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]

Global violations of human rights and practice of torture, Humphrey held, had severe implications for Canada because of the principle of solidarity. According to him, a threat to human rights in the Soviet Union, a central target for multiple AI reports on the worst torture abusers, was a threat to human rights in Canada and a threat to peace.[v] Due to this, AI Canada’s work for the abolition of torture was just as important as the organisation’s global chapter’s work. This highlights Humphrey’s understanding of the definition of ‘torture,’ which seems more widely encompassing than most, addressing violations all around the world as important. The most evident instance of this comes from a domestic application of Humphrey’s work on torture. In a letter to John Humphrey in September 1972, Martin Ennals, a member of AI, addressed a previous inquiry by the former to apply AI’s torture campaign to Québec militants.[vi] As a bit of background, the FLQ Crisis had just transpired in 1970 and the Canadian government’s reaction (the enactment of the War Measures Act and use of police brutality) seemed to defy Humphrey’s prized human rights.[vii] However, Ennals, who worked for the release of only Prisoners of Conscience—prisoners who had been victims of violence in prison conditions, torture under interrogation, etc.— claimed that the Québec militants fell out of this category.[viii] As a result, Humphrey was unable to achieve condemnation of the government’s actions. This demonstrates the discrepancy between Humphrey and AI Canada’s more encompassing understanding of ‘torture’ and how it is manifested, and Ennals and AI’s more restrictive and narrowly defined interpretation. Interestingly, it might actually have been Humphrey’s influence on AI Canada—or his attempt to broaden the definition of torture to fit the Canadian context—which caused its application of the label of ‘torture’ to be farther reaching.

How to address instances of torture

Humphrey tried many times to involve Canada in the global and domestic policy-making arenas on the topic of torture. During an AI Canada meeting on 20 April 1974, Humphrey discussed his attempts to request AI London to get Canada to sponsor certain resolutions to do with torture at the UN, but with no success. Domestically, he felt that the Canadian government had no policy and took little or no initiative to implement legislation to enforce human rights and prohibit the use of torture. In fact, even though Parliament had a committee dedicated solely to the above issues, it was not seen as being very effective.[ix] Humphrey realised that relying on governments to implement AI and UN-recommended policies was not going to be fruitful. Instead, he encouraged AI to adopt UNHRC’s alternate means of ‘enforcing’ its recommendations: the ‘organisation of shaming’, as Humphrey declared during his speech on Politics of Torture. [x] However, a key concern of states that are shamed and pressured into implementing these measures is the lack of compensation for implementing legislation to address human rights abuses.[xi] With the issue of torture, if the state ceased to rely upon police brutality, its methods of keeping demonstrations and violence in check would be compromised. To address this, the state would need to enlist new methods, including imprisonment, which were bound to utilise more state resources. While perhaps Humphrey’s suggestion to implement the UN’s ‘shaming’ technique would have been useful, its logistical disadvantage to states prevented its widespread implementation.


Short and Long Term Impacts

Humphrey’s decision to use AI Canada as a tool for raising awareness about torture in Canada contributed towards the growth and shaping of the organization’s main goals, as well as Canada’s recognition of the importance of upholding human rights. This is somewhat reflected in the fact that Canada has repeatedly, since the Second World War, been entrusted with a peacekeeping role in the international community.[xii] In this case, it might be safe to say that Humphrey’s work, while not having a direct impact on any significant anti-torture legislation, definitely helped mould Canada and its AI chapter into more active entities, working to raise awareness about and abolish torture.



[i] “CCIL/CCDI – About John P. Humphrey.” CCIL/CCDI – About John P. Humphrey. http://www.ccil-ccdi.ca/ccil-about-humphrey/ (accessed April 1, 2014).

[ii] “About Amnesty International | Amnesty International.” About Amnesty International | Amnesty International. https://www.amnesty.org/en/who-we-are/about-amnesty-international (accessed April 5, 2014).

[iii] [Concluding Remarks on the Politics of Torture, Ottawa, 17 November 1973, Speeches 1971-1976, c. 18, file 371, John Humphrey].

[iv] [Campaign for Abolition of Torture, 1 January 1973, Torture and the Amnesty International 1970-1974, c. 13, file 276, John Humphrey].

[v] [Concluding Remarks on the Politics of Torture, Ottawa, 17 November 1973, Speeches 1971-1976, c. 18, file 371, John Humphrey].

[vi] [Letter from Martin Ennals to Humphrey, 22 September 1972, Amnesty International—Correspondence 1972-1973, c. 13, file 267, John Humphrey].

[vii] Dhamoon, R., and Y. Abu-Laban. “Dangerous (Internal) Foreigners And Nation-Building: The Case Of Canada.”International Political Science Review30.2 (2009): 163-183. Print.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] [Minutes of the 7th Meeting, Ottawa, 20 April 1974, Amnesty International—Minutes and Reports 1973-1989?, c. 13, file 274, John Humphrey].

[x] [Concluding Remarks on the Politics of Torture, Ottawa, 17 November 1973, Speeches 1971-1976, c. 18, file 371, John Humphrey].

[xi] Lebovic, James H., and Erik Voeten. “The Cost of Shame: International Organizations and Foreign Aid in the Punishing of Human Rights Violators.”Journal of Peace Research 46, no. 1 (2009): 79-97. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27640800 (accessed April 1, 2014).

[xii] Bellamy, Alex J., and Paul D. Williams. “The West and Contemporary Peace Operations.” Journal of Peace Research46, no. 1 (2009): 39-57. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27640798 (accessed March 31, 2014).



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