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.


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