International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International judicial Academy of the International Law Institute, Washington, D.C.
with circulation assistance from the American Society of International Law

Summer 2017 Issue

Leading Figures in International Law


John Peters Humphrey, Lawyer - Canada

John Peters Humphrey

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted after the conference that produced the Charter of the United Nations, is usually associated with Eleanor Roosevelt, member of the United States delegation to the UN organizing assembly.

Ms. Roosevelt became the chair of commission that was directed to prepare a document on human rights to be considered by the UN General Assembly.

Mostly unknown now is the fact that a then little known Canadian lawyer John Peters Humphrey wrote the principal draft of the Universal Declaration. His contribution to its preparation was not discovered until late in his life. A draft of the Declaration was found in his handwriting among his papers. It was after this discovery that his contribution was formally recognized, and resulted in his receiving many honors and awards before he died in 1995 at the age of 89.

John Humphrey was born in April, 1905 in the province of New Brunswick, Canada. He experienced a traumatic childhood. Both of his parents died of cancer. While playing with fire, one of his arms was injured so severely that it had to be amputated. He attended boarding school and was accepted at a small Canadian university, from which he transferred to McGill University, graduating in 1925 with a Bachelor of Commerce degree. He then studied law and graduated with two additional bachelor’s degrees, one in law and the other in arts and sciences. After a fellowship to study law in Paris, he returned to Canada to practice law. Five years of law practice led to a teaching position at McGill. He became interested in international law and enrolled to receive a Master of Laws degree in that subject. He eventually became dean of the McGill Law School.

At McGill, Humphrey made the acquaintance of Henri Laugier, a French refugee in Canada working on behalf of the Free French in World War II. This meeting was to change his life. After the war Laugier was selected as Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations. The world assembly had created in 1946 the Division of Human Rights within the United Nations Secretariat. Henri Laugier appointed John Peters Humphrey as the first Director of that division. Professor Humphrey worked with Eleanor Roosevelt, then chair of the a newly established commission on human rights. Humphrey consulted with her and other members of the commission, and then prepared the original draft of the document that ultimately became the final Declaration that was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

Eleanor Roosevelt called the Universal Declaration “the international Magna Carta of all mankind.” It has been translated into 321 languages and dialects. It dramatically changed international law in two significant ways: human rights are a matter of international


concern, and international law is to be applied to individuals as well as nations. Its provisions are now part of customary international law.

Humphrey served as Director of the Human Rights Division for 20 years. He retired from the United Nations in 1966 and returned to teaching law at McGill. He taught law full time for five years and then part time until he retired completely from teaching in 1994. However he was still active in human rights matters. Even before retirement he proposed the idea of a UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, a proposal that was eventually adopted by the UN some thirty years later, during the Secretary Generalship of Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

During Humphrey’s tenure at the United Nations, he “oversaw the implementation of 67 international conventions” and human rights provisions of the constitutions of many countries. He served as a director of the International League for Human Rights, a member of the team that founded Amnesty International’s Canadian chapter, a member of the group that founded the Canadian Human Rights Foundation (Equitas), and participated in international commissions of inquiry relating to human rights violations. He authored a book on his experiences in international human rights, titled Human Rights and the United Nations: A Great Adventure.

Among the many honors and awards that Humphrey received for his work in human rights activities are:

Officer of the Order of Canada (1974).

Officer of the Ordre Nationale du Quebec (1985).

The John Peters Humphrey Model United Nations (annually in May in New Brunswick).

John P. Humphrey Lectureship in Human Rights (annually at McGill University).

Place on the Human Rights Monument in Ottowa, dedicated in 1998 by Nelson Mandela.

John Humphrey Freedom Award, presented annually by the Canadian human rights group Rights and Democracy, to individuals and organizations that have made exceptional achievements in the promotion of human rights and democracy.

The John Humphrey Memorial is located in Hampton, New Brunswick (his hometown) - a replica of a United Nations wooden bench on which a young
and an old Humphrey are seated. Doves are seated at the end of the bench with two tall stone plinths which contain inscriptions from the Universal Declaration. The bench is located on the front law of the county courthouse in the town center.

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© 2017 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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