The Canadian lawyer, diplomat and scholar John Humphrey overcame challenging childhood setbacks to emerge as a recognized expert in international law, head of the U.N. Secretariat’s Division of Human Rights, and then as primary architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Born in 1905 in New Brunswick, Canada, John Humphrey lost his left arm in a fire when he was 6. Both his parents died when he was a child. He pursued his education at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, and at McGill University in Montreal, studying commerce and law. After graduation, he practiced law until 1936. Humphrey then joined the law faculty at McGill University, where he became a recognized expert in international law.
On his way out of the office for a long-planned vacation with his wife, Jeanne, Humphrey received a telephone call from an old friend, Henri Laugier. The two had met when Laugier was a refugee in Montreal. Now, Laugier was the assistant secretary-general of the United Nations in charge of social affairs. Instead of looking to catch up on old times, Laugier had a question: Would Humphrey be the director of the U.N. Secretariat’s Division of Human Rights? The newly created post would protect and promote human rights. One of its chief missions was to work with the Commission on Human Rights. Humphrey said yes, and in August of 1946, he joined the United Nations.
Navigating the job was difficult. “New ground had to be plowed, but it was still terra incognito,” Humphrey wrote in his memoir Human Rights and the United Nations: A Grand Adventure. A preliminary Commission on Human Rights had laid the groundwork for the creation of the permanent commission. But there were no instructions on how to fulfill the commission’s purpose: to draft an international bill of rights.
Humphrey spent the last half of 1946 recruiting staff and adjusting to life in New York City, where the new United Nations had established its headquarters. The Commission on Human Rights opened on January 27, 1947, to what Humphrey described as “optimistic excitement.” The 18-member commission, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, encompassed a broad ranges of ideological perspectives; in this the commission reflected political reality, but the diversity of views complicated greatly the task of formulating a document acceptable to all. Roosevelt narrowed the drafting committee to eight. But differences still threatened to block any progress on the text. Commission members Zhang Pengjun, Charles Malik and Roosevelt decided that Humphrey would write the draft.
Shunning the hustle and bustle of his office, Humphrey retreated to his temporary home at the Lido Beach Hotel in Long Beach, New York. Using a variety of drafts from different private and nongovernmental entities as a basis for his work, Humphrey outlined 48 articles in 400 pages. It was known as the Secretariat’s Outline. Humphrey’s role as principal author of the first draft remained unknown until 1988. Humphrey did not want to claim any credit. “To say I did the draft alone would be nonsense. ... The final Declaration was the work of hundreds,” he once told an interviewer.
And hundreds did modify the original document. In fact, the lengthy debates nearly prevented the U.N. General Assembly from voting on the Universal Declaration. The final vote was taken on the night of December 10, 1948, just two days before the session was to adjourn. It passed with only eight abstentions and no countries voting against.
The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was nothing short of radical. “There has never been a more revolutionary development in the theory and practice of international law and organization than the recognition that human rights are matters of international concern,” Humphrey wrote.
Humphrey’s tenure at the United Nations lasted until he returned to McGill in 1966. But he remained committed to protecting human rights. Humphrey co-founded both the Canadian Human Rights Foundation and the Canadian branch of Amnesty International. He investigated human rights abuses in the Philippines, represented Korean females used as “comfort women” by the Japanese during the World War II and campaigned on behalf of reparations for Canadian prisoners of war who had been mistreated during that conflict. His tireless efforts earned him the title Officer of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor.
On the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, Humphrey was awarded the U.N. Human Rights Award, which recognizes “individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” He died six years later at the age of 89.
-- Meghan Loftus