John Peters Humphrey, author of UN’s Declaration of Universal Rights

John Peters Humphrey, “The father of the modern human rights system.” Photo, John Peters Humphrey Foundation.

Three-and-a-half years after the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco, the nations of the world met in General Assembly in Paris to lay a foundation stone, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is “the international Magna Carta of all mankind,” in the words of U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “One of humanity’s most shining achievements,” in the words of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay. The principal drafter of this 30-article document was a Canadian lawyer, professor and human rights advocate, John Peters Humphrey, “the father of the modern human rights system,” in the words of Nelson Mandela.

Born in the small New Brunswick town of Hampton, as a young child Humphrey lost both his parents to cancer and an arm to an accident while playing with fire; endured a boarding school education; enrolled in Mount Allison University at age 15; moved to Montreal and McGill University, where he earned degrees in commerce, arts, and law, with a Master’s in international law. He conducted a brief law practice in Montreal, before accepting a teaching post at McGill.

At McGill in the early 1940s, Humphrey met Henri Laugier, a Second World War refugee from German-occupied France who had worked for the Free French. When the British liberated North Africa, Laugier moved to Algeria to teach at the University of Algiers. Five weeks after Germany’s surrender ended the war in Europe in May, 1945, 51 founding nations signed the UN Charter in San Francisco. The UN’s first assistant secretary-general was Laugier. In 1946, Laugier hired Humphrey as the first director of the UN’s Division of Human Rights, a position he held for 20 years.

A UN Commission on Human Rights was formed, with Eleanor Roosevelt as chair, to prepare what was initially conceived as an International Bill of Rights, but would emerge as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rights in the declaration had to be acceptable to the varying racial, cultural and religious tenets of the commission members, from Australia, Belgium, Byelorussia, Chile, China, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Lebanon, Panama, Philippines, United Kingdom, United States, Soviet Union, Uruguay and Yugoslavia. No small challenge.

While the rights had to be universal, the idea was not. “Any attempt by the United Nations to formulate a Declaration of Human Rights in individualistic terms would quite inevitably fail,” Harold Laski, considered one of the great political scientists of his time, predicted. Even the government of Canada was initially opposed, much to Humphrey’s chagrin. Numerous objectors believed that an “attempt to reach a consensus on rights would only promote conflict and incite the kind of vapid moralizing which the Ottawa men disliked,” Humphrey wrote.

It was in the face of this doubt and opposition that Humphrey tackled the task of preparing a draft declaration. His 408-page document was the basis on which, after two years of much debate, the Universal Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly in Paris on December 8, 1948. December 8 is still observed in most of the world as Human Rights Day.

“The UDHR and the forces of moderation, tolerance, and understanding that the text represents will probably in future history-writing be seen as one of the greatest steps forward in the process of global civilization,” Asbjorn Eide, founder of the Norwegian Institute of Human Rights at the University of Oslo, wrote in 1992.

But Humphrey was not satisfied. “Human rights without economic and social rights have little meaning for most people, particularly on empty bellies,” he wrote. It was an echo of one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous four freedoms, “freedom from want.” The UN addressed this concern in 1966 with the adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, together with the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These two covenants and the UDHR now comprise the UN’s International Bill of Human Rights.

The lofty goals of the UDHR are manifestly far from achieved. Billions of people are still deprived of the declared basic rights. Yet more people than ever now live with the freedom of those rights. And UDHR is a crucial instrument for the protection and promotion of those rights. It has been incorporated in the constitutions of more than one hundred counties; dozens of legally binding international treaties are based on its principles; and it has been cited as justification for numerous UN activities.

Perhaps the most powerful tool for establishing the rights espoused by the UDR will prove to be the International Criminal Court, charged with prosecuting perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes—another Canadian initiative.

During his term as UN Director of Human Rights, Humphrey guided the implementation of 67 international covenants as well as new constitutions for scores of countries; promoted press freedom and the status of women; fought racial discrimination; and proposed the creation of the office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He received the UN Human Rights Award in 1988, on the fortieth anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.

Humphrey returned to McGill University in 1966, where he taught while continuing to promote human rights in Canada and abroad until his retirement at age 89, the year before his death.


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