While John Peters Humphrey is best known for his contributions in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, he remained a tireless advocate for a variety of rights issues throughout his life. Born in New Brunswick in 1905, Humphrey went on to have an illustrious career at the United Nations in his capacity as director of human rights for the United Nations Secretariat.[i] After his retirement from the U.N. in 1966, Humphrey was a professor at McGill University where he continued to stay involved in rights issues, both international and domestic, until his death in 1995.[ii]

Through a close study of the John Humphrey Fonds in the McGill University Archives, this project aims to describe Humphrey’s involvement in a variety of rights issues upon his return to Canada (the period post-1966), and to locate his work in a broader context of human rights movements. While the nature of Humphrey’s involvement varies widely among the specific issues discussed, common themes run through them all. First, Humphrey often approached rights issues from a legal standpoint and continually referenced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Second, he demonstrated a clear preference for individual rights over the collective, demonstrated in his sometimes controversial decisions to oppose rights-protecting legislation that did not apply equally to all individuals. Finally, despite the varying degrees of success that each of the projects he was involved in experienced, Humphrey’s reputation within the international human rights community lent these projects the legitimacy and visibility they might not have experienced otherwise.


[i] William Kaplan and Laura Neilson Bonikowsky, “John Peters Humphrey,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, last modified January 282014,

[ii] Ibid.

On Human Rights in Quebec

John Humphrey’s long career in human rights did not only look towards the international stage, it also focused on what he believed were violations within the province of Quebec. John Humphrey was a staunch supporter of federalism in Canada and actively worked to undermine the separatist movement in Quebec. The groups with which he surrounded himself tell the tale of a man very concerned over the future of Quebec.


Alliance Quebec

In 1982, Humphrey joined Alliance Quebec, a provincial political organization. He sought to raise awareness of violations against linguistic rights in Quebec and promoted a broader Canadian culture in the province. Alliance Quebec was a group that sprang up after Quebec’s first referendum in 1980.[1] Its raison d’être was to defend Anglophones against language legislation as well as improve Anglophone accessibility to schools, medical, and social services.[2]He was appointed honourary director of their fundraising campaign in 1982[3] and donated money to the party when he could. In March 1985, he became a patron of the organization, joining a list of other notable Quebecers like George Allison, Peter Blaikie, Roy Heenan, Hugh MacLennan, Alan A. MacNaughton, Stephen Molson, and many others.[4] His presence boosted the reputation of the organization and put international credibility behind it.

Continue reading

On Women’s Rights in Canada

John Peters Humphrey returned to Canada with twenty years of experience working in the United Nations under his belt, which served as a prominent framework in which he addressed his work thereafter.  In 1957, he expressed that many “may think that the situation in Canada is, on the whole, pretty good, [but] I should be very surprised if that were the case.”[1]  This seemed to be the position with which he re-entered the ‘Canadian rights arena’ in 1966, one characterized by criticism but also expectations of improvement.


Women’s Rights

One area of interest that Humphrey pursued once back on Canadian soil was that of women’s rights, a movement that he directly contributed to with his involvement in the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW) approximately a year after his return.  When addressing rights issues such as those presented in the women’s rights movement, Humphrey seemed to remain in a strict legal mindset based on traditional understandings of equal rights. He also frequently referenced the importance of upholding the standards set by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that he had contributed to the construction of.[2]  As will be seen in the more detailed account of his contributions to the RCSW below, Humphrey was dedicated to maintaining ‘true equality’ in all circumstances, and thus was in stark opposition to measures such as employment equity.  His ideology could be characterized as one that avoids all instances of discrimination (‘positive discrimination’ included) and any act of imposition infringing upon personal rights and choice.

Continue reading

On Thalidomide and the Right to Compensation

In the late 1980s, victims of the drug thalidomide pressed the Canadian government for monetary compensation.  Throughout the campaign, John Peters Humphrey corresponded with the War Amputations of Canada, lawyer Brian Forbes, and contacts at the United Nations.  Humphrey also attended meetings of the United Nations Human Rights Committee as it considered a claim against the Canadian government.  He hoped to codify in international law a right to compensation.  Ultimately, these efforts procured a limited response from the Canadian government.  The right to compensation has never truly been established and the thalidomide victims have still never been fully compensated.


The Original Injustice

When the Canadian government licensed thalidomide for prescription use in April 1961, it unknowingly opened the door to a pharmaceutical disaster.  The drug – created by the German company Gruenenthal – was widely believed to be an entirely safe “miracle drug.”[1]  Although the American Food and Drug Administration had kept thalidomide off the shelves, it was commonly used in many countries.[2]

Continue reading

On Compensation for Canadian Prisoners of War in Hong Kong

The War Amputations of Canada’s (The War Amps) efforts for compensation for the Canadian Hong Kong prisoners of war was an ongoing process that was not resolved until 1998.[i] Archival material relating to John Peters Humphrey’s involvement in this issue spans the period of 1988 – 1991, during which time Humphrey represented the organization to the United Nations Commission for Human Rights in Geneva, and worked closely with Brian Forbes, the Association Solicitor for the War Amputations of Canada since 1975.


John Humphrey’s Involvement with the War Amputations of Canada

Humphrey was a co-drafter of the declaration presented by The War Amps to the commission and provided The War Amps with legal counsel as well as expertise on the workings of the U.N. In a letter dated 20 Jan, 1988, Forbes asks for Humphrey’s opinion on the current draft[ii] to which Humphrey suggests that an increased focus on Japan’s war crimes and crimes against humanity would help to bolster The War Amps’ claim.[iii] In his reply, Humphrey also reminds Forbes that other NGOs will offer support with the text when they meet in Geneva.[iv]

Continue reading

On Torture

Although most of his fame was rooted in his work with the UN, what is not as popularly acknowledged is John Peters Humphrey’s work on human rights issues, such as abolition of torture, in postwar Canada (from the 1970s until his death in 1995)[i] through his involvement with Amnesty International Canada (henceforth referred to as AI Canada). AI Canada, of which Humphrey was a founder and president after 1973, played an important role in nudging AI Canada to look further into the issue of the abolition of (mostly state-directed) torture. This was one of the many directives, which would result in its role today as a leading human rights NGO with the goal of eradicating torture and execution all around the world.[ii] Its work, as well as Humphrey’s interests, lay more in the international prevalence of torture, but had implications for Canada as well.

On AI Canada

Humphrey attended and gave speeches on the topic at many conferences, such as the Conference on the Politics of Torture in Ottawa in 1973.[iii] This conference was the culminating feature of the campaign of the same name, during which he and others had spread knowledge about Amnesty International Canada and its work against the institution of torture, among other initiatives, through the use of press, radio, and films.[iv]

Continue reading

Reflections and Limitations

John Humphrey was important in the movement to formally define and promote human rights, through his role as the principle drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It would profoundly influence Canada’s first Bill of Rights in 1960, which would be a precursor to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, although federal legislation would use the UDHR as a model to codify rights, the actual implementation and protection of such rights was by no means influenced by the declaration. Humphrey’s principal policy achievement was largely irrelevant to the tangible endowment of human rights in Canada, with socio-economic and political calculations having been the motivating factors.


Canadian Reluctance

Canada was not always a role model on the international stage concerning human rights. Suppression of trade unions, internment of so-called “enemy aliens,”[i] racist immigration policies, and events like the Gouzenko Affair garnered international notoriety. From 1946-48, the Canadian government was indifferent and occasionally hostile towards the drafting of the UDHR. Joint Committees in Parliament rejected the notion of protecting what they deemed to be subversive or inferior communities, arguing that abiding by such a statute would hoist undue responsibility onto the federal government and infringe upon provincial authority.[ii] They had nothing to fear, for although Canada would eventually ratify the declaration in the General Assembly’s final vote, it was done in the interests of preserving its international image and pacifying a handful of powerful domestic groups.[iii] The ratification had no tangible effect, because just as signatories like the USA retained infrastructures to consistently violate human rights decades into the post-war era, Canada would severely underperform as well.

Continue reading