clause “will not be of as much assistance in helping Canada respect our international obligations…” In times of emergency, the federal or provincial governments could enact measures such as the War Measures Act, which would allow the government to override rights commonly understood within these international treaties as inalienable.

Finally, Humphrey also notes the absence of any provision mentioning discrimination based on language within the Charter. Given that Canada is a bilingual country, it is odd to leave out any protection of such an important cultural aspect as language. As he argues, this is directly contrary to the United Nations Charter’s first article, which states that the United Nations (of which Canada is a member) “is to promote and encourage respect for ‘human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” As a member of the United Nations, Canada has officially committed herself to upholding this charter, however the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms then, as it does today, does not fully support and protect these rights.

Throughout this speech Humphrey demonstrates the divide between international law and national sovereignty. As one of the primary authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he argues that, while there was no intention in 1948 that he declaration would be legally binding, 33 years later it has “become, by general consensus, part of the customary law of nations; and it is therefore now binding on all countries…” Humphrey even notes the reluctance of many governments to ratify two covenants on the implementation of the declaration as they would be accepting limitations on their sovereignty, with Canada officially ratifying the covenants on May 19, 1976. Even today, the Charter  contains the same wording that Humphrey had issues against. So, even as a member of the UN and a relatively progressive Western state, Canadian federal law still contravenes supposedly binding international treaties.


[i] “The Court,” International Court of Justice, accessed February 24, 2016,

[vi] “Constitution Act, 1982.” Justice Laws Website. Last modified February 12, 2016. Accessed February 24, 2016.


‘All for one or one for all?’: The Complexity and Conflicts of Individual and Collective Rights and Refugees

By Christina Brickle

With the attention of the media captured by another refugee crisis, one that is having an impact on global consciousness, it is an interesting time to reflect on the evolving rights of refugees and the obligations of state.  John Peters Humphrey, the author of the first draft of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, did just this in his speech in Florence, Italy in June 1984. Overtly, this speech was about the proposed change in legislation (Bill C-55) that would allow Canada to deny the entry of refugees if they came from a country, that was not their own, that was deemed ‘safe’ by the Canadian government. More subtly, however, Humphrey linked ideas of exclusion and the avoidance of international responsibilities for refugees to domestic motives with an analysis of refugee rights as a reflection of the superiority of individual rights over collective rights.

The plight of asylum seekers was at the forefront of the people’s minds after World War II and was discussed and analysed during the post-war human rights ‘revolution’.  The U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which outlines the rights and freedoms that are afforded to all humans, includes “the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” (Article 14).[1] The U.N.’s 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees furthered the rights of refugees, creating international obligations regarding the admission and treatment of refugees. For Humphrey, this was crucial because it “addressed the rights of the individual versus the obligations of states.” Since the majority of rights are upheld by governmental regulation, if a state could not, or would not, protect an individual, then it was up to the international community to do so.

The nation, however, creates exclusion; by defining who is a citizen, it is also defining who is not. The relationship between states, citizenship and rights is complex. An independent, sovereign state is a collective right – with border control for the benefit of citizens as a central premise. This can both create (via government enforcement of rights) and compromise (via placing the state’s or citizen’s needs above humanities’ needs) many individual rights.[2] Previously, most rights and protections afforded to people were created by nations and granted by citizenship – or as Humphrey put it: “traditional international law recognized only states”. This meant that if your rights were not given or protected by country in which you were living, there was no other protection available to you. Before and during World War II, there were no obligations to refugees. Therefore the rights outlined in the Declaration and the Convention were crucial because they placed individual rights above the group rights of a state and allowed “individuals [to] have personality under international law.”

For Humphrey, this was truly a “rights revolution”.  The concepts outlined in the 1951 Convention were a “deviation from the principle that a sovereign country has absolute control over who is permitted to enter its borders”. This was an amazing step to put the rights and needs of certain people above the very politically ingrained idea of sovereignty and border control. Unfortunately though, the easy dismissal of individual rights and international obligations for domestic political concerns soon became apparent in how nations, including Canada, responded to refugees.

In 1984, Humphrey was concerned about the laws and regulations that the Canadian government was introducing to legally limit and select the refugees because it was again placing the needs of the nation above the rights of an individual. Humphrey criticised the Canadian government for trying to “select [refugees] according to our interests”. Selection based on state interests implied that the intake of refugees would come at a cost to the citizen (group). While the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees recognised that “burdens on certain countries” were created by an intake of refugees, it did not cite this as an excuse for rejecting refugees.[3]

Humphrey’s insistence, revealed in his speech, that refugee cases should be heard on a case-by-case basis is also rooted in his ideas about the rights of the individual. He believed that all asylum seekers (claimants) should be heard by a third party tribunal. This right seemed  doubly as important in the wake of Bill C-55.  He highlighted the idea that to fairly determine whether or not a country is safe for a refugee (and it could differ for every person claiming asylum) required a similar process of scrutiny for deciding if a person was a refugee or not. Therefore the bill that was introduced in 1984 was creating a ‘middle man’. Humphrey also worried that it was not going to be enacted in a just manner.

The conflict and commonalities between individual rights and collective rights are never simple. Some scholars, like Humphrey, believe that the rights of the individual always supersede those of the collective. The emphasis on the individual in the asylum seeking process is crucial, however, because often people are denied collective rights via non-membership or non-citizenship. For compassionate and ethical treatment of refugees, we must treat them as individuals and allow for “personality” to been seen under international law.

[1] United Nations General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948,

[2] Aryeh Neier, The International Human Rights Movement: A History, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012), 66.

[3] United Nations High Commission into Refugees, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951,



Involving Youth in the Process of Enforcing International Human Rights Law

By Dorothy Apedaile

In his 1991 speech to the New Brunswick Multicultural Council, “Human Rights: A Challenge to Youth,” John Peters Humphrey emphasized his belief in international law as an important mechanism to prevent human rights abuses. He outlined the role youth could play in making his belief a reality: by harnessing the power of public opinion to enforce international law. Humphrey envisioned an active role for youth, particularly in the fight against racial discrimination. Canada’s youth have taken up his challenge and continue to be involved in human rights activism today.

Humphrey began his speech by acknowledging that Canada was a country “where racial discrimination is, despite all our rhetoric, still rife.” At the time, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was continuing the work Pierre Elliot Trudeau had done before him to promote Canada’s multiculturalism through legislation such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.[1] In 1991, Mulroney created the Federal Department of Multiculturalism and Citizenship and adopted the Canadian Race Relations Act.[2] Despite these legislative efforts, racial discrimination was, and still is, present in Canadian society.

Internationally, the United Nations had adopted a number of declarations following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that related to racial discrimination. International law was changing, according to Humphrey, from “law governing the relations of states with each other” to law that reached down to individuals. Humphrey strongly believed that “law is the nuts and bolts of human rights.” He realized, however, that “international law […] is weak law” due to the inability to enforce sanctions. While a number of mechanisms were put into place to allow individuals to petition the UN with human rights complaints, the UN could not enforce its findings. What the UN could do, however, is what Humphrey called “the organization of shame.”

Governments around the world are highly sensitive to public opinion. While the UN is unable to force governments to act in any specific way, the UN can draw attention to human rights violations. To Humphrey, this was “the ultimate sanction of human rights.” He referenced the case of Sandra Lovelace, a First Nations woman who challenged the provision in the Indian Act that stated she lost her Indian status when she married a non-Indian man. The same was not true for Indian men marrying non-Indian women. Lovelace brought her case all the way to the UN Human Rights Commission and the Commission found Canada in violation of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While the UN had no way of directly enforcing this finding, Canada did amend the Indian Act to remove the discrimination based on sex.

Humphrey was quick to realize  the active role youth could play in mobilizing public opinion to affect change. This was his challenge to youth: to make the new international law of human rights work. In doing so, Humphrey provided a place for youth in the larger human rights movement.

Youth continue to play an important role in human rights activism today. Joe Friesen noted in a Globe and Mail article on January 18, 2013 that Indigenous youth activists drew international attention to the plight of First Nations communities in Canada through the Idle No More movement. As reported by CTV News on October 7, 2013, the Idle No More protests in Ottawa coincided with the arrival of a UN official charged with reviewing the state of Canada’s Indigenous people. In 2015, the UN Human Rights Committee released a report criticizing the lack of government response to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.[3] Federal and provincial governments have begun to respond to this shift in opinion and increased awareness, with new inquiries and initiatives being announced.[4] The combination of youth activism with the UN’s international reach continues to play a significant role in enforcing human rights.

John Humphrey was a lawyer by training. He believed in the power of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the other conventions enacted by the United Nations, while also understanding their limitations. He accurately foresaw how the UN could be used to support efforts to change public opinion, which could in turn be used to force governments to act on human rights violations. Youth have taken up his challenge to make human rights legislation work, particularly in the fight against racial discrimination. Canadian youth continue to play a large role in social justice and human rights movements today.


[1] Michael Dewing, Canadian Multiculturalism. Ottawa, ON: Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Legal and Social Affairs Division, 2009.

[2] Ibid.

[3] United Nations Human Rights Committee, Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of Canada, 2015, accessed Feb. 12, 2016:

[4] Ontario, Office of the Premier, Ontario Acting to End Violence Against Indigenous Women: Premier Wynne Unveils Long-Term Strategy, Feb. 23, 2016, accessed Feb. 12, 2016:


Canada Human Rights Foundation Conference On The Media

By Paige Fairlie

John Peters Humphrey’s speech, “Canadian Human Rights Foundation Conference on the Media”, focuses on the significance of the media as a vehicle for the production of information for the general public. The media can be an instrument of not only freedom but also of power, and it is therefore an instrument that can be abused.  Humphrey emphasizes that individuals have the right to freely hold opinions without interference. As such, he argues that freedom of information must be protected and the truth must be told without prejudice. Any regulation the media must therefore strike a difficult balance. In his “Conference on the Media” speech, Humphrey concentrates on the tension around regulating freedom of information specifically the power that the state takes over the media.

In providing a historical overview, Humphrey characterizes freedom of information as advanced by the United Nations and UNESCO as major disappointments. In 1948, the United Nations Conference on the Freedom of Information was held in Geneva. A miracle was said to have occurred when Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was later adopted. However, it was not a total victory. The term “public order” was added to the article, recognizing the legitimacy of restricting the exercise and enjoyment of freedom of information in different situations. Humphrey notes that in the United Kingdom, interviews by the media with suspected members of the I.R.A are prohibited by law. Humphrey states that the delegate of Spain to the General Assembly saw a resemblance between public order and raison d’état, which would mean that there would be little limit on what the state could do when it came to interfering with freedom of information. Humphrey believed that the two governments in these examples had misunderstood the meaning of public order.

In his speech, Humphrey emphasized the relationship between the state and media, and specifically the regulation of freedom of information. This was an issue in 1948 and approximately 70 years later it is still a major issue. Governments hold masses of important information and they hold this information on behalf of the public. This situation does not mean that the public has access to all of the government’s information holdings. In 2013, an example of tension between the power of the state and freedom of information affected the whole world. Edward Snowden, an American computer professional who was working for the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, copied classified information from the United States National Security Agency (NSA) without prior authorization. The information he obtained revealed numerous global surveillance programs run the NSA, including programs that surveilled American citizens. After fleeing the country, he shared this information with writers from many American journals. Snowden’s revelations forced the NSA, which is one of the nation’s most secretive organizations, to publicly explain itself. Since then, there have been traceable increases in the general public’s knowledge about the United States government’s cyber security initiatives as well as an increased awareness of how those initiatives have impacted the privacy of individuals, businesses and foreign governments (Peev 2015). Snowden influenced the freedom of information issue for the American population by forcing the state to become more transparent.

Information held by public authorities is not acquired for the benefit of officials or politicians but for the public as a whole. John Peters Humphrey had been working on this issue since 1948 at the United Nations Conference on the Freedom of Information, and even 70 years later, there are still cases of power struggles between the media and the state, which interferes with the freedom of information for the general population.


Peev, Gerri. “MEPs hail Snowden as Human Rights Hero.” Mail Online (2015). Accessed February 22, 2016.


Human Rights Belong to Individual Human Beings

By Sarah Bate

John P. Humphrey’s address titled, “Human Rights Belong to Individual Human Beings”, is a challenge to the United Nations, which he refers to as “the organization of shame.” It is a powerful address to the international community about the work that still needs to be done in order to secure human rights for every individual human being. The significance of this speech lies within its message. John P. Humphrey addresses the weaknesses  in the execution of justice within international law claiming that as a result of these weaknesses, the law is more reactionary that pro-active. He states, “The international mechanisms for (the) implementation of these rights are weak (when indeed they even exist). Unless there is a threat to international peace or an act of international aggression, the United Nations cannot use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state…The United Nations does not possess police with the power to enforce its findings in these matters.” The speech covers new ground on issues pertaining to the implementation of human rights. In particular, Humphrey argues for better follow through on the part of the United Nations, and an enforcement agency within the international organization to aid in the implementation of human rights for every individual. It is clear from the speech that he believes in the need for better execution in the delivery of human rights to the individual.

It is in this speech that he puts forward his own ideas for what would eventually become the International Criminal Court. Humphrey states in his speech, “If such tribunals were created it would be a precedent for the future creation of a universal court of human rights with jurisdiction over individuals.” As such, the speech covers new ground in the call for better performance by the United Nations in securing human rights for every individual. John P. Humphrey recognizes these limits within the international law system, especially as they relate to the implementation and the execution of these rights for every individual. Humphrey states, “The very name, international law, is now no longer appropriated for a legal order that reaches down to the individual, But so much more needs to be done that it could be another generation before, if ever, the world will be governed by an efficient law of human rights.” It is here that Humphrey claims the need for an International Criminal Court.

This speech addresses the weakness within the organs of the United Nations and is an important source for understanding the history of human rights in Canada and globally. In this address directed to the international community, Humphrey addresses the weaknesses and limitations within the United Nations and the necessary steps in order to make a drastic change in the execution of human rights.


John Peters Humphrey on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

By Brad Wiseman

The repatriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982 and entrenchment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was a monumental moment in Canadian history that dramatically changed the social, judicial and political landscape of Canada. John Peters Humphrey’s speech, “The New Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canada’s Obligations under the International Bill of Rights”, delivered on August 3rd 1982 in Toronto, addresses this historic milestone through a critical lens. The historical significance of Humphrey’s speech can be attributed to its content, which provides an important assessment of the protection of human rights in Canada. Humphrey compares the rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to those which Canada is obligated to protect under international and customary law through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Humphrey’s sharp criticism of the Charter exposes its flaws and runs counter to the mainstream patriotic discourse that depicts the Canadian Charter as a model for the world to follow.

Humphrey’s speech was delivered to members of the Canadian Bar Association and the International Commission of Jurists, and was therefore written for an audience well versed in the law. The Canadian Bar Association (CBA) was founded in 1896 and represents members of the legal profession across the country who join on a voluntary basis.[1] The CBA was an important actor in the process of constitutional repatriation, having put its considerable weight behind the entrenchment of a bill of rights in the constitution. This was a considerable change in stance for the Association, which had previously been opposed to entrenchment.[2] The International Commission of Jurists is a non-governmental organization currently composed of sixty judges and lawyers from across the globe, devoted to the promotion of the rule of law and the legal protection of human rights around the world.[3]

In this speech, Humphrey argues that the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not fully reflect Canada’s international obligations under the International Bill of Human Rights. In Humphrey’s words, it is “strange and certainly a matter of some consequence” that the Charter, adopted only five years after Canada’s ratification of the two Covenants referred to above, only partially reflects its international obligations under those instruments and under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a part of the customary law of nations and therefore binding on Canada. Humphrey’s two most significant points of contention in regard to the Charter are its failure to set out precisely when limitations of rights may occur and the omission of certain rights in the Charter that Humphrey deems to be ‘fundamental’. Due to these two shortcomings, Humphrey asserts that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms reneges on Canada’s international obligations.

Humphrey argues that a major difference between the Charter and Canada’s international obligations is the Charter’s failure to set out precisely when limitations of rights may occur. Under section 1 of the Canadian Charter [4], a limitation of rights is subject to a standard of reasonableness set out by the judiciary, meaning that the courts have full authority to arbitrarily determine what may be deemed as a ‘reasonable’ situation for the violation of rights. By way of contrast, Humphrey contends that the drafters of the Charter should have followed the precedent of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by setting out the rights that can never be limited even in a state of national emergency, and by clearly defining what constitutes a state of national emergency. Furthermore, Humphrey expresses grave concerns regarding section 33 of the Charter, the notwithstanding clause, as it gives Parliament and provincial legislatures free rein to violate any right with the exception of democratic, mobility and language rights, by a simple majority vote. Humphrey points out that the notwithstanding clause is not even governed by the standard of reasonableness articulated in section 1, and thus Parliament and the provincial legislatures do not need to wait for a national emergency to restrict or withdraw the most fundamental human rights and freedoms. According to Humphrey, the notwithstanding clause is “directed against the very heart of the Charter” as it legitimizes the violation of even the most fundamental human rights.

Humphrey further critiques the Charter by drawing attention to its omission of certain rights that Canada had previously recognized under international law. Humphrey indicates that while the Charter does protect the use of English and French, it does not, however, prohibit discrimination on the basis of language. Furthermore, Humphrey points to the fact that the first article of each of the Covenants guarantees the right of all peoples to self-determination, while there is no corresponding provision in the Charter. The right to Indigenous self-determination is considered to be the main tenet and symbol of the Indigenous movement, and includes, among other rights, the right to control territory, natural resources, social organization, and decision-making institutions in order to maintain cultures and ways of life.[5] It is especially significant that Humphrey singles out this omission, as Aboriginal peoples in Canada had been calling for self-determination for over a century, and this right had yet to be formally recognized in Canadian law.[6] Moreover, Humphrey indicates that the Charter prohibits “cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”, yet is silent about torture, degrading treatment, and slavery which are all prohibited under Canada’s international obligations under article 2 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Through these comparisons, Humphrey paints a picture of grave inadequacies in the newly legislated Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The historical significance of Humphrey’s speech is further evidenced as it stands in diametric opposition to the dominant views and discourse on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada today. While Humphrey’s assessment was largely negative and critical, the popular discourse regarding the Charter, both at the time of creation and today, is largely celebratory and self-righteous in nature. As Peter Edwards noted in a Toronto Star article on October 1st, 2015, Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey of 2015 found that more than nine in ten Canadians view the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as an important symbol of Canadian identity. It rated higher than any other symbol in its importance to Canadians. On the occasion of the Charter’s 30th anniversary in April 2012, the Globe and Mail published an editorial by John Ibbitson entitled “The Charter proves to be Canada’s gift to world.” The editorial argued that the Charter serves as a model for the world to follow. Similarly, Jean Chretien, Canada’s Minister of Justice and Minister Responsible for Constitutional Negotiations when the Charter was enacted in 1982, boasts in his memoirs that “we had charter of rights and freedoms that […] is one of the best in the world and which is now changing our legal system for the better.”[7] This positive mainstream discourse contrasts greatly with Humphrey’s focus on the Charter’s inadequacies.

In conclusion, John Humphrey’s 1982 speech to the Canadian Bar Association and the International Commission of Jurists is historically significant due to its content, which is highly critical of the new Charter. Humphrey argues that the Charter does not meet Canada’s international obligations under international law by virtue of its permission of the violation of a wide array of rights and its omission of certain fundamental rights which Canada is bound to protect under international law. Humphrey’s sharp critique greatly differs from the positive and generally celebratory understanding of the Charter today.


[1] “History Spanning Three Centuries.” The Canadian Bar Association. Last modified 2016.

[2] Frederick Vaughan, “Judicial Politics in Canada: Patterns and Trends,” in Judicial Power and Canadian Democracy, ed. Peter H. Russell and Paul Howe (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2001), 13.

[3] “About.” International Commission of Jurists. Last modified 2016.

[4] In Humphrey’s speech, the Charter’s sections are referred to as ‘articles’

[5] Isabel Altamirano-Jiménez, “Indigeneity and Self-Governance,” in Critical Concepts: An Introduction to Politics, ed. Janine Brodie et al. (Toronto: Pearson Canada, 2014), 232.

[6] John Ralston Saul, The Comeback (Toronto: Viking Publishing, 2014), 199.

[7] Jean Chrétien, Straight from the Heart (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1985), 192.

Three Parents of Anarchy

By Daniel Jordan

Near the end of the Cold War, on April 18, 1988 John Peters Humphrey delivered a speech to the Nova Scotia Commission on Human Rights entitled The Three Parents of Anarchy. Unwavering in his advocacy for human rights, Humphrey took this particular opportunity to detail the delicate relation between peace among nations and the respect for human rights: when there is peace, human rights are generally respected. Through detailing what he believed to be the three biggest threats to international peace—the lack of individual agency under the international law and the collective responsibility for violations of international law being the most relevant, Humphrey in truth outlined the biggest threats to human rights as he saw it. Although the Cold War ended roughly 30 years ago, we are still faced with the same issue that plagued Humphrey during his life: “how to prevent war whether nuclear or conventional.” Put plainly, Humphrey’s speech is still significant and relevant today because not only have we yet to prevent war but currently we are faced with a new form of war: terrorism.  Perhaps through focusing on individual agency as Humphrey suggested we can work to prevent war and terrorism.

One of Humphrey’s final remarks was “that states are too strong and individual men and women are too weak.” This remark addresses the first parent of international anarchy—the lack of individual agency under the international law. Out of all the parents, this one is perhaps the most relevant to our current global situation because of the threat of terrorism. Terrorism has revolutionized the way in which modern warfare is conducted. What makes terrorism such a dynamic phenomenon is that it takes a ground up approach. Because our world is so focused on state relations we sometimes forget about how the choices of heads of state affect the masses.In my view, terrorism is the direct manifestation of what Humphrey described as the First Parent of Anarchy.

According to Martha Crenshaw, author of The Causes of Terrorism,  “the most basic reason for terrorism is to gain recognition or attention.”[1] Crenshaw further elaborates how “violence and bloodshed always excite human curiosity”[2] and “that publicity may be the highest goal of some groups.”[3] It is extremely unfortunate that certain people are driven to such lengths to make their needs and or interests heard. This in no way absolves terrorists of their sins nor does it advocate for the use of terrorism but there is value in understanding what terrorists are fighting for and what drove them to such lengths. The fact that people are leaving their homes to join ISIS is truly something. These are people who are leaving liberal democratic states to join ISIS. Perhaps it is time to focus on the needs of the individual rather than the state as a whole.

Humphrey details how the “law protecting the individual is there. What is lacking is adequate measures of implementation. And states, because they give such priority to…their sovereignty, show little interest.” Over the decades, countries have prided themselves on ratifying charters and treaties, pledging to uphold and respect human rights yet in practice; we find that this is not the case.  Let’s take the United States of America as an example. Not only has the United States of America ratified Geneva Conventions pertaining to behaviour in wartime, and the UN Charter, they’ve also signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite these pledges to uphold international law and human rights, recently the US has been found responsible for bombing two hospitals in Syria. Now the bombing of a hospital is a crime in and of itself. However, according to Humphrey, the fact that the US is bombing Syria at all, is a direct manifestation of the Third Parent of Anarchy. With this Third Parent, Humphrey explains how instead of directly punishing the heads of state for violating international law we punish the country as a whole. The same thing can be said about economic sanctions. Through punishing the entire country we create the environment that breeds terrorism and international instability. Rather than invading countries and stirring civil unrest, why not target those individuals who are sanctioning these invasions and or committing human rights violations, from all over the world?

In his speech, Humphrey advocated for the importance of human agency within international law and discourse. With more emphasis on individual agency we will be able to pay attention to the needs and interests of the many rather than the few. Humphrey also advocates for the individual punishment of those who have violated international law rather than collective punishment. Through the promotion of international peace we may be able to further respect human rights and hopefully someday abolish war.


[1] Martha Crenshaw, “The Causes of Terrorism,” Comparative Politics 13, no. 4 (July 1981): 386.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] International Criminal Court Office of the Prosecutor Communications, “Situations and Cases,” ICC – CPI, accessed February 24, 2016,


1974 CBC Broadcast

By Jonathan Squibb

In a CBC talk given over the radio in 1974, John Peters Humphrey references the annual report of Amnesty International, which is an international non-governmental, non-political, human rights organization. The report indicated that a staggering number of countries, sixty to be specific, still permitted their authorities to use torture as a method of information extraction. This was a direct violation of Article 5 in the Universal Declaration of Human rights, which states; “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” United Nations member states, many of which were listed on Amnesty’s report, became morally bound to upholding the terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after its approval. So Humphrey begs the question: “how then can governments still deny their citizens the most basic of human rights?”

Claiming that a “satisfactory answer to this question would take me very far,” Humphrey clearly shows that there is no easy solution to this problem. He goes on to refer to  one of the “worst crises” in the UN’s history, and noted that people were beginning to question the credibility of the organization, which they criticized as being nothing more than an “international debating society.” The UN was confronting the challenge of how to get states to respect international law. With no effective system for the implementation or enforcement of their laws, states did not feel obligated to comply with the UN and its Declarations. They could still violate the human rights of their citizens with little international consequence.

In order to get a better understanding of the problem Humphrey was presenting, the historical background of the period must be put into context. The political climate of the period is best characterized as a period of détente between East and West, where human rights served to bridge the political divide. The Cold War presented an “enormous difficulty” for international human rights as it was hard to know what exactly was taking place behind the Iron Curtain. Détente created room for a discussion on human rights, as seen in the Helsinki Accords of 1975. Among other issues, one of the most prevalent and discussed after the ‘Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe,’ was that of human rights violations in the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviet Union showed that they were intimidated by the accusations as they attacked American support of countries such as South Africa and Chile, which were known for human rights violations of their own. This revealed two things. The first is that humans rights violations were gaining attention from the media and from the general public, and second, that even the most autonomous governments could be sensitive to public opinion.

Despite the fact that Humphrey’s speech was carried by a national radio broadcast and likely had a large audience, he dismisses the idea that human rights was of great concern to mass media in 1974. At the beginning of his speech he suggests that it’s an overlooked issue: “your newspaper may have carried the other day – but probably did not – a reference to the report of Amnesty International.” Upon observing the actual report, which can be found in Amnesty’s International’s online archives, one finds that it contains a list of “First World” countries that engaged in torture / committed human rights violations, which would leave most readers shocked. Fast-forwarding 41 years to the organization’s 2015 annual report, the number of countries that still commit humans rights violations has no doubt dwindled. Nevertheless, there are still approximately thirty states on the list, which contains several UN members including Finland.

Considering the great length of history in comparison to the more recent study of social philosophy, human rights are still a relatively new concept in the grand scheme of things. Humphrey reminds us that international law is “a radically new development in the relations of states.” The UN has achieved a lot since its establishment in 1945, but it is still a young organization and has the potential to expand greatly.

Given that the UN had no machinery to enforce its international law upon the global community, Humphrey leaves listeners with an excellent piece of advice to help make states respect their obligation to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He proposes that what “you and I can do” to make governments treat their citizens fairly is to be vocal. As is evident in the case of the USSR, even the most authoritarian governments were susceptible to public opinion. Humphrey’s CBC talk was, in a sense, conveying this message – trying to spread the word. Has this method worked so far? Well, Amnesty International reports that there has been great progress since 1974, but there is still a long way to go before all human rights are fully respected.


Amnesty International Annual Report 1974/1975. Amnesty International Publications, London: 1975

Amnesty International Annual Report 2014/2015. Amnesty International Publications, London. 2015



Japan 1992: Still Relevant Today

By Jessica Feuiltault

John Peters Humphrey’s “Tokyo 10 December 1992” speech discusses the role of Japan in the Second World War and the “bad image” that the Japanese created for themselves by not always respecting international laws during this time. In his address to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA), Humphrey discusses the importance of recognizing and honouring international responsibilities. Even today, international responsibilities can seem abstract and unbinding. As a result, Humphrey begins to clarify these in his explanation of how Japan violated some international rights through their treatment of war prisoners and comfort women. Humphrey’s broader discussion of human rights, their legality and the ways in which they can be protected, make his speech very relevant to current issues of international human rights.

The beginning of the 1990s marked the end of the Cold War and the dilution of tensions between East and the West. As tensions thawed, Humphrey attended a JFBA conference in Japan. The International Public Hearing  in Tokyo in 1992 tackled issues of post war compensation regarding war prisoners and comfort women.[1] Humphrey makes it clear that the Japanese government had up until that point done everything to avoid reprimand for their conduct during the war. He mentions that the Japanese prime minister had, however, formally apologized for the misconduct and atrocities, and this was considered to be equivalent to an admission of guilt.

It is most interesting that Humphrey addresses a legal association about the legalities of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as customary law. Though I doubt a bar association need reminder of the legal implications of a universal doctrine of human rights, Humphrey’s call to action to the Japanese government for the compensation the victims of war crimes such as mistreated World War II prisoners and Korean comfort women, is most important in the context of this conference.

Humphrey explains the three main ways in which violations of the Declaration of Human Rights can be reported; through periodic reports from the ratifying states to the Human Rights Committee, the Optional Protocol (a citizen petition) and a 1503 procedure, which exposed patterns of violations. He underlines the flaws in the existing procedures. Under The Covenant, the ratified states cannot be entirely trusted to report their own offences or those of a friendly neighbour.[4] Some countries, such as Japan (at the time), had not recognized the Optional Protocol and this meant petitions from their citizens could not be sent to the United Nations.4 Humphrey implies the importance of the protection of rights by individuals themselves. This echoes the concept that each individual is responsible for protecting and upholding human rights and to not taking their mere existence for granted.

It is doubtful that the JFBA needed a reminder of the prior mentioned methods, but this kind of information would be very important to the everyday citizen. Though our global community is better educated on rights issues than ever before it can sometimes be overwhelming. Portions of Humphrey’s 1992 speech could be studied at the high school level and the issues with the protection of international human rights should be implemented in school curriculums.

John Peters Humphrey’s “Tokyo 10 December 1992” speech was aimed at a very specific conference and topic but touched on the global issue of protecting Human Rights, using Japan as a specific example. Works of this nature are increasingly important because our communities are more and more global and linked by technology. There is a need for international standards in human rights and there is a need for them to be legally binding. Further more there is a pressing need to better educate the public about their rights and how to fight for them in the most effective ways. Humphrey’s speech could have been more effective had it been to a wider audience, for that reason I am glad that it is now available online.

[1] Welch, Jeanie M.. The Tokyo Trial: A Bibliographic Guid to English-language Sources. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001), 183.

[3] Hobbin, A.J. Guest lecturer: Hist 370-001. (Montreal: McGill, 2016).

[4] Ibid., 5.


On the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

By Christian Quenish

This essay is grounded in a speech (date unknown) delivered by Humphrey following the release of the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; it speaks to the speech’s historical significance. This essay critiques John Humphrey’s assertion that the 1982 Charter should reflect international obligations.[1] In his speech, he provides a grand narrative of Canadian exceptionalism but bookends his comments by admitting that he is not a prophet.  Analysis of his speech will attest to his lack of clairvoyance. His fears about the Charter as a tool for despotism will be discussed and refuted. However, Humphrey does make a valid point about the nature of Canada’s justice system. Due attention to the Covenant on Political and Civil Rights would have been beneficial to the development of a more robust justice system. In balancing these two points, this essay will conclude that this speech was indicative of dismissive attitudes towards human rights with respect to Indigenous peoples.

Humphrey opens his argument with a reflection on the drafting of the Canadian Charter. He says that lack of consultation  of the United Nations’ covenants and declarations embarrassed the nation’s international image. Humphrey is a true Canadian in the most mythical sense. He is no doubt a man who loved the idyllic aspect of his nation more than the product. Humphrey was right to argue that a Charter detailing the rights and freedoms should reflect universal ideas of civil rights. However, his proposal that the Canadian constitution reflect international obligations and ignore the domestic political culture  is inaccurate. Specifically, he appraises Sections 15 and 33 of the Canadian Charter and refutes their value. Critically, he largely ignores the question of Indigenous rights in the context of international obligations (via treaties) as well as domestically, through a human rights perspective.

Section 33 is the notwithstanding clause. This means that a province’s legislature is not entirely subject to the whim and fancy of the federal government. This section did not apply to First Nations communities.  Humphrey worried that this section would create a hole in human rights affairs in Canada. Yet, given the sections extremely rare (and often controversial) use, Humphrey may have overstated its threat.

Section 15 grants that “every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination based on race, nationality or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.” The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which forms the basis of Humphrey’s comparison, is understandably broad. It has to apply to nation-states at a universal level. The Canadian Charter need only be couched in Canada’s political history and culture. Humphrey is arguing for Canada’s international obligations reflected in the Charter out of a misplaced sense of propriety.

Crucially, Humphrey’s argument is not completely contained in this grand narrative of Canadian exceptionalism. When one reads what he has to say about the Canadian justice system in reference to the Canadian Charter and the Covenant on Political and Human Rights, a rather poignant point is made. Humphrey discusses how the Canadian Charter would have been positively influenced by a close reading of article 10 of the Covenant of Political and Civil Rights, a UN Covenant to which Canada became a party in 1976. Therein, it calls for the use of reformatory and rehabilitation programs in the penitentiary system. Indigenous people represent such a small portion of the overall Canadian population – about 4.3 percent of the entire Canadian population – yet are overrepresented in Canada’s prison systems. According to Statistics Canada (2013), Indigenous people have made up 23.2% of the federal prison population. In the 2010-11 year, 140 Canadians per every 100,000 adults were incarcerated. In comparison, Aboriginal incarcerations account for 10 times the amount of non-Aboriginal prisoners. There are various complicated reasons for this, and those reasons encompass why Canada should not view itself as highly as Humphrey does.

Humphrey rarely touches directly on issues related to human rights with respect to Indigenous peoples within Canada. This approach has particular poignancy when one considers the international obligations Canada has with the Indigenous groups within Canada, and the history the two communities have with each other. As discussed above, perhaps there is some merit to the international laws that govern Canada’s obligations abroad. Perhaps retroactively justifying a section of Humphrey’s speech gives it a particular sting from the perspective of a contemporary reader. Mostly, Humphrey’s speech tells the reader that Indigenous issues were not high on the radar in terms of Canada’s international obligations.

[1] International obligations: treaties, covenants, and charters of an international character to which a nation-state has agreed to in principle or otherwise ratified in domestic law.


The Rights Revolution According to John Humphrey

By Dorothy Heinrich

There has been no more revolutionary development in the history of international law and relations that the present engrossment of the UN with human rights

                                                                                                (Humphrey, February 11th, 1965)

On February 11th 1965, seventeen years after the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), John P. Humphrey gave a speech in Montreal on human rights and the role of the United Nations. The speech is valuable as a retrospective overview of the work of the UN since 1948 but also presents an interesting argument about the possibility of a “rights revolution”. Indeed, the question of whether we have entered this “revolution” has been central to human rights discussions in recent years and is an important dimension in understanding the impact of the UDHR. Humphrey’s argument about the revolution allows us to look into the essence of the Declaration and can help us interpret the role of the U.N in this revolution.

Why did the Rights Revolution occur?

According to Humphrey, the catalyst of the revolution was the collective shock at the atrocities of World War II.  The war, and what slowly came to light about it, profoundly shocked the world by showing the potential of mankind for abject cruelty. However, Humphrey argues, it was not simply to horrors of war that made nations think about fundamental human rights, but the fact that the system’s “machinery”, had allowed it. This notion became the reason for drafting the Declaration. The other aspect that precipitated the revolution, according to Humphrey, was the difference between the United Nations and its precursor, the League of Nations. The United Nations presented a much more cohesive body than the League of Nations, which allowed for its influence to soar, ensuring a more global rights culture.

What do we mean by a Rights Revolution?

Humphrey details the argument about the possibility of a rights revolution in a systematic manner in his speech. He starts on the basis that the UDHR was seen as a fundamental document that would completely change the world. He remembers that Franklin D. Roosevelt called its work the “necessary conditions for peace” and that Eleanor Roosevelt described the UDHR as a “modern magna carta.” Building upon this framework, Humphrey first describes the institutionalization of human rights in a non-binding document as revolutionary. The document acted both as a blueprint for nation-states and as a “sounding board” for human rights ideas:

This singling out by the Charter of the promotion of human rights as a matter of  international concern, and as a proper subject of international notion was, a revolutionary development because treaties international law has always considered human rights were which certain ill defined exceptions within the exclusive jurisdiction of states.

Humphrey’s revolution was therefore the idea that the United Nations, because of its Charter and the Declaration, could have “force and authority” and be a sort of moral compass for countries to follow, given its “wide acceptance”. The institutionalization of human rights at the international level, and then more practically at the state one, provided the world with a new tool to build human rights discussions, debates, and protective legislation.

According to Humphrey however, the rights revolution did not only have legal effects, but it was also the impetus for “the great psychological changes that have occurred since the War in popular attitudes towards human rights problems.” Suddenly, human rights were at the forefront of international discussions and preoccupations. With the Declaration, the international community had established new language to talk about the rights of all.

Humphrey’s 1965 speech shows deep belief in the necessity of the UDHR and the United Nations body to provide the framework for human rights protection.  Indeed, according to his writings, the UDHR set the first spark of the revolution by “dealing with the intangible.” He notes further that “it may well be that it is precisely in such intangible ways that the UN has so far made its greatest contribution.”

However, it is in another speech called “Epilogue” and probably addressed to a teachers union or school, that Humphrey envisions the future of the revolution. Education, according to Humphrey, is the best practical way to uphold the revolution and ensure that its flicker does not die out. In fact, the right to education is enshrined in the 26th article of the UDHR and Humphrey describes this particular article as the “sanction for human rights”, as the tool necessary to create respect for human rights. According to Humphrey, it is teachers who are the guardians of human rights. It is their “duty to strengthen respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” and to circulate the future information and activism of the United Nations in that department. Education is the way to transfer the human rights vocabulary written in the Declaration, and to build a society that respects those rights. In a sense, therefore, the spark ignited by the drafting of the Declaration, can be called a revolution but only if it is continued.

The context of the 1965 speech is an example of the importance of coining the term Rights Revolution. Humphrey made this speech in Montreal, his adopted city, and in the introduction spends time talking to the audience in French about what he believed to be Quebec’s place in Canada. The year 1965 was a year where this debate was becoming increasingly important as a result of the foment of the Quiet Revolution. Humphrey talks about a new era in which French could be a national unifying characteristic of Canada. This new era is tightly connected to the rights revolution, ushering in a new way of interacting at all levels. Furthermore, in 1960 the Bill of Rights was adopted, making human rights a topic within a Canadian context. And it was during these years that, according to Humphrey, Canada had the potential to emerge as one of the “great nations of the world.” Perhaps this context can be seen as a principle goal of Humphrey’s rights revolution: making people realize that a great shift had occurred and letting them embody this change.

As for the content of these speeches, inscribing the term “revolution” in discussions about human rights is fundamental. The term allows us to better understand the tremendous shift of the United Nations’ work, and provides us with a framework to evaluate the essence of change in human rights discussions. The revolution completely changed both attitudes and language about human rights, shaping activism and discussion. And acknowledging the revolution, at least according to Humphrey, is therefore the most important step in moving forward and continuing the fight.

In conclusion, both Humphrey’s speeches are telling about his beliefs about the incredible shift wrought by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He saw the Rights Revolution as a revolution of ideas. This revolution ushered in a new era where future awareness and activism about human rights would be ensured by the fundamental right to education. Humphrey’s analysis of the Rights Revolution is therefore extremely useful to further discussions about rights, about the role of the United Nations, and about what we can do to enshrine human rights in our laws and in our minds.


Saturday Night Club Speech, 1935

By Zev Macklin

In October 1937, lawyer John Humphrey gave a speech to the Saturday Night Club on the topic of the strengths and weaknesses of the League of Nations (“the League”) and its Covenant. Humphrey discusses the potential role that the League can play in preventing war and advances significant critiques and advances valid critiques of its Covenants. However, his reading of the Covenants is at times inaccurate, and his proposed solutions fail to remedy the problems that he identifies.

In his examination of Articles XII to XV of the Covenant, which established a process for nations to peacefully settle disputes, Humphrey identifies a key problem with the process and recommends an alternative. According to the Covenant, members are obliged to submit disputes to “arbitration or judicial settlement or to inquiry by the Council,” and if the council fails to reach a unanimous decision within three months, the disputing states may act freely. However, Humphrey argues that states should be obligated to submit their disputes to arbitration or judicial settlement, and that the decision can  be submitted to the Council if, and only if the decision is “obviously unfair” or relevant international law is nonexistent or obsolete. Humphrey’s claim is based on his belief that decisions reached by an arbitrator or international tribunal are governed by international law, whereas decisions reached by the Council would “inevitably be influenced by political considerations.” He further argues that if there are valid grounds to submit a decision to the Council, then the Council should have the power to overrule the law, just as a “national legislature has the power to upset the decisions of national courts.” Humphrey’s proposed change to the dispute settlement process is based on a false characterization of national courts, and does not solve the problem of political considerations influencing decisions. At the time of Humphrey’s speech, national legislators in Canada could change the law, but if the decision was based on the British North America Act, change was difficult and its extent limited. Even today, it almost impossible for legislators to alter decisions that are based on the Constitution. Humphrey’s proposed remedy to the subordination of international law to political considerations is not a valid solution, as the final decision would remain in the hands of the Council. In order to avoid this issue, decisions reached by arbitrators or international tribunals must become more difficult to change, so that judicial decisions remain independent from politics.

In October 1937, Italy broke the Covenant of the League of Nations by invading Ethiopia – a fellow member of the League of Nations – and began the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Humphrey maintains that decisive action against Italy would increase the League’s prestige, and warns that a failure to do so would render the League “hardly worth the paper on which the Covenant is written” (Page 2). Humphrey delivered his speech in the context of international instability and volatility; thus, his recommendations for how the League can prevent war addressed a central preoccupation of free and democratic states worldwide. However, Humphrey’s discussion focuses on war against member states of League, and does not take into account cases of war against colonies. When Italy colonized Libya, a non-member state, in the 1920s, their actions were not condemned as they were in 1937, which reflects a general prioritization of the protection of member states, despite the fact that Article XI of the Covenant states that membership is not grounds for such discrimination.

Regarding Article XVI of the Covenant, which describes the League’s response to States that “resorted to war,” Humphrey advances an interesting argument that is as relevant today as it was when he gave the speech. Humphrey criticizes the use of the term “war,” claiming that it is a restrictive and technical term which allows states to claim that their actions did not constitute war.  He cites two such cases: Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, which Mussolini defended as merely being “policing”, and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. Humphrey’s critique of the narrow definition of “war” suggests that it is impossible for any international organization to completely outlaw war. Although Humphrey suggests that the usage of the term “war” should be revised to close the loophole that states use to justify acts of war, his solution is unsatisfactory: following the creation of the UN, “war” was replaced with a broader term, “aggression,” but the loophole remains. As can be seen in the US-led intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, where states justified war as an act of “self-defense,” a change in wording does not resolve this issue.

Although Humphrey identifies several important problems with the Covenant, which manifested themselves in various international disputes around the time that he gave his speech, the solutions that he proposes do not resolve the issues. Despite this, Humphrey’s speech is valuable since his concerns reflect the international political situation in 1937 and provide background in understanding the changes that were made in later years regarding issues of sovereignty and war.



John Peters Humphrey: Charlottetown Teach-in Speech

By Michael Colatruglio

This speech by John Peters Humphrey was given in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island by invitation at a Teach-in for Prince of Wales College sometime between 1963 and 1973 during the height of American involvement in the Vietnam War. Although Humphrey was a self-proclaimed, and vocal, opponent of war in general, Vietnam became of particular interest to him following his involvement with a U.N. mission to investigate the Vietnamese government. The mission was sent to see how rights were being violated by the majority Roman Catholic Diem government of South Vietnam, which was accused  of persecuting and killing Buddhist monks in that country for their alleged promotion of revolutionary ideas.

Political instability would lead to the overthrow of the Diem government by a military coup d’état and the eventual civil war. This war would quickly become international with the involvement of the United-States against the revolutionary elements in the north of the country, which had turned to Communism as a means to escape Western colonialism. The United-States claimed that their intervention was justified because the Viet Cong were a front for Chinese communist aggression. However, Humphrey argues that the Viet Cong only wanted a free Vietnam.

John Peters Humphrey was a champion of human rights, and fought against the illegality of the war that the United-States was waging on behalf of the South Vietnamese government. Humphrey believed the Vietnam War to be in direct violation of the United-Nations Charter and consequently regarded it as highly illegal. In his speech he quotes Article 2, Paragraph 4, of the U.N. Charter as his evidence. It states that, “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”. He goes on to discuss the United States government’s claims, which used Article 51 of the U.N. Charter as their justification for conducting the war. This article states, “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defense shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.” However, Vietnam was not a member of the United Nations and there is no evidence of an armed attack by the Communist North against the American backed South prior to the US intervention. Humphrey further claims in his speech that the United-States had developed an attitude as a superpower that was attempting to police the world. He strongly believed this was wrong and should be stopped. The purpose of the U.N. was to end wars, and member states were mandated to do their best to not interfere in other nations wars and allow the U.N. to negotiate for peace. Though the United-States did eventually pull out of Vietnam, it created a legacy of their country playing the role of “world policeman” and has lead to many more wars being waged by the United-States against so called rogue nations in the following decades.

Humphrey was prophetic in realizing that such “policing” should not be allowed at the time and would continue to be a problem in the future. The United-States was a member of the U.N. Security Council and should be an example of peace rather than war. He argued further, that though he was not American, he believed nevertheless that the Vietnam War was also a Canadian issue because the Americans were neighbours an allies. Humphrey believed that it was Canadian’s duty to weigh in on the issue and speak out against the injustices being committed by the United-States government as many in that country and other countries around the world were already doing.

Speech delivered at the Japan Conference on Post-War Compensation on Dec. 10, 1992

By Phil Perez Aranguren

In the early 1990s, a Korean newspaper reported that student records found in an elementary school in Korea revealed that, in 1944, school girls aged twelve to fourteen were drafted into a “voluntary body corps” by former Japanese colonial teachers through deception and even threats.[1] This event sparked a series of debates about the role of the Japanese government in the so-called recruitment of military comfort women, women forced into sex slavery during the Second World War. In December 1992, the International Public Hearing on Post-war Compensation by Japan was held in Tokyo, followed by a seminar as a way to push the issue forward at the United Nations.[2]

It was in this setting that John Peters Humphrey gave this speech where he uses the Statute of the International Court of Justice, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as other resolutions and protocols by the United Nations, to justify compensation for former Korean military comfort women and prisoners of war. He also accuses the Japanese government of preventing these questions from being brought forward to the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission. The issue of comfort women continues to this day and affects the relationship between Japan and South Korea, not to mention that women were recruited in many of the other former colonies, like the Philippine and Taiwan.

“Military comfort women” were women forced to provide sexual services to Japanese military personnel in the “comfort stations” of the Japanese Imperial Army. During World War II, Japanese authorities systematically orchestrated the country’s bureaucratic forces—its government officials, armed forces, military police, and police—to conscript into “sex servitude” poor and impoverished women through deception, abduction, and violence. Some historical documents estimate the total figure of military sexual slaves at about 300,000 women and girls.[3] Because a large number of records were destroyed after Japan’s surrender in 1945, the origin of Military Comfort Stations is relatively unknown but recent discoveries suggest that the first Japanese military brothels for the exclusive of troops and officers were established in Shanghai in 1932.[4]

At the time it was given, the speech was an additional voice (among many) calling for action from the Japanese government as well as for the United Nations to hear cases brought by the women in question. Using the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Humphrey argued that Japan was bound to the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As such, he refers to Articles 1,3,4, and 5  to show how the Japanese government violated these rights with its recruitment of military comfort women. With further investigation, one can even find violations of Japanese law:

A Korean couple[…] agreed to take on the job of gathering women and girls and recruited 20 Koreans. With the payment of 300-1000 […] they believed that they bought these girls and […] as far as the couple was concerned, that they had control over the women and girls. According to information given by the women and girls, at the time of recruitment, twelve of the twenty recruits were under 21 years of age — one was 17, three were 18, seven were 19, one was 20, and eight were 23 or older. If this information is correct, it would seem to be clear that the conditions stipulated by the Police Bureau in 1938 for recruitment in Japan were ignored.[5]

It wasn’t until December 2015 that Japan and South Korea came to a “breakthrough agreement to ‘irreversibly’ end a controversy over Korean comfort women” after two official apologies by the Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa in 1992 and 1993.[6] However, the debate continues as the Deputy foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama denied the existence of documents that prove the coercion of women by the Japanese army in a statement given during a session in Geneva of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.[7]

Despite some progress since John Peters Humphrey gave his speech in 1992, the debate not only continues between Japan and Korea but also with Taiwan, China, and the Philippines. This speech helps us to understand how the Universal Declaration can be used at the international level, within limits. Humphrey explains that the Universal Declaration does not create a “machinery for its international implementation” but notes that the U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does as ratifying states need to report progress made in promoting the respect for human rights.

[1] Hyunah Yang, “Remembering the Korean Military Comfort Women,” Dangerous Women: Gender and Korean Nationalism. New York: Routledge, 1998. 124

[2] George Hicks, The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. 254

[3] Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation. 2011. Comfort Women. Accessed February 24, 2016.

[4] Yuki Tanaka. Japan’s Comfort Women. London: Routledge, 2001. 8

[5] Asian’s women fund, The “Comfort Women” Issue and the Asian’s Women Fund, 7

[6] Kevin Kim, “Japan and South Korea agree WW2 ‘comfort women’ deal,” BBC, last modified December 28, 2015. Accessed on February 24, 2016.

[7] Justin McCurry, “South Korea warns Japan over ‘comfort women’ accord after claims of no proof,” The Guardian, Last modified on February 18, 2016. Accessed on February 24, 2016


Human Rights and the Peoples of the Third World

By Saya Takegami

John Peters Humphrey was a firm believer in equal rights for all human beings, which undoubtedly included citizens of less developed nations. In his speech “Human Rights and the Peoples of the Third World”, Humphrey addresses the issue of the widening inequality gap between First and Third World countries. His fundamental idea for achieving human rights in the Third World consisted of economic development, for which he claimed that First World countries like Canada were morally obligated to offer help. Thus, despite the lack of documentation about the date the speech was delivered or its intended audience, it is safe to assume that it was an attempt to promote the issue of global equality amongst the privileged populace of industrialized Canada. Nonetheless, when closely examining Humphrey’s use of language, one may argue that it demonstrates a clear distinction between ‘us’ and ‘the Others,’ for instance, “if we were created in the image of God so were they.” Hence, Humphrey inadvertently uses the language of Othering that reinforces the historically embedded segregation between the two worlds even as he attempts to create a sense of universality when promoting global equality.

As a human rights activist, it was Humphrey’s desire to preserve international peace  and security by tackling the problem of the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Global economic inequality stemmed from the Eurocentric colonial project since the Early Modern period. The experiences of colonial domination established the social classification of the world’s population around the idea of race (Quijano, 2000, p. 533). With further developments of the Western capitalist countries, the world economy continuously exploited cheaper labour and resources from less developed areas of the globe. Humphrey articulates this systematic racial division of labour as the consequence of fewer material resources in the Third world, which interfered with the establishment of well-ordered societal mechanisms. He therefore draws a strong correlation between a nation’s material wealth and its ability to enforce basic civil and political rights on their citizens. Furthermore, in accordance to international standards, he suggests that privileged members of Canadian society have a responsibility and moral obligation to help the economic development of impoverished peoples in the Third world. Such provision of aid would contribute in preserving peace and security in “a world [that is] threatened by nuclear destruction.”

Notwithstanding his efforts to stress equal rights for all people, one may notice a subtext of embedded Otherness of the Third world citizens in Humphrey’s seemingly neutral and universal language. In the first paragraph, even as he discusses the similarities of all human kind, his language highlights a clear distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that conceivably hints the idea of difference; “they are human beings like ourselves” In English, some of the words used to refer to the Others such as “foreigner” derives from the Latin forãs meaning “out of doors,” which by the early 15th century gradually transformed into the metaphorical meaning of “of other countries” (Hadley, 2013). Many sociologists have argued that these words do not merely designate those from elsewhere as separate, but also connotes the notion of strangeness and unfamiliarity. Edward W. Said, a cultural critic, argued in his book Orientalism that the construction of the Other highlights the hegemonic structure of colonialism that distinguished the “rational West” and the “irrational Other” (Shahinaj, p. 1). Therefore, the imperialist mindset driven from the Eurocentric colonial project has evidently infiltrated our daily language and is reproduced in the connotations of our vocabulary.

Humphrey’s core legacy of universal human rights undeniably opposed the embedded segregation of the First and the Third world countries. Nevertheless, one should question his constant insertion of the language of Othering when referring to the peoples of less developed areas. It remains unknown as to whether Humphrey did so with the intention of consolidating a shared identity among his fellow Canadians, or was hardly concerned about his phraseology so long as he delivered his message about First World responsibility. Nonetheless, further research may benefit in understanding the possible subtext of imperialist discourse within the language employed in scripts of universal human rights.



Hadley, L. (2013, November 13). The Language of Othering. Retrieved from

Quijano, A. (2000). Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Retrieved from

Shahinaj, E. (2015). The Construction of “the Other” in Said’s Orientalism and Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks. Retrieved from

The Development of Fundamental Freedoms

By Serisha Iyar 

Fundamental freedoms can at their very core be described as rights inherent to all human beings on the basis of simply existing (Canadian Civil Liberties Association, 2016). The implementation of fundamental freedoms varies across the globe and has been protected universally through documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) created by the United Nations. One of the most notable contributors to the UDHR was John Peters Humphrey. In 1974, Humphrey gave a speech to a Student Human Rights Conference in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. In his speech, Humphrey argues that in order to advance the global fight for human rights, it is imperative that Canadians seek to improve their own fundamental freedoms before branching out internationally. This ideology is exemplified through the development of rights and freedoms in Canada and the transition from the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted in 1982.

In his speech, Humphrey addresses the need for Canadians to step up to the plate and be more involved in the United Nations to show that they care about universal human rights. His remarks indicate that governments only respond to pressure from the public and that since – at this point in time – there had not yet been a push from ordinary Canadians for a human rights program, the Canadian government has no reason to join this cause. The impact of Humphrey’s beliefs can be seen in the decade after his speech, in the efforts of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his vision for the implementation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Our Country, Our Parliament, 2016).

This document took the concept of the UDHR and applied it to Canadian values. The primary issue with the 1960 Bill of Rights was that it had proven ineffective, having not been entrenched into the Constitution. Switching to the Charter was partly made in order to resolve this problem: “Both the supreme court and the bill of rights quickly came to be perceived as ineffective protectors of individual rights and freedoms” (Kasoff and James, 2013).  Improvements such as the solidification of various freedoms listed under the UDHR were evident in the Charter including: the “freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; freedom of peaceful assembly; and freedom of association” (Constitution Act 1982, s.2). Canada’s adherence to these rights reflects the final points made by Humphrey at the Student Human Rights Conference. He explains:

Once it [the Canadian government] gets the message, loud and clear. that we the people of Canada want Canada to play its part in creating an effective/system for the protection of human rights […] as a necessary condition of peace […] in the long run of the enjoyment of human rights
and fundamental freedoms by Canadians […] then, once that message comes through, the Canadian government will play its proper role in the United Nations.

The approval of the Charter by a majority of Canadians: “in 1999 […] 82 percent thought it was a “good thing for Canada”” (Hirschl 83) confirms Humphrey’s message. Additionally, it supports the notion of Canada having a global impact with the Charter: “the Charter has replaced the American Bill of Rights as the constitutional document most emulated by other nations” (Ibbitson, 2012). The use of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a template for other nations showcases the present power of Canada’s role within the United Nations. For example, it has forced other countries to re-asses their own legislation: “Canada has influenced other former British colonies as they create or revise their own constitutions, the study finds. Israel, Hong Kong and Eastern European countries have also drawn from the Canadian example” (ibid). Further, it signifies that Canada has now developed its own functioning system of human rights worthy of emulation and praise. This influence is valuable because it places these nations on the same page when it comes to the fundamental freedoms based upon the UDHR and thus, is reflective of the positive work done by the UN. The transition from the Bill of Rights to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms shows how the influence of international human rights has evolved. Humphrey’s message at the 1974 student conference proves to have been insightful and prophetic in recognizing Canada’s potential to influence this issue on a global scale.


 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s. 2. Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11.

“Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms 1982.” Correctional Service Canada. Government of

Canada, 11 Apr. 2013. Web. 15 Feb. 2016. <>.

“Canadian Studies in the New Millennium, Second Edition.” Ed. Mark J. Kasoff and Patrick James. University of Toronto Press, 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.

“Fundamental Freedoms – Canadian Civil Liberties Association.” Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Canadian Civil Liberties Association, 2016. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

Hirschl, Ran. Towards Juristocracy: The Origins and Consequences of the New Constitutionalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004.

Ibbitson, John. “The Charter Proves to Be Canada’s Gift to World.” The Globe and Mail. , 15 Apr. 2012. Web.

Parliament of Canada. “Our Country, Our Parliament.” Parliament of Canada. Government of

Canada, n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Welcome to the United Nations: It’s Your World.

United Nations, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

Humphrey and Human Rights Violations in World War II

By Jonathan Yi Jiang Hou

John Humphrey’s speech to the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in August 1992 heavily criticized the sub-commission for failing to assert its authority in dealing with human rights issues related to prisoners of war in Japan during World War II (WWII). This, despite the authority to do so by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Resolution 1503. The sub-commission was responsible for undertaking studies on human rights issues, for making recommendations to prevent discrimination relating to human rights, and for carrying out other functions for which it was entrusted.[1] Resolution 1503, on the other hand, was a procedure that dealt with communications relating to the violation of human rights and freedoms.[2] The speech reflected not only a renewed awareness of human rights violations following the end of the Cold War, but also Humphrey’s desire for human rights organizations to challenge political boundaries in the pursuit of their goals.

The speech’s timing was very significant as the speech took place less than a year after the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. With the conflict between the Western world and the Communist bloc reaching an end, it became possible to focus on human rights issues emerging from WWII that were largely put aside due to the conflict in the Cold War and the superpowers’ need to obtain positive relations with allies across the world (including Japan). Even in countries invaded by Japan, ideological conflict and economic development were considered more important issues in the early postwar period. After the end of the Cold War, however, there was a renewed interest in human rights. Yet human rights issues remained very sensitive as they could strain the relationship between Japan and other East Asian countries and evoke memories that both sides of the war wanted to forget. Humphrey’s heavy emphasis on comfort women at the end of his speech indicated his belief that attempting to forget the past was not the solution to resolve the issues surrounding WWII. Many of Japan’s victims were still alive yet there was still no justice for them.

Humphrey’s targeted audience, members of the sub-commission, was reluctant to handle issues related to Japan’s conduct during WWII. It  was an indication of how historical human rights issues were less of a concern to the sub-commission and possibly other human rights advocates. It  also reflected the fact that the sub-commission was heavily concerned with the political consequences of its decisions. Humphrey argued that these limitations were self-imposed and the sub-committee’s decision would create a precedent with harmful consequences towards the development of human rights. His decision to criticize the sub-committee reflected his concern that human rights organizations were not adequate equipped or prepared to face adversity and challenge potential limitations.

The aversion to investigations on past human rights issues also stemmed from a lack of awareness from the public, which contributed towards the destruction of historical memories that could have propelled the issue forward. While Japanese war criminals were immediately prosecuted following Japan’s surrender in 1945, the Cold War was responsible for delaying and limiting more thorough investigations into Japan’s alleged human rights violations. The consequences of this ambivalence were clear. According to Humphrey, there was a lack of determination to investigate Japan’s treatment of prisoners of war, and this in turn was inhibiting a proper investigation surrounding the experiences of the conscripted comfort women. In the case of comfort women, as they gradually passed away, there would be fewer first-hand accounts available. There was a danger that many violations might even never be accounted for and that these women might not even receive an apology and compensation before their death. It would then be very difficult to raise awareness in the public due to the limited availability of information and death of the surviving comfort women.

The speech for the sub-commission marked Humphrey’s belief that historical human rights issues must maintain their relevancy and that human rights organizations had to take advantage of the end of the Cold War to challenge their self-imposed political boundaries. The conflict between the USA and the USSR had prevented a proper investigation of Japan’s human rights violations and slowed down the growth of awareness about human rights in the world. Furthermore, as time went by after the end of WWII, issues surrounding comfort women and mistreatment of prisoners of war were left in the periphery by the public due to minimal effort  in maintaining awareness. These issues could have easily been forgotten had activists such as Humphrey not encouraged human rights organizations to revisit the issue and raise awareness. His speech was not only a reminder of how human rights violations should not be forgotten by history, but also a desire for political conflict to never limit human rights development and awareness, as was the case for the Cold War and Japan.


[1] “Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, accessed February 18, 2016, SubCommission.aspx.

[2] “Economic and Social Council Resolution 1503 (XLVIII), 48 U.N. ESCOR (No. 1A) at 8, U.N. Doc. E/4832/Add.1 (1970),” University of Minnesota Human Rights Library, accessed February 19, 2016, procedures/ 1503.html.

“What Lawyers Should be Doing is Strengthening the Law:” The Significance of John Peters Humphrey’s “International Law and the Legality of Nuclear Weapons” Speech

By Emma Noradounkian

Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the international community has grappled with the issue of legalizing nuclear weapons, and with little success. John Peters Humphrey’s “International Law and the Legality of Nuclear Weapons” speech at the 1987 Canadian Conference on Nuclear Weapons and the Law lays out the parameters of this debate. The significance of his speech lies in its historical context and its contents. Firstly, it presents a variety of legal views, including Humphrey’s, on the legality of nuclear weapons during the nuclear age. This is significant given that lawyers were nearly absent (and shockingly so) from international discussions surrounding this issue up until this Conference.[1] Secondly, this speech is also significant in that Humphrey makes a novel argument. Rather than suggesting, like his legal counterparts, that the illegality of such weapons can be deduced from existing international laws, he proposes the creation of new ones to internationally control the possession and use of such weapons.[2] Underlying Humphrey’s proposition is the assumption that human rights  are playing a catch-up game, nearly forty years after the nuclear devastation of Japan. In codifying novel international rules, not only would these laws control, if not abolish, these weapons, but they would also serve to finally protect the lives and liberties of entire peoples. The right to life was denied to Japanese civilians attacked in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and yet it is a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[3]

Humphrey’s speech was one among many that were presented at the Canadian Conference on Nuclear Weapons and the Law, which was held in Ottawa from June 15 to 18 in 1987. The former International Court of Justice judge Maxwell Cohen and the Canadian Bar Association President Bryan Williams organized the conference with the aim of giving a voice to lawyers, judges, politicians, and activists worldwide on the ambiguous role of the law in the international nuclear debate.[4] In addition to this principle objective, Cohen admits in his Lawyers and the Nuclear Debate that the four-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the “father of international law,” Hugo Grotius, also moved him to establish the Conference.[5]

Humphrey’s speech is significant as it offers a plethora of legal perspectives that were generally absent, or silenced, throughout the Cold War. Despite the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the imminent threat of nuclear war, at times, during this period, the question of nuclear legality was mainly entertained by two legal scholars in the late 1950s: Georg Schwarzenberger and Nagendra Singh.[6] Schwarzenberger contended that “in an all-out contest by force between the super-powers,” the use of nuclear weapons was inevitable, regardless of the creation of new laws, while Singh had argued that nuclear weapons were already prohibited under existing international laws of war.[7] Humphrey’s speech, on the other hand, reveals the diverse legal opinions from around the world– including his own–that were not restricted to Schwarzenberger’s pessimism and Singh’s practicality. They emerged from the long period of silence – some drawing correlations to current international laws and others pushing for their reconceptualization.[8]

Humphrey’s speech is also significant in that it represents a new argument in the nuclear debate. Humphrey summarizes the arguments made by other speakers at the Conference, which formed the dominant view at the event.[9] He then states that these lawyers falsely found the illegality of nuclear weapons in the three principle sources of international law: international conventions, international custom, and general principles. In the first instance, Humphrey asserts that no convention prohibiting nuclear weapons had yet to be agreed upon. Secondly, he holds that similar international customs do not exist, as the great nuclear powers behave contrary to such supposed customs.[10] Finally, he concludes that the “generalized principles of law recognized by civilized nations” do not contain rules that forbid the use of nuclear weapons. Even if these sources of law were applicable, Humphrey argues that their analogous interpretation of the legality of such weapons would have weakened international law and, in turn, its legally binding force upon the great powers.[11] In place of this solution, Humphrey offers a unique perspective. He suggests that “what lawyers should be doing is strengthening international law” by agreeing upon and creating new laws that effectively control the international use and possession of nuclear weapons.[12] Only in this manner can lawyers hold a place alongside the leaders of nuclear states in the creation of nuclear arms-control treaties.

Humphrey’s speech is noteworthy because of its historical context and contents. It is significant, as it presents a variety of legal perspectives that were virtually unheard on the issue of nuclear legality during the Cold War. Prior to the Conference, this matter had solely received the attention of two legal figures, Schwarzenberger and Singh, who had, respectively, argued for the ineffectiveness of law in the face of an unavoidable future nuclear war and for the illegality of nuclear weapons under existing laws of war. Humphrey’s speech is also significant, in that he offers a fresh perspective on the issue. He denies the predominant view shared by many of the conference participants that the principle sources of international law outlaw nuclear weapons. Humphrey perceives that such inferences from existing laws as ways weaken international law as a whole. He instead suggests strengthening international law through the creation of entirely new laws that would limit the possession and use of nuclear weapons.


[1] Maxwell Cohen and Margaret E. Gouin, Lawyers and the Nuclear Debate: Proceedings of the Canadian Conference on Nuclear Weapons and the Law = Actes De La Conférence Canadienne Sur L’armement Nucléaire Et Le Droit (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1988), 4.

[2] John Peters Humphrey, “International Law and the Legality of Nuclear Weapons” (speech at the Canadian Conference on Nuclear Weapons and the Law, Ottawa, ON, June 15-18, 1987), 3.

[3] Article 3 of the UDHR indicates that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” accessed February 18, 2016,

[4] Bruce Torrie,  “Lawyers Confer on How to Make Nuclear Weapons Illegal,” Peace Magazine, August-September 1987, accessed February 15, 2016, Cohen and Gouin, Lawyers and the Nuclear Debate, 1. This nuclear-related global conference was the first of its kind. Cohen and Gouin, Lawyers and the Nuclear Debate, 1. However, it is unclear as to why it took so long to organize such a conference, especially considering that it took place near the end of the Cold War.

[5] Cohen and Gouin, Lawyers and the Nuclear Debate, 1, 371. The Dutch jurist Grotius is infamously known for his 1625 De jure belli ac pacis libri tres (On the Law of War and Peace: Three Books). His work chiefly explores the “just causes” for warring and the appropriate conduct of states in such destructive circumstances. Hugo Grotius, On the Laws of War and Peace (Kitchener: Batoche Books, 2001), 6, 7. He is consequently the principle scholarly authority on the laws of war till this day.  Since nuclear weapons did not exist during Grotius’ time, Cohen contemplated Grotius’ opinions on the legality of these weapons during times of war and hoped to somehow honor his legacy with this Conference. Cohen and Gouin, Lawyers and the Nuclear Debate, 1, 371.

[6] Cohen and Gouin, Lawyers and the Nuclear Debate, 4.The failure to establish laws or at least prompt discussions regarding the duty of the superpowers in possessing such lethal weapons and their ability to fire them thus far into the Cold War is very perplexing, especially considering that the populations of the United States and the Soviet Union were persistently under the threat of lethal nuclear attacks by these opposing sides. Cohen and Gouin, Lawyers and the Nuclear Debate, 342; Torrie,  “Lawyers Confer on How to Make Nuclear Weapons Illegal.”In the case of Americans, the threat of nuclear destruction became very salient when the Soviet Union acquired its launching capability, with the lifting of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957. Cohen and Gouin, Lawyers and the Nuclear Debate, 3.

[7] Georg Schwarzenberger, The Legality of Nuclear Weapons (London: Stevens and Sons, 1958), 58. In essence, Schwarzenberger held that it was be ludicrous to believe that an international lawyer’s opinion on the legality of such weapons would in any way influence the behavior of the great powers. Schwarzenberger The Legality of Nuclear Weapons, 58. Singh, on the other hand, welcomed the creation of laws banning nuclear weapons, but argued that it was unnecessary, “since it would merely prohibit the already prohibited use of nuclear weapons, unless the existing . . .  laws . . . are to be regarded as scraps of paper.” B.S. Chimni, “Nuclear Weapons and International Law: Some Reflections” in International Law in Transition: Essays in Memory of Judge Nagendra Singh, ed. Ramaa Prasad Dhokalia, Singh, Nagendra, and R. S. Pathak (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1992), 140.

[8] Torrie,  “Lawyers Confer on How to Make Nuclear Weapons Illegal.”

[9] Torrie,  “Lawyers Confer on How to Make Nuclear Weapons Illegal.”

[10] That is, for international customs to materialize, states must repeatedly practice the custom that they wish to establish as well as observe opinion juris (i.e. they must feel legally obligated to act in accordance with the behavior in question).

[11] The Attorney General of Canada Ramon Hnatyshyn concurred with Humphrey, similarly arguing that “argument by analogy is not sufficient. . . .to create laws. Nations do not restrain themselves by reasoning from analogy, but only on the basis of precise agreement.” Torrie,  “Lawyers Confer on How to Make Nuclear Weapons Illegal.”

[12] By Humphrey’s logic, if the analogous application of existing laws is equal to the weakening of international law, the opposite of such behavior is the creation of new laws, which would generally strengthen international law.

The Magna Carta of Mankind

By Théodore Poisson

In his speech the Magna Carta of Mankind, John Peters Humphrey examines the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its lasting impact on the practice of rights and their place in international law. As one of his later speeches, written in 1988, Humphrey’s impact on the struggle for human rights is made increasingly apparent. In this blog post, Humphrey’s account of the processes involved in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be discussed, along with an examination of his beliefs on the impact of the Declaration on shaping the culture of rights in an international context and universal laws—‘jus cogens’.

The speech describes the complex negotiation process that resulted in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This account lets Humphrey explore the broader international struggle for rights that took place following the Second World War. According to Humphrey, this process spanned the establishment of the first commission on human rights to the drawing-up and approval of the Declaration. By describing this progression, he conveys the atmosphere of compromise, collaboration, and co-operation that emerged between the different parties, as a means of illustrating the broader changes in the culture of rights at the time.

The universality of the struggle for human rights is also reflected in the speech with Humphrey’s reservations towards taking ownership over the Declaration’s drafting. This is apparent chiefly in how he removes himself from the immediate action when looking back at the process of drafting of the Declaration. Humphrey adopts the role of a neutral international agent, even several decades after leaving his functions at the United Nations. This is apparent in the section of the speech devoted to criticising certain countries who abstained from supporting the Declaration. Even though he is a Canadian and holds strong beliefs with regards the importance of human rights, he does not explicitly address Canada’s abstention from the vote. This demonstrates his strong belief in the Declaration being the product of a process of collective negotiations and bargaining and not of his own personal conviction.

The speech not only gives an account of the bargaining process that resulted in the drafting of the Declaration, but also tells the story of a changing culture of rights internationally. Humphrey illustrates a complete revolution in the conception of human rights, which he attributes to the post-War international processes and the subsequent drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  He argues that this culture of rights is now so engraved in our way of life that a ‘life without them [human rights], many people think, would not be worth living’. This reflects an evolution in the perception of human rights as a result of them becoming engraved in the core values of society. The  evolution of these rights as core values of society is demonstrative of Humphrey’s vision of the changing culture of rights globally in the period around the drafting of the Declaration.

The evolution of the significance of human rights, according to Humphrey’s speech, is not only reflected in a changing attitude and culture revolving around rights, but also in a change in laws internationally, encouraged by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  In the final section of the speech, he discusses the idea of ‘jus cogens’, a set of universal laws. He outlines how ‘international law now reaches down to entities other than states including individual men and women’.  The changing place of rights in international law, according to Humphrey, reflects the impact of the Declaration on changing the way human rights are represented in law.

In conclusion, the speech gives a detailed account of Humphrey’s perception of the process of negotiation that amounted to the redaction of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, the speech also effectively emphasises the changing culture of rights and the changing place of rights in international law. However, it is his humble outlook on his contribution to changing the culture of human rights internationally that makes this speech a masterpiece of autobiography on Humphrey’s part.


Introduction to the Dalai Lama

By Emily Mason

John Peters Humphrey’s speech titled “Introduction to the Dalai Lama” was presented in Ottawa on September 30, 1990. This speech highlights the significance of His Holiness (the Dalai Lama) and his visit to Canada’s capital for the unveiling of the Human Rights monument. John Peters Humphrey’s speech addressed friends and colleagues though he also wanted to reach the broader  Canadian public. Humphrey explains that the Human Rights monument is intended for those who may not comprehend, or who are unfamiliar, with the history of human rights.

The Human Rights monument was constructed by architect and artist Melvin Charney and was the first monument in the world to be dedicated to human rights.[1] The monument represents Canada’s tribute to human rights and is recognized as a national symbol. [2] John Peters Humphrey was the man to present His Holiness in Ottawa, representing a significant meeting of two notable figures who had contributed greatly to the development of universal human rights. Humphrey’s speech presents the theme that peace unifies people.

One can make note of the unity of peace noblemen by studying the history of John Peters Humphrey and His Holiness. John P. Humphrey was a Canadian born in 1905 and who identified as a Liberal with Socialist values. As a graduate of Law, Humphrey realized that the use of force was no manner to resolve a dispute. In response to human rights abuses, Humphrey drafted the Declaration of Human Rights in 1947-1948.[3]  On December 10, 1948, the Declaration was approved by members of the General Assembly and today is considered one of the United Nations’ most significant achievements.[8] In 1988 Humphrey was recognized for his contribution to Human Rights with the United Nations Prize for Human Rights advocacy. [4]

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was born on July 6, 1935 in Taktser, Amdo, northeastern Tibet.[5] His Holiness assumed political power of Tibet following the invasion by China in 1950. Despite his efforts to establish peaceful relations with the Chinese, the brutal suppression by the Chinese led him to take exile in the Northern region of India in 1959. [6] For the purpose of establishing a democracy,  the Dalai Lama addressed members of the United States congress in Washington D.C. on September 21, 1987 proposing a Five-Point Peace Plan for Tibet’s uprising.[7] His Holiness was recognized for his contribution to peace when he was awarded the Noble Peace Prize for his non-violent struggle to liberate Tibet in 1989. [8]

Humphrey and His Holiness were both recognized for their lifetime achievements in pursuing peaceful resolutions in a non-violent manner. To have so much in common in their pasts and to be present at the unveiling of the monument represented a significant meeting of human rights advocates. Such moments are all but coincidental. Indeed, Humphrey notes in his speech; “It was no accident, I am sure, that this peace prize was awarded on an anniversary of the adoption of a world declaration on human rights.” His Holiness was born as a Bodhisattvas who are thought to be enlightened whose and purpose is to serve humanity.[9] The purpose of His birth was destined to lead to the greater good of mankind.[10] One might see the gathering in Ottawa as a destined event to recognize human rights and to honour those (much like His Holiness) whose life’s work was dedicated to promoting human rights.There’s a universal reason that brings people together, not by coincidence, but rather by destiny. John Peters Humphrey and His Holiness were destined for greatness, which proved to be true with their life accomplishments of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Liberation Movement of Tibet. It was simply a matter of time that such notable human rights activists were to cross paths, as they had the same interests in promoting human rights and the interests often came together to produce the end result much like the human rights monument.


[1] Russell, Bruce & Viloria James. “Melvin Charney”. (September 23, 2012). Historica Canada: The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed on February 13, 2016.

[2] Russell, Bruce & Viloria James. “Melvin Charney”. (September 23, 2012). Historica Canada: The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed on February 13, 2016.

[3] Bonikowsky, Laura & Kaplan, William. “John Peters Humphrey”. (March 16, 2011). Historica Canada: The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed on February 15, 2016.

[4] Bonikowsky, Laura & Kaplan, William. “John Peters Humphrey”. (March 16, 2011). Historica Canada: The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed on February 15, 2016.

[5]  “Brief Biography”. His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. (n.d.). Accessed on February 1, 2016.

[6]  “Brief Biography”. His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. (n.d.). Accessed on February 1, 2016.

[7]  “Brief Biography”. His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. (n.d.). Accessed on February 1, 2016.

[8]  “Brief Biography”. His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. (n.d.). Accessed on February 1, 2016.

[9] Samdup, Carole. “Failed Promise: 25 years ago the Dalai Lama unveiled Canada’s ‘Tribute to

Human Rights Monument.’” Tibet Talk: The Canada Tibet Committee Blog. (September 30, 2015).  Accessed on February 1, 2016.

[10]  “Brief Biography”. His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. (n.d.). Accessed on February 1, 2016.


Individual Rights and the Changing Charter of International Law

By Kathy Ramboni

According to John Humphrey, the traditional states system relies on nation-states as the principle actors in both the domestic and international spheres. Sovereign states possess a “monopoly over coercive power” under International Law because of their right to self-determination. However, since the end of the Second World War, the emergence of individual civil and political rights has challenged the authority of the nation-states. So too has the creation of the International Court of Justice by multilateral organizations such as the United Nations. The creation of such a court means that sovereign states have to recognize that individuals, and not just governments, have legal responsibilities under international law. For instance, they cannot commit crimes against humanity.

Nonetheless, if individuals have legal duties to fulfill under International Law, then they must also have rights. For this reason, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was created in 1966 to promote and to ensure the protection of those individual rights. In my paper, I will advance Humphrey’s initial point, to rename International Law as World Law, through excerpts from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. My point is to show the importance of civil and political rights in shaping our world so that nation-states agree to include individuals in the renaming of International Law as World Law.

Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights under which “all persons shall be equal before courts and tribunals” is a good example of an individual civil right.[2] Article 14 grants the right to anyone who has been charged with a criminal offence to a “fair and public hearing by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal established by law”.[3] The right to an impartial tribunal follows the principle of equality before the law where anyone charged with a criminal offence “shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to the law”.[4] The implications of the principle of equality before the law include the need to recognize that individuals are subject to the same laws, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, social class, and religious affiliation. Sovereign states also need to acknowledge individual agency, recognizing that individuals are capable elf thinking critically and making their own choices. For instance, a person who donates food to charity can be rewarded for her efforts. Conversely, a person who kills an innocent person must be punished for her crime. However, the treatment of the individual, depending on the nature of his action, does not depend on society as a whole but only on the court’s verdict. The final decision on the person’s sentence is to be given only by a fair tribunal; until the end of the hearing, he will be presumed innocent by law. Consequently, the principle of equality under the law provides anyone who charged with a criminal offence with the chance to defend their innocence. Additionally, Article 14 protects individuals from being arbitrarily detained or arrested by the authorities without any proof of criminal offence on their part.

Article 25 states every citizen shall have the “right to vote and to be elected in genuine periodic elections.” It is another equally impressive political right. The right to vote and to be elected during fair elections follow the principle of universal suffrage within a democratic regime. The implications of such a policy are, once more, framed in egalitarian terms where anyone who is a citizen of a democracy “has a right to express his will” through a secret ballot, and also to “take part in public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives”. The logic behind having the right to vote as a citizen is the recognition of an individual’s capacity to make decisions and subsequently to shape the conditions of the country they  live in through political participation.

In conclusion, individuals have two essential features that clearly prove that they deserved the implementation of civil and political rights through an International Covenant under International Law. The capacity to think critically enables individuals to make informed decisions about the actions they want to pursue within society while the ability to make decisions entails that individuals have responsibilities to fulfill under the law. The examples of Article 14 and 25 illustrate my point by showing how citizens are all subject to the same laws for they are each accountable for their actions. Tthey can also actively shape the conditions of their home country through political participation. As a result, given the importance of the agency and the involvement of individuals in developing their communities, the renaming of International Law into World Law proposed by Humphrey would accurately reflect this point.

[2] United Nations General Assembly. International Law: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999, 1966), 176

[3] Ibid, 176

[4] Ibid, 176

[5] United Nations General Assembly. International Law: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 179

[6] Ibid, 179

Presentation to the Standing Committee on Defence and External Affairs, 1984


In May 1984, John Peters Humphrey appeared before the Committee on Defence and External Affairs of the Canadian Senate, and spoke regarding a bill then under consideration. Though he never states this explicitly, one can draw this conclusion from his multiple references to the Senate’s role in reviewing bills and his presence in Ottawa. As an expert in his field, it is understandable that Humphrey would volunteer, or be called, to appear before this committee. As he does not argue particularly against the bill, but instead simply points to problems that need to be addressed and means of addressing them, he succeeds in retaining a degree of neutrality fitting for someone largely seen as an international representative.

One of the aims of this unnamed bill was to create an Institute on Peace and Security, in order to work towards world peace and create favourable conditions for peace. The idea was that the institute would promote peace through disarmament however Humphrey, through his speech, argues that the proposed strategy was incorrect. Instead, he argues that the more important approach would be to take such actions as reducing virulent nationalism and individual state power in order to reduce the likelihood of state interest in, or ability to, wage war. Through examining the present military situation and the applicability of such techniques, we can come to understand the applicability of Humphrey’s speech today.

To begin, Humphrey explains that there are two issues with the proposed bill – openness for non-governmental involvement, and the focus on disarmament when this was, in fact, a fairly ineffective means for peace. With regards to non-governmental involvement, Humphrey is concerned that a lack of non-governmental involvement in the bill’s scope would limit the perspectives examined, as non-governmental interests can, and often do, differ from those of government. By establishing an institute focused on government perspectives, the Canadian government risked missing important perspectives on, or solutions to, situations of global peace.

The other issue, and perhaps the more serious one, was that of the institute’s proposed mandate. According to Humphrey, the institute’s focus on the disarmament of hostile countries is ineffective. It is a temporary and reversible means of reaching peace, and once war begins it becomes an un-enforceable pact and opens the door to the reintroduction of weapons of mass destruction. While thus not effective as a sole focus for peace, this problem of disarmament remains an important component of the peace problem along with many others. While not exhaustively listing such problems, Humphrey does explore two – fighting virulent nationalism, and curbing state power. Here, just as he elaborates in his speech “Individual Rights and the Changing Character of International Law”, Humphrey argues that the current state system is obsolete – principally as a result of states’ inherent monopoly on power and coercion. This monopoly of power was dangerous as it could be mobilized by explosive nationalism. While he does not propose any concrete solution, Humphrey emphasizes that finding concrete solutions should be the responsibility of any Canadian institute created for the study of peace.

In order to combat this  issue, Humphrey emphasizes the importance of curbing state power – particularly through increasing the power of supra-national organizations, or increasing individual human rights. As such, in order to really work towards peace, Humphrey makes the argument that the mandate of the proposed institute must be expanded to cover non-governmental organizations so as to be open to broader perspectives, and to include supra-national organizations in order to work towards reducing potentially explosive nationalism as well as curbing state power in light of the current state system’s monopoly of power.

While Humphrey’s arguments in this speech may not have been radically new and groundbreaking at the time he presented them, they nevertheless provided an important perspective for the Senate to consider while considering such a bill. While there is no particular way of determining the influence of these arguments to this day, we can nevertheless see their applicability to modern conflicts. Today, they still appear to retain some relevance, despite changes in the character of war. Principally with the War on Terror, one can see a change from more conventional wars with clear state actors to more insurgency-type wars with less clearly defined  actors such as the Taliban and ISIS. As such, Humphrey’s arguments about the role of state actors could be more useful in understanding the failure to quell such conflicts as opposed to determining strategies for peace. One cannot approach terrorist conflicts in the same way as one would approach traditional conflicts with clear state actors. As such, while Humphrey’s arguments in this speech are perhaps less relevant at this exact point in time, they could be relevant if there is a return to conventional warfare. For instance, this is conceivable if  the present conflict in Ukraine expands. Thus, examining the present military situation and the applicability of Humphrey’s techniques allows us to understand the applicability of his speech today.


Human Rights and the Peace of Nations, 1983

By Phoebe Warren

John Peters Humphrey gave the speech “Human Rights and the Peace of Nations” in September 1983 to examine the state of human rights protection around the world. In his first sentence, he notes that September 1983 was only a few months ahead of the 35th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As one of the primary drafters of the document, Humphrey recognizes the great influence the United Nations (UN) and UDHR had on international law and international awareness of human rights up to that point. He states that though atrocities continued to occur, human rights conditions worldwide had continued to improve as international awareness of the issue grew. As a result, Humphrey declares, “The developing world law of human rights may yet, if we have the time, lead us away from international anarchy towards world peace”. This statement is so bold, so universal and so optimistic given that only 35 years prior, almost 70 million people worldwide gave their lives in the fight to end this international anarchy.[2] It shows both the UDHR and this speech as beacons of light emerging from the ashes of war and capable creating a new world order.

Humphrey stresses the fact that “public opinion still remains the most effective sanction of international law, including the international law of human rights”. This is a powerful statement, implying that even in the 1980s (and most certainly today) the protection of human rights required not only the cooperation of governments and international organizations but also the general public. He then moves on to discuss the relation between human rights protection and what he refers to as “the peace of nations”. This term initially struck me as a potential jab at the League of Nations, the ineffective predecessor to the United Nations; I doubt this was purposeful by Humphrey but it made me laugh. He then continues to discuss the immense potential brought to the world by the advent of international human rights law. Had this law existed before, perhaps the human rights violations that occurred during the two World Wars could have been avoided or at least mitigated. However, I argue that as it pertains to this opinion in particular, perhaps Humphrey sees the world with rose-colored glasses. Whether or not one believes that humans are inherently good or evil, the threat of repercussions does not always halt heinous people from committing atrocious acts. However, Humphrey points out that with the advent of international human rights law stemming from the UDHR, mechanisms such as the Nuremberg Trials and the World Court have brought hope for victims after tragedies occur. Since Humphrey gave this speech, international human rights law and its mechanisms have gained greater importance than perhaps ever before with the current Syrian refugee crisis. We can see Humphrey’s legacy through the work  of the two-time Nobel Peace Prize winning United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.[6] In his final paragraph, John Peters Humphrey states, “…thirty five years is a very short time in the history of man – but it points in a new direction”. It has now been 68 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is true that 35, even 68 years is a short time in the history of man, but great positive change has been seen since the end of World War II. We have not yet achieved Humphrey’s desired “peace of nations” but defenders of human rights, diplomats, politicians, and even ordinary people fight to find this peace each and every day. As a future diplomat, woman, and member of the LGBTQ community I feel honored to have had the opportunity to peruse the archives of a man whose actions have so significantly and personally influenced the course of my life thus far.

[2] World War 2 Guide, How Many People Died in World War 2?

[6] Norwegian Nobel Committee, All Nobel Peace Prizes,


Luncheon Speech, Conference on Human Rights, Foreign Policy and Development, McGill University, March 29, 1988

By Adi Beckett

The basis of John Peter Humphrey’s Luncheon Speech, Conference on Human Rights, Foreign Policy and Development given at McGill on March 29, 1988, is the role of the individual in traditional international law. Humphrey, a McGill graduate and Professor, discusses the primitive state of implementing human rights forty years after the creation of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Humphrey describes the situation as follows: “The law protecting the individual is there. What is lacking is adequate measures of implementation.” Humphrey’s solution is to build an international order based on the role of the law. Such an order would maintain peace between nations and protect the basic rights of individual men and women. This speech merits further study as it raises important ideas about international law and its importance in protecting human rights. Humphrey, in preparing this speech based on ideas that were then forty years old, argues that human rights law in the years after WWII was revolutionary, yet primitive and in need of of further change. In other words, the proper implementation of human rights was greatly needed.

Humphrey takes an interesting approach to the question of implementation by looking at Alexander Hamilton’s The Federalist, in which he analyzes the Articles of Confederation as the basic constitutional laws of the United States. Humphrey compares the American confederation – an alliance between separate states of the union – to what Canada was in danger of becoming. He uses this example to show there was no legal relationship between the central government in Philadelphia and the individual American men and women – thus the first Parent of Anarchy was created, from this point on Humphrey expands upon the idea of Three Parents of Anarchy and applies these to the relationship between International Law and the individual.

Throughout his speech, Humphrey draws attention to the idea that human rights have had a rapid growth in the forty years between the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the date of this speech. Although he describes international law as being a primitive system, the largest problem with regards to this system, according to Humphrey, is the lack of enforcement and implementation mehcanisms. In regards to the future, Humphrey predicts that states will place more importance on protecting their sovereignty than in enforcing individual rights. He calls these states out saying they need to look towards the future and help create mechanisms of implementation that will give more meaning to the international law of human rights. Humphrey feels that Canadian foreign policy needs to take this approach so that international law will looks more towards protecting the individual.

His second parent of anarchy uses the example of Malta (a country the same size as the Island of Montreal), which had the same voting rights in the General Assembly of the United Nations as the Soviet Union. He says that this is the reason “many of the resolutions adopted by these bodies lack political reality… there has developed an anti- United Nations sentiment, where there is now a movement against all forms of international multilateralism.” The problem here is that countries are not working together on a given issue, and yet is this was the very bass of international law. The United Nations defines International Law as,

“the legal responsibilities of States in their conduct with each other, and their treatment of individuals within State boundaries. Its domain encompasses a wide range of issues of international concern such as human rights, disarmament, international crime, refugees, migration, problems of nationality, the treatment of prisoners, the use of force, and the conduct of war, among others.”[1]

Humphrey admits that figuring out how voting should be represented is extremely hard, but he would be much happier if he knew the Canadian government was working on a solution. This admission then leads to Humphrey’s third parent of anarchy.  The third parent of anarchy can be described as the concept of collective responsibility for violations of international law. Humphrey gives the example of a country suspected of engaging in acts of terrorism against another country. This country then would be tempted to bomb the cost of said country, which could result in the death of innocent men, women and children. The violation here consists of innocent people suffering while those responsible hide behind the notion collective responsibility. Individual responsibility for such actions is recognized only in very few cases (Humphrey uses the examples of war criminal trials after the Second World War as individual responsibility). Humphrey is making the point that international law should towards the protection of the individual, in the same way that it looks towards the sovereignty and protection of entire countries.

Humphrey lists the three parents of anarchy as the major barriers towards the creation of a peaceful world. Labeling the international legal system as primitive, Humphrey says that a good place to start in protecting the rights of the individual would be to expel the parents of anarchy. Within his speech, Humphrey does not seem to be asking for a lot. He wants the Canadian government to at least attempt a solution when it comes to the voting power of countries under the United Nations General Assembly. He also asks for the breaking down of collective responsibility, feeling that guilty people hide behind this idea, and that individual responsibility should be recognized. He feels that these changes would help build an international order that would maintain peace between nations and focus on the protection of individual rights.

[1] United Nations Global Issues, International Law,


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Forty Years After Its Adoption

By Sonia Boskov

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights laid out equal rights for all people and three fundamental principles governing human rights: rights are universal, inalienable and indivisible. John Humphrey worked as the executive secretary in the United Nations Human Rights Division of Freedom of Information from 1946 to 1966. In his speech “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Forty Years After Its Adoption”, which was given at a communications conference in 1988, Humphrey provides a comprehensive outline of Article 19 and its significance, the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the implications to the international political order as a result of its approval.

Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines the fundamental freedoms of right to information, expression and opinion. In his speech, Humphrey asserts Article 19 as “the touchstone of all other freedoms”. The right to freedom of information and expression is an instrument for the implementation of further fundamental rights and freedoms. In addition, Article 19 is significant to human rights discourse in the Canadian context because the parliamentary hearings that occurred in response to the Gouzenko affair and the formation of civil liberties associations in the 1950s and 1960s such as the Jewish Labour Committee.

In his speech, Humphrey discusses the significance and impact of freedom of information and expression on the international human rights framework. Humphrey asserts the right to freedom of information and expression as the benchmark of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a device for further fundamental rights and freedoms. This particular speech can be applied to the Canadian context in the terms of the evolving human rights discourse since the 1940s. The Gouzenko affair marked a critical moment in Canadian human rights history in terms of the balance of individual rights and freedoms and national security. The federal government responded to the Gouzenko affair by passing an Order-in-Council under the War Measures Act, even as the application of this Act was set to expire, and immediately detained eleven people. In the detention process, civil liberties were sacrificed. The affair was a critical moment in Canadian history as it began a conversation about human rights.

A number of the first civil liberties groups in Canada emerged in response to the Gouzenko affair. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, civil liberties associations played a leading role in the parliamentary hearings that followed the Gouzenko affair. The Jewish Labour Committee (JLC) was especially prominent and actively vocal in the human rights movement. As Humphrey discusses in his speech, Article 19 is crucial for democracy and the enjoyment of other rights. Freedom of information and opinion is not only a mechanism for the elaboration and protection further rights but is also a mechanism of power. Freedom of information  is essential to democratic governance and can be used to strongly influence society. The Jewish Labour Committee was at the forefront of campaigns for anti-discrimination. Although the JLC’s principal focus was achieving labour rights and anti-discrimination legislation for minority groups, the communication of civil liberties and the free expression of opinions played an essential part in mobilizing action in parliament to acknowledge and protect additional human rights.

The right to freedom of expression and opinion also means the freedom to hold opinions without interference. Humphrey asserts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a cornerstone of international politics. It was created in part to be a “common standard of all peoples in all nations”. Furthermore, Humphrey states that human dignity cannot exist without the protection of human rights. The adoption of the Declaration in 1948 helped to change the content, nature and framework of the international system. The Declaration created a structure of new principles for all nations to comply with. Moreover, the Declaration has built a bridge that connects the state and the citizens, an essential component in all democracies.

Canada’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a crucial move in the development of an established human rights discourse in Canada that not only translated into legislation but also into the integration of society that built on the core values of the Canadian people. As Humphrey accounts in his speech, it is evident that freedom of information and expression is the foundations that supports further fundamental freedoms and rights in Canada and all other nations. Article 19 is not only important in its own right but it is also essential for other human rights to be achieved.

News Notes of the Social Justice Committee of Montreal

By Sumaya Ugas

Delivered on October 13th 1983, the speech by John Humphrey titled For New Notes of the Social Justice Committee of Montreal highlights the importance of an international body working to ensure the rights of all people while recognizing the implications it has with regards to countries’ national sovereignty. The significance of this speech lies in Humphrey’s description of the Universal Declaration as “an international law by reference.”  This emphasis on universal standards of conduct as an international “legal” system shows not only his trust in the Declaration, and the United Nations as a regulatory body, but also demonstrates his sustained belief in the revolutionary nature of the Universal Declaration of Humans Rights.

John Humphrey begins his speech by reminding the audience of the imminent 35th anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While recognizing that rights violations did not suddenly end with the espousal of the Declaration, Humphrey nonetheless insists on the “real progress” that had been made since then, framing this progress not only through tangible metrics (the improvement of the status and condition of women for example) but also through the assertion that “traditional civil and political rights” would mean nothing if not for the Declaration (in that there would be no means of enforcing them).

That the rhetoric of Humphrey’s speech is one of progress and revolution in reference to the body of “international law” is unsurprising given the audience of the speech. Founded in 1975, the Social Justice Committee of Montreal (now known as the Social Justice Connection) strived to “connect Montrealers with the social struggles of Central America”. Their work focused primarily on issues of poverty and economic exploitation. In their statement of purpose the Social Justice Connection states that it “target[s] the most powerful institutions on the globe to have the greatest impact on behalf of communities that face poverty, oppression and marginalization. We focus especially on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). The SJC is the most active NGO in Canada in pushing for greater accountability and transparency at these institutions.”

One could see how Humphrey’s message of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “an international law by reference” would be well received by a group already invested in international accountability processes. Such organizations and the power they potentially wield, or can leverage through their activism by demanding the upholding of internationally recognized human rights, falls within Humphrey’s vision of the Declaration as revolutionary. This serves to introduce a global standard against which countries have to measure up, while also creating a tangible resource for civil society to refer to in demanding respect for human rights. This is especially apparent in the Social Justice Connection’s commitment to “push for the full application of international laws in human rights along with ideals of social justice such as equality, non-discrimination and other conditions that contribute to a life oh fulfillment.”

Humphrey points to the reluctant attitudes of governments as major factors in the “necessarily slow and difficult” process of achieving real progress despite the existence of “international standards of conduct.” To illustrate this, he uses as example the case of Sandra Lovelace, who was stripped of her status “in her Indian band” despite the fact that “under the Indian Act if an Indian man marries a non-Indian woman he brings her into his tribe.” Due to the language of the Act, which very clearly gave space for gender-based discrimination, Sandra Lovelace was not only denied the right to bring her spouse “into her own tribe” but had her own status taken from her.

Because the Canadian government failed to give Lovelace the justice she sought, and because the discrimination she faced was “prohibited by the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights […] she took her case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee” where her case was heard. She ultimately received the justice and recognition that her human rights were supposed to guarantee.  One could argue that Humphrey’s use of this particular case to demonstrate the very real ways in which governments, and in this case our own Canadian government, can – and will – neglect the guaranteeing of their constituents’ human rights until international bodies provide the grounds on which justice can be served.

Indeed, it is also interesting to read this speech in the contemporary context of the many, longstanding struggles and activist work around Truth and Reconciliation, as well as the push for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada. One would thus question Humphrey’s belief in the supposedly revolutionary nature of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights if, almost 70 years later, large scale human rights violations continue to happen. Or, if one does not question the Declaration as revolutionary then one should at least seriously think about the ways in which national sovereignty continues to stifle attempts at holding governments accountable for their failings in ensuring, respecting, and enforcing the rights of all their peoples.

International Protection of Human Rights: Present Realities and Prospects for the Future

By Maria Ihler

In 1973, 25 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), John Peters Humphrey expressed great pessimism at the U.N.’s lack of effective tools for its implementation. In his speech “International Protection of Human Rights: Present Realities and Prospects for the Future”, he assesses available and potential means for the U.N. to enforce the Declaration.

This speech discusses a fundamental struggle in the field of human rights and international law generally: how do we secure compliance with international treaties, given the principle of non-intervention in states’ internal affairs? Humphrey offers his personal opinion on the UDHR’s potential, taking into consideration topics central to modern debates, such as humanitarian intervention, the efficacy of the U.N., and the power of public opinion.

Identifying key procedures and problems for implementing international human rights, Humphrey’s critique is still valid today, 70 years after he began his work on the UDHR. Humphrey discusses four procedures in particular, and his assessment of their current and potential value, along with an outline of their role today, is presented below.

1. The U.N. bodies

The problem with enforcing human rights through the U.N. is that it is composed of political actors whose interest is the state, not individuals. The fact that the Human Rights Commission (as of 2006 “the Human Rights Council”) is a political body, means national interests easily assume precedence over concern for individuals’ and minority groups’ sufferings, and the primary concerns of the state will thus always influence decisions. Humphrey criticizes states, especially Canada, but does not find it surprising that they are inclined to avoid what they consider unnecessary international tension on rights issues. He sees two solutions: one is employing objective rapporteurs, which will increase both the authority and validity of reports. The second is public opinion, which he considers “the most effective instrument for the promotion of / respect for human rights.”

He considers the Advisory Programme a success, because it employs aid and reward as motivation, encouraging governments to sponsor human rights, thus increasing public attention. Since the ratification of treaties is voluntary, punishments do not encourage participation in the process. As for the idea of a High Commissioner for Human Rights, Humphrey believed that it lacked significant support and was therefore “ready for the waste-paper basket”. Indeed, the office was not established until 1993.

A system Humphrey commends in principle is one that requires reports from governments to the U.N. to demonstrate compliance and progress on human rights. However, he deems the system essentially ineffective, solely due to the lack of U.N. willpower. Not only are the reports too infrequent, there is no proper follow up. Humphrey calls for assessments to be conducted by independent experts, and encourages further independent investigations of suspected violations. Even if states distort or withhold information, Humphrey believes reports ensure international pressure, the most effective instruments there is: “adverse publicity (…) is something to which even authoritarian states are sensitive.” Today, this is the system of the Universal Periodic Review, consisting of three reports by three actors: the state, U.N. agents, and national NGOs.

For national interest not to overpower human rights, and in order to protect individuals and minorities, Humphrey believes what is needed is an independent, objective, judiciary – ideally a Universal Court of Human Rights, such as the European or Inter-American Courts of Human Rights. He was not hopeful of such an institution at the time he gave his speech, and though the U.N. has since expanded its scope of courts and tribunals, there still does not exist a court for the human rights conventions and to which individuals have access. The Human Rights Council as of 2003 accepts complaints from individuals, groups and NGOs regarding repeated, gross violations, but it is not a judicial organ.

Humphrey imagines universal application of human rights as possible only if they become jus cogens, non-derogable custom binding all states. Nonetheless, the fundamental principle of national sovereignty prevents enforcing human rights against a state’s will. The question is whether, in the case of gross human rights violations, it is legal for the international community to intervene by force. Humphrey believed  it was less likely than ever, as the U.N. Charter, art. 2(4), require all members to refrain from threat or use of force against each other, unless there is a threat to international peace, or the government consents to intervention. Contemporary debates show, however, that many states think it should be legal, and it is increasingly a topic of debate after the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s. At the U.N. World Summit in 2005, the “Responsibility to Protect” all populations from genocide and crimes against humanity was formally accepted. While the legality of humanitarian intervention is still contested, interventions in the name of human rights are today a much more familiar concept.

Though he considered the UDHR a “very great achievement”, Humphrey did not find its implementation effective. He found the U.N. to be centered on national interests. Yet he still identified room for change, such as independent rapporteurs and follow-up reports. Some of this has since been altered in the direction he desired, while U.N. efficacy, a judicial organ and humanitarian intervention remain unresolved. He concludes that the catalyst for human rights, World War II, is now gone. His critique is still relevant today. Still, there has been an upsurge in what he considers the crucial factor, public opinion, and this is acting as a catalyst for taking action against gross violations to human rights.

The Meaning of Meech: Reasonable Limits on Self-Determination

By Simren Sandhu

The Meaning of Meech is a decisive, and somewhat provocative departure from the works of human rights legend John Peters Humphrey. During Canada’s era of constitutional debate and revisionism, Humphrey adds his influential voice to the delicate subject of Quebec’s proposed status as a ‘distinct society’ within Confederation. Humphrey’s view on the Meech Lake Accord and Quebec nationalism reveals the right to self-determination to be a complex area even for the father of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Through concise legal and political explanation, it’s effortless to see why Humphrey believed Meech Lake would compromise the integrity of Canada as a nation. In many ways, his defiant stance against Quebec’s claim as a distinct society echoes the ‘reasonable limits’ placed on rights enshrined in the repatriated constitution of Canada.

Humphrey’s statement is significant in the most basic sense because, as an international figure, historians often portray his ideals and perspectives on global affairs without examining the positions he took on domestic affairs. To Humphrey, bestowing Quebec with the right as a ‘distinct society’ is ultimately the “death of Canadian nationhood”, regardless of a Quebec nationalist’s intent to leave or remain in Canada.  He explains that such an affirmation would lead Quebec politicians to exploit its meaning on matters of federal-provincial power sharing, and Quebec’s ability to opt out of federal programs. In addition to redefining the divisions of power, Humphrey warns that a Quebec so far removed from the Canadian federation would still have federal members of Parliament and the executive would still originate from a province which was, for all intents and purposes, an independent nation. He compares such an arrangement to Canada having voting rights over United States policy, simply because the two are neighbours in trade and geography.

As a sentiment, Humphrey’s opposition to the Quebec provisions in Meech Lake Accord represents the inherent conflict between self-determination and group unity. Humphrey was a champion of individual rights before group rights.[1] In 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada declared that the people of Canada, from sea to sea, wielded the right to asses their place in the Canadian federation.[2] However, from Humphrey’s perspective, the question is whether this right is more just an abused provision that harms the common good. As he notes, “separatist blackmail” and “agreeing to reorganize Canada” as a response would lead to the aforementioned  democratic deficit and the end of Confederation as it was then known. The  first section of the Constitution Act of Canada, it is clearly stated that the rights and freedoms found within are guaranteed “only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”[3] In practice, the reasonable limits clause has been used in courts to determine whether a certain right or freedom is worth overriding for the ‘good of society.’ Humphrey’s conclusions are akin to the application of reasonable limits on self-rule, on the grounds that it would harm the entire country at large.

The Meech Lake Accord was the Government of Canada’s attempt to bring Quebec into the Constitutional fold. The province never signed on to Pierre Trudeau’s early plans to repatriate the Canadian constitution, as the two sides could not reach an agreement on language rights.[4] Regardless, Trudeau followed through with his plan with the support of all premiers except the Parti Québécois’ Réne Lévesque. Quebec nationalists viewed the repatriation as an act of bad faith, but Humphrey insists the so-called betrayal was the provinces “thinking like Canadians”[5] and coming to a fair  compromise. It is crucial to view Humphrey’s warning in the context of another equally, if not more, important issue:  distinct society recognition. The Aboriginal peoples of Canada were not meaningfully consulted in the Meech Lake talks, yet the focus of the Accord was on accommodating the wishes of a unique group within the Canadian mosaic. Despite all efforts, Meech Lake ultimately failed at the hands of one man, Elijah Harper, who stood rebelliously in the legislature of Manitoba and opposed the Meech Lake Accord in the belief that First Nations people were excluded from the equation.[6] While there is no definitive answer, one cannot help but wonder if Humphrey would maintain the same opposition to a distinct society recognition when interpreting the case of First Nations people.

International law expert and human rights figure John Peters Humphrey will forever be remembered as the indispensable scribe of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, the steadfast convictions he had when it came to his home country shed light on his perception on sovereignty and the right to autonomy as a concept.  The Meaning of Meech conveyed his objection to a ‘distinct society’ clause as an appeasement to Quebec nationalists, while leaving unanswered questions as to if the same logic would apply to Aboriginal rights.

[1] John Hobbins, “John Humphrey and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” in HIST 370 Lectures (Montreal: McGill University, 2016).

[2] Reference Re Secession of Quebec, 2 SCR, 217 (1998).

[3] Canada., The Constitution Act, 1982 (Ottawa, Ont.: Government of Canada, 1982).

[4] Frédéric Bastien, The Battle of London: Trudeau, Thatcher, and the Fight for Canada’s Constitutio (Toronto: Dundurn, 2013), 286.

[5] Humphrey, “The Meaning of Meech,” 12.

[6] Gloria Galloway, “Elijah Harper, First Nations Leader Who Brought Down Meech Lake, Dies at 64,” The Globe and Mail 2013.

Human Rights and Their “Fundamentals”

By Hannah Hu

At the time of this speech, in 1991, John Peters Humphrey was profoundly distressed by what he was witnessing in the world. The inefficient and inconsistent penalties for war criminals, and the alarming implications of the Gulf War, were events that ran contrary to the aspirations of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). His address is a reflection of not only the convictions that motivated his work on the UDHR but as well as some of his more critical assessments stemming from what he saw as the international community’s shortcomings in achieving justice. His remarks are meaningful, but does he offer a different perspective on the conduct of intergovernmental organizations? In what ways do his insights contribute to our understanding on how human rights are best protected? Certainly, Humphrey acknowledges that the development of inter-governmental entities and the collective articulation of norms and behaviours are key to the maintenance of human rights. However, he argues that the fact that the United Nations sanctions nations rather than individuals is a fundamental flaw in the international system, as this often results in the persecution of the innocent rather than the punishment of the guilty. Given the ongoing conflicts at the time the speech was delivered, as well as the growing international debates on prosecuting human rights violations, his speech holds special significance and merits further discussion.

Humphrey begins with the premise that a fundamental aspect of human rights is the respect and agency accorded to the individual. As international human rights law evolved, men and women are no longer simply subjects of the law, they could also be objects of the law. He calls this a “vertical phenomenon”, wherein the rights of the state were no longer the sole and primary concern for international law. He describes the “organization of shame” as an effective deterrent for nations committing rights violations, because states are inevitably sensitive to world public opinion and are inclined to avoid undermining their legitimacy. However, he observes that the principle of collective responsibility still remains in UN conduct, and he considers this doctrine to be characteristic of traditional international law, which is highly counter-productive to the objectives of the UDHR. In discussions of rights and responsibilities, there is a presumption that a nation can be conceptualized as a homogenous unit, and can be treated as such. In reality, when accountability is indiscriminately assigned within a nation, the wrong people bear the burden of the crimes, and Humphrey sees that as a crime in and of itself. Additionally, collective responsibility is problematic because while the UDHR was intended to protect individuals from persecution or deprivation, many of the economic and material sanctions carried out by the UN actually impede the state  from fulfilling its obligations. Ultimately, human rights are best protected when there is accountability, but justice is best served only when that accountability is precise.

Given that he was speaking in Iran just months after the Persian Gulf War had formally ended, there is no doubt that he saw the conflict itself as a crucial case study for his appeals. More importantly, what had transpired at the hands of the UN disturbed him deeply: the sanctions implemented against Iraq during the conflict contributed to severe humanitarian devastation and caused the death and deprivation of countless local people. It seemed unthinkable that the intergovernmental organization responsible for protecting human rights and well-being, could be culpable for this kind of damage. He was also certainly not alone in his condemnation: Denis Halliday, the Assistant Secretary-General at the time, described the implications as amounting to “genocide”, and resigned from his position in protest.[1] Despite the controversy however, there remain defenders of sanctions as effective tools for supporting democracy and peace. The turn of the 21st century was marked by even more aggressive UN sanctions, like those in Afghanistan, Iran, and once again, Iraq.[2] Evidently, Humphrey’s contention that it is the collective responsibility of nations to hold violators of human rights accountable, but not the collective responsibility of a single nation’s people to bear the formal consequences of a violation, is still urgently salient today

[1] Jensen, Robert, “Radicalized by U.S. disregard for Iraqi People,” Baltimore Sun, August 13, 2000, University of Texas.

[2]  United States, Dpt. of the Treasury, Resource Center, Sanctions Program and Country Information (Washington, DC: Resource Center, 2016)

Humphrey, Quebec and Canada

By Napoleon Bergeron

On Sunday, November 29th, 1942, John Humphrey took part in a conversation on the topic of Canadian unity that was broadcast live by the young CBC to the relatively young nation of Canada. The discussion was part of a series that was hosted in a different province every Sunday. On that particular Sunday evening, Humphrey was co-hosting the episode from Quebec. Humphrey, along with Emile Vaillancourt and Hugh Maclennan, was facing a very real question; is Canada a nation? In the months leading up to their conversation Canada had, for the second time in less than thirty years, been divided along linguistic lines over the issue of overseas conscription, begging the question of whether or not there had ever been such a thing as Canadian unity. Tensions that hung over Canadian politics in the decades before, and since, were thick in the air on that November evening, and speaking to a national audience from the very heart of the linguistic divide, the timing of Humphrey’s conversation could not have been more significant.

Humphrey succinctly captured the tension in his introduction; “if three men from the province of Quebec try to [talk to the rest of Canada] – especially at the present time – it pretty well puts them on the spot.” The ‘present time’ was the aftermath of a plebiscite that had been held in April of 1942, asking the Canadian public “Are you in favour of releasing the Government from any obligations arising out of any past commitments restricting the methods of raising men for military service?” At its core, the question was a yes/no referendum on conscription, as the ‘obligation’ in question was a promise made by the government in 1940, very shortly after the war began, that there would be no draft for overseas service. The promise had been made to pre-emptively ease the fears of French Canada in light of the riots in opposition to conscription in 1917 during the First World War. But in the aftermath of the Fall of France and the expansion of the War to the Pacific Theatre with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December of 1941, there was a growing realization among politicians that a draft would be necessary in order to contribute to a global war that looked set to continue for years.

The results of the plebiscite vindicated the original reasoning behind the 1940 promise. 65% of Canadian voters answered ‘yes’. Among English speaking Canadians that number was 83%. But, as feared, 80% of French Canadians answered ‘no’.[1] As the hosts opened the program, Vaillancourt noted “I’m a native French speaking citizen of Quebec – and of Canada. So being put on the spot by the other provinces is hardly a new experience for me.” Vaillancourt was speaking to the linguistic and cultural tensions that had existed in Quebec since the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763 and the introduction of British – English – rule. Yet this centuries-old conflict wasn’t the only factor to consider when discussing the question of Canadian unity. Maclennan noted that he grew up in Nova Scotia so “perhaps I can understand how you feel,” to which Vaillancourt responded “perhaps you understand a little.” Not only was there cultural dissonance in Canada, there were layers of it. From this point the conversation turned to broader problems of sectionalism in Canada, and the physical and cultural divide between provinces. Humphrey highlighted the root cause of all these symptoms: “I’m afraid we’ve got to admit that no one has a clear picture in his mind when he uses the term ‘Canadian’. And because there is no clear picture – because to date Canadians have never seen themselves clearly in the glass- our country lacks a clear cut personality.” There was a great deal of discussion and dissension on matters like the definition of a nation, or what could be done to alleviate the situation, but every speaker agreed that there was no singular vision with which to divide the disparate communities that comprised Canada.

The issues that Humphrey, along with Maclennan and Vaillancourt, addressed were never truly resolved. The far-reaching implications of the plebiscite bore fruit when, in 1944, drafted men became eligible to be sent overseas to the fighting. There was disruption and there were riots, and while it did not tear the fabric of Canadian unity it did show that any unity was slowly bursting the seams. The linguistic and cultural divide between provinces continues to be an issue to this day. Though Humphrey and his co-speakers wished for a future in which discussions such as theirs were unnecessary, they were ultimately merely observers of a centuries long trend that began well before and continued long after their lives.

[1]  MacFarlane, John. Ernest Lapointe and Quebec’s Infuence on Canadian Foreign Policy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. 190-191



Foundation Book on Refugees

By Hannah Arseneau – Danielis

John Peters Humphrey’s speech “Foundation Book on Refugees” remains relevant today. Delivered sometime after 1976, Humphrey’s speech states that, while originally conceived as temporary in nature following WWI, the problem of refugees has only persisted. Events from Humphrey’s era until the present further discredit this initial perception. Canada’s current refugee debate stems partially from the country’s ratification of the UN Convention and Protocol on refugees and their incorporation into national law. Humphrey’s speech foreshadows discussions that have yet to achieve formal results at the international, national or local levels, which may decide the future of refugees in Canada.

Of the various developments that Humphrey discusses, two of them in particular persist: the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees (which provides the definition of a refugee, still in use by Canada)[1] and the 1967 Protocol (which removes any geographic limitations on who may be considered a refugee). The 1951 UN Convention’s defines a refugee as “any person who is seeking refuge, that is to say, shelter from pursuit or dangers…And the danger from which he is fleeing can be of many kinds, including famine or poverty.” Humphrey justified this narrow definition because many states, including Canada, had incorporated it into national law.

Humphrey acknowledged that at the international level complete freedom of movement between state borders did not exist. Treaties such as the 1951 Convention only prevent refoulement, which is to expel or return a refugee to the place of persecution they have fled. Humphrey notes that Article 14 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights gives more protection to asylum seekers than the 1951 Convention by ensuring that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” While people allegedly have the right to move freely between borders, according to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, states still retain the right to grant entry and decide what rights refugees receive. Humphrey believed the controversy in Canada at the time was deciding who was a real refugee, and while he knew there were other potentially related issues, he believed they could be dealt with under immigration rather than refugee law. Questions of whether the country needed more immigrants, employment, a desire to maintain a certain demographic character, among others, were distinguished from refugee law based on the 1951 Convention.

The current ‘refugee problem’ shows that the debates Humphrey discussed are still ongoing, begging the question of whether it is time to redefine refugees, immigration, state borders or some combination of these understandings. While the government claims to differentiate refugees from other types of immigrants, trends in Canadian history blur this distinction. Walker (2009, 82) believes the notion of a racial liberal order has shaped Canada’s immigration policies and the state has prerogative in determining who may enter the nation. Choudry (2009) also believes that Canada has a history of engineering a racialized underclass. A similar phenomenon can be found in Canada’s history of accepting refugees. Harold Troper (2009) states that “By the 1970’s it was widely held that Canada was then and always had been a haven for the oppressed. In retrospect the public imagination turned a select series of economically beneficial refugee resettlement programs into a massive and longstanding Canadian humanitarian resolve on behalf of refugees.”[2] Thus, while the Canadian government claims to distinguish between these two groups, the racialized rationale underlying their entry to the nation appear quite similar. Humphrey’s speech envisions a world functioning as a single state. Despite the utopian overtones, Humphrey also stated “the Canadian parliament and the provincial legislatures…theoretically could decide that all asylum seekers, whether political, economic or other, have a right to enter the country.” Carens (1987, 270) contends that current immigration policies protect unjust privilege and a movement towards open borders is both compatible with the idea of moral worth and desirable. Current debates within Canadian society and government have resulted in discrimination against refugees whose claims to citizenship  satisfy the requirements of the 1951 Convention – further indicating that a reimagining of these policies is necessary to fulfill Canada’s human rights obligations as decreed by the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the 1951 Convention. In light of recent events, such as those surrounding the controversy over Canada’s acceptance of Syrian refugees, it is important to consider how open borders might reaffirm (or perhaps initiate) our nation’s communal character rather than destroy it.


Carens, Joseph H.. 1987. “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders”. The Review of Politics 49 (2). [University of Notre Dame du lac on behalf of Review of Politics, Cambridge University Press]: 251–73.

Choudry, A., Hanley, J. Jordon, S. Shragge, E., And Stiegman, M. “Context.” In Fight Back: Workplace Justice for Immigrants, 15-32. Blacks Point, N.S:Fernwood, 2009.

Government of Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Communications Branch. “Determine Your Eligibility – Refugee Status from inside Canada.”  Last modified December 12, 2012.

Walker, Barrington. “Finding Jim Crow in Canada, 1789-1967.” In A History of Human Rights in Canada, edited by Janet Miron, 81-98. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc, 2009.

[1] “Determine Your Eligibility – Refugee Status from inside Canada,” Government of Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Communications Branch, Last modified December 12, 2012,

[2] “Brief History of Canada’s Responses to Refugees,” Canadian Council for Refugees, Accessed February 24, 2016.


Speech to the World Federalists of Canada, 1981

By Jonah Winer

John Peters Humphrey’s speech to the World Federalists of Canada delivered in June 1981 is enlightening and significant as it reveals Humphrey’s perspective on the issues of human rights implementation on a global scale through international Human Rights bodies as they relate to global governance. Humphrey does this by examining the pitfalls of the United States’ Articles of Confederation and emphasizing the element he believed would be essential for a successful international system: a direct relationship between this system and individuals the world over.

Before exploring Humphrey’s ideas on the shortfalls and potential good of the World Federalist movement one must first address the ideology of the World Federalists themselves. The World Federalist Movement “evolved out of a series of national organizations…as a response to the failure of the League of Nations and in the attempt of creating the kind of global order that could prevent world war.”[1]  The movement essentially formulated itself as a response to what it saw as critical problems in the League of Nations’ and later the United Nations’ ability to achieve their stated goals of “save[ing] succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”[2] At the time Humphrey addressed the movement, its members’ chief argument was that reforms such as the creation of an International Criminal Court and Commission on Sustainable Development were needed to move the United Nations towards becoming a kind of global parliament that could adequately lead the world forward into an era of peace and global democracy.

While this speech clearly displays Humphrey’s sympathy with the World Federalist movement he clearly had reservations about the implementation of the movement’s goals. He focused specifically on the need to establish a direct relationship between citizens and a world government. He did not believe it should be one mediated through federal governments. Humphrey felt so strongly about this matter that he invoked Hamilton’s turn of phrase, calling the absence of such a relationship “the parent of anarchy”[3] which doomed any kind of federated system be it the United States of America or the United Nations to conflict and breakdown.  In his speech he recognizes the success in applying international law to individuals following the Second World War, but makes clear that “the parent of anarchy” was as present then as it was in the League of Nations. At the time he gave his speech, Humphrey believed this “parent of anarchy” continued to undermine the system as a whole. He strengthens his nuanced position by giving an example of a problem inherent in the United Nations structure: the principle of the equality of sovereign states. Humphrey illustrates how equating the votes of all states regardless of population size creates a false majoritarianism that delegitimizes UN resolutions and divorces its function from the basics of democracy. With these and other serious reservations in mind Humphrey displays his pragmatic and balanced nature by maintaining that while flawed, the United Nations is the foundation on which World Federalists must build. It is therefore an institution that must be supported. Humphrey asserts that the problems with the system can be solved, the “parent of anarchy” can be removed, and all this can be done through work within the United Nations so that in can be transitioned into a system which effectively guarantees “world peace and the promotion of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”[4]

This speech is highly significant in how it reveals both John Peter Humphrey’s character and his ideas on increasingly integrated world governance. It shows Humphrey to be a carefully considered and nuanced thinker, with a strong core of human rights based values, who is able to look forward with both optimism and practicality. By addressing his specific concerns with elements of World Federalism, Humphrey begins the work that he identifies as necessary in his speech, building on the framework of the United Nations in a carefully considered manner with an eye to what kind of governance the world needs to promote peace and human rights.


[1] World Federalist Movement Institute for Global Policy. “History”. Accessed February 18, 2016.

[2] Preamble | United Nations Charter.” UN News Center. Accessed February 18, 2016.

[3] Peters Humphry, John. “Speech to World Federalists of Canada” Speech at the Annual, Brock University, June 19, 1981.

[4] Preamble | United Nations Charter.” UN News Center. Accessed February 18, 2016.


Intervention at UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of the Minorities

By Houssemeddine Hammami

In a speech entitled “Intervention at UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of the Minorities” (1989), Humphrey states that the international mechanisms for the implementation and enforcement of the international law of human rights are too weak. However, in this short speech, Humphrey doesn’t make any suggestions for implementation nor does he share the background about the nature of his concerns with his audience. Therefore, this post will  argue and demonstrate that the international mechanisms for the implementation and enforcement of the international law of human rights are weak and ineffective.

First, in his speech, Humphrey is not only arguing in favor of the adoption of a declaration proclaiming the right to adequate compensation by the General Assembly but he’s also arguing in favor of granting the victims of human rights violations the right to be compensated. It is worth mentioning that the right to adequate compensation is stated under article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, its enforcement is heavily reliant on the domestic judicial system of individual states.

Furthermore, following the analysis of this speech one can safely conclude that Humphrey hoped that the adoption of a declaration by the General Assembly would intimidate the violators of human rights thus reducing the frequency of human rights violations. This  speech was given at a time where authoritarian regimes such as Pinochet’s (Dictator of Chile 1973-1990) were committing human rights violations on a daily basis. That being said, a declaration proclaiming the right to adequate compensation would eventually be adopted by the General Assembly in December 2005 (General Assembly Resolution 60/147).1 In the meantime, the world witnessed the horrors of the Rwandan Genocide (1994) and the horrors of The Bosnian War (1992-1995) both of which were characterized by flagrant human rights violations.

States are very protective of their sovereignty and therefore they have yet to reach a consensus when it comes to the creation of a central enforcement mechanism for human rights.2 In order for a central enforcement mechanism to be created, states would have to give up their sovereignty and that is just out of the question in the current state of international relations. In other words, state sovereignty is hindering the implementation of a central enforcement mechanism that would guarantee the enforcement of the international law of human rights.

Still, the international community has created an international Judicial body that is supposed to hold violators of human rights accountable: the International Court of Justice (ICJ). However, the ICJ has very limited powers and therefore it is painfully ineffective. In fact, the court’s work is limited to cases involving states alone. The ICJ’s mandate prevents it from hearing cases involving individuals which is another reason why the court is so ineffective.Moreover, states must voluntarily bring their cases before the court.3

Humphrey was probably aware of the fact that the only way to guarantee the enforcement of the international law of human rights was to create a central enforcement mechanism. However, it is safe to assume that he knew all too well that states were not ready to give up their sovereignty in order to create such mechanism especially at a time where tensions between the Liberal West and the Communist Soviet Union were at their peak. In fact, for a central mechanism to be created, all the members of the international community would have had to reach a consensus but the chances of that happening were slim, especially in 1989 when this particular speech was given. It is perhaps for this reason that Humphrey didn’t even bother mentioning the creation of a central enforcement mechanism because he was aware of the fact such thinking was very naïve indeed.

In conclusion, although most democratic states do respect the international law of human rights, most autocratic states don’t and therefore a central enforcement mechanism is needed. Currently, the enforcement of the international law of human rights is heavily reliant on the will of individual states to respect the principles of the law and that is the reason why the existing system of enforcement is weak and ineffective. Unfortunately, state hinders the implementation of an enforcement mechanism that would guarantee the enforcement of the international law of human rights. States are very protective of their sovereignty and therefore the implementation of a central enforcement mechanism won’t happen any time soon.


  1. “Remedy And Reparation”, OCHCR, accessed February 10th, 2016,
  2. “Enforcement”, Legal Answers, accessed February 10th, 2016,
  3. “Human Rights Bodies”, OCHCR, accessed February 10th, 2016,
  4. 4.     Ibid.


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