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John Humphrey & The UDHR

Historical Context

By: Mark Bourrie

In 1947, large parts of Europe and Asia were wastelands devastated in the Second World War. An “iron curtain” had come down between the Communist Soviet Bloc and the democracies of Western Europe. A long civil war in China was about to end with the final victory of the Communists over Nationalist forces led by Chiang Kai-shek. India and Pakistan had finally achieved independence from the British Empire, but now Muslims and Hindus fought near the partition line drawn by the British. In Africa, colonialism was being dismantled.

Supposedly, peace had come two years earlier when Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Japanese militarism had been defeated. Although peace did not bring freedom, there were still signs of hope. For the first time in history, war criminals were facing justice in an international court at Nuremberg. People were appalled by the carnage of the war and the genocides that happened in Europe and China. Political leaders around the world wanted to prevent another. Was there a way to protect the rights that so many people had died for?

John Peters Humphrey, 1930. Image courtesy of McGill University Archives.

Canadian diplomat John Peters Humphrey thought so. He realized that human rights needed to be enshrined in international law; then at the very least, repressive governments could be shamed. So: he wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1931, Great Britain’s parliament passed the Statute of Westminster, which finally gave Canada and some of the other British dominions control of their own foreign policies. Some of the smartest people in the country joined Canada’s new Ministry of Foreign Affairs and worked hard to develop a new, independent Canadian foreign policy. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King believed it was so important that he made himself Canada’s first minister of external affairs.

Humphrey had already made his name as a legal scholar in the 1930s. At McGill, he’d made friends with Henri Laugier, a French scholar living in Montreal as a fugitive from the Nazis, who were occupying his country. Laugier was appointed secretary-general for social affairs in the new United Nations administration. Laugier recruited Humphrey to the position with the UN as director of its Human Rights division. His work was so important in a world where millions of people were still war refugees. Decolonization of the old British and French empires created a need for new constitutions for newly freed nations. At the same time, Communist states were rolling back human rights gains in areas that the Allied armies had liberated from the Nazis and elsewhere in the world.

Humphrey was backed by the strong Canadian delegation attending the UN’s first conference, in San Francisco. The Canadian team in California was a large group of senior officials, including Prime Minister Mackenzie King and two future prime ministers, Louis St. Laurent and Lester Pearson (who would win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for settling a major crisis in the Middle East.)

John Peters Humphrey was the right person for the job. He was born in 1905 in Hampton, New Brunswick. Humphrey had a hard childhood. When he was born, the family was well-off, but his father died soon after John’s birth.

When he was six, Humphrey and some friends were playing a game, wearing paper costumes, when one of the other children accidentally set Humphrey’s on fire. His left arm was so badly burned that doctors had to amputate it, even after specialists in New Brunswick and Montreal had worked for weeks to try to save it. Then, a few years later, he lost his mother to cancer. 

Humphrey was sent to a boarding school, where he had a dreadful time. The other children picked on him because of his disability. Now he knew what it was like to be discriminated against.

Humphrey graduated from high school when he was just 15 and was accepted to Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. Later, he transferred to McGill University, where he was awarded a bachelor of commerce degree. Then he earned bachelor of arts and bachelor of law degrees. His grades were so good that he was awarded a prestigious academic fellowship in Paris.

In the 1930s and during the Second World War, Humphrey was a professor at McGill, until Mackenzie King asked him to go to San Francisco to be the director of the UN Human Rights division.

In California, Humphrey worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of US president Franklin Roosevelt. She was an important human rights advocate, popular with the American people and respected by world leaders. Mrs. Roosevelt had the full backing of President Harry Truman, who had taken office when Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945.

Eleanor Roosvevelt and John P Humphrey, 1946. Image courtesy of the McGill University Archives.

Humphrey and Roosevelt’s project attracted diplomats from developing nations and from countries that had recently been freed from colonialism. This diverse group of people made important contributions to the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its approval by the UN.

People with different cultural and religious backgrounds had strong opinions on what constituted intrinsic human rights. While the Charter of the United Nations did order the creation of an organization to promote human rights, there was no requirement for this agency to draft a Declaration of Human Rights that said what those rights were, so, in a sense, Humphrey and Eleanor Roosevelt were acting on their own. Some of the major powers opposed any UN law that might be enforced within their own borders. Getting any kind of an agreement would be a miracle, but Humphrey had the political skill to forge consensus among the 46 countries that were members of the UN. (Many countries in the developing world were still colonies and did not qualify for UN membership.)

The first meeting of diplomats and senior UN human rights officials, including Humphrey, under Eleanor Roosevelt’s chairmanship, was held on January 29, 1947.

They worked with a 400-page analysis of human rights law that Humphrey drafted. Once they had created a list of basic rights, Humphrey wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, finishing it just a few months after the first meeting. After this relatively small group had crafted a declaration, they were ready to present it to the broader membership.

Partial view of a meeting of the 8-member Drafting Committee on International Bill of Rights, Commission on Human Rights, 1947. Members of the committee at table are from left to right : Vice-Chairman Dr. P.C. Chang (China); Assistant Secretary-General in charge of the UN Department of Social Affairs, Henri Laugier; Chairman Mrs. Eleanor D. Roosevelt (USA); Director of the UN Human Rights Division, Prof. John P. Humphrey (Canada); Rapporteur Dr. Charles Malik (Lebanon); and Prof. Vladimir M. Koretsky (USSR). Image courtesy of UN Photo.

Humphrey and Roosevelt believed they had three options to get the declaration through the political maze of the UN to have it passed by the organization:

  1. A resolution of the General Assembly – in effect, a declaration – that would not be binding in international law but would appeal to basic morality.
  2. A multilateral treaty that legally bound all the states that ratified it and could be enforced through the courts.
  3. An amendment to the UN Charter making the human rights code part of the fundamental law of the UN.

The third option had already been rejected by the UN. The creators of the declaration thought it would take too long to get their draft passed into international law, as each nation’s government would have to be consulted and many of them would be required to debate the treaty terms in their legislatures. The first option, though weakest in international law because no court could enforce it, was the most politically feasible, so that was the route they took.

Humphrey’s version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a three-part document. The first part, a preamble, explains the idea of human rights and the need to protect them. The second, and by far the longest part, lists the rights of people throughout the world. The last section talks about ways to implement the declaration and warns that nothing in it can be used to justify the removal of rights from people.

Humphrey and other diplomats worked as a team until the spring of 1948, with important additions made to the new draft to protect the rights of women and to guarantee freedom of information. The declaration was placed before the General Assembly after the Soviet Union and several of its satellite countries abstained from voting for it in committee sessions. Still, the document went through dozens of amendments during hundreds of hours of committee meetings.

Humphrey wrote a document so important, and so clear, that several countries have copied it into their own constitutions as their charter of rights. Many countries, including Canada, can trace their human rights laws, charters, and codes to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is one of the most important documents in world history.

The Order of Canada awarded to John Humphrey. Image courtesy of the McGill University Archives.

Humphrey stayed on as director of the UN’s Human Rights division until 1966. He returned to Montreal that year and resumed his teaching career but spent the rest of his life advocating for human rights. The boy who had been bullied for his disability had created a declaration that helped protect the rights of thousands of people. His work inspired governments to create national and local agencies to fight racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, and attacks on political and religious freedom.

In 1974, Humphrey was awarded the Order of Canada. And in 1988, he was given the United Nations Human Rights Prize. Humphrey has been recognized as a historically important person and recognized with a plaque on the Canadian Human Rights Monument near Parliament Hill in Ottawa. He died in 1995, aged 89.

Further Reading

Humphrey, John P. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Its History, Impact and Juridical Character,” in Human Rights: Thirty Years After the Universal Declaration, edited by B.G. Ramcharan(Martinus Nijhoff, 1979).