#StandUp4HumanRights: John Peters Humphrey

Published 27 November 2018 in:

UN Photo / Kari Berggrav

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a milestone in human history. It was signed in Paris on 10 December 1948 – 70 years ago.

To mark the 70th anniversary, we want to honour some of the heroes who held the pen.

The Declaration was drafted by diplomats of different religious, cultural and legal backgrounds from all regions of the world. One of the them was John Peters Humphrey from Canada.

The young Humphrey lost both his parents to cancer. He also lost an arm following an accident while playing with fire. As a result, throughout his adolescence he was regularly picked on and taunted by his boarding school classmates.

It is said that this was influential in building his character and compassion – and set the path for the rest of his life.

Humphrey studied business, arts and law. Sometimes called a ‘Renaissance man’, he would balance and connect his love of human rights, law, and art in many profound ways. He became very active in his hometown Montreal’s art community, where he would meet many accomplished painters and writers.

At this time, Humphrey met a refugee from France named Henri Laugier. Laugier had escaped France prior to the Nazi invasion of his country. He had been working on behalf of the Free French organisation, whose members helped resistance efforts inside and outside the country.

Laugier was impressed by Humphrey’s intellect, love of art and law, and by the fact that he was fluent in French. In the 1940s, it was rare to meet a native English-speaker who had dedicated so much time to learning French.

At the end of the Second World War, Laugier moved to a new post – Assistant Secretary-General at the newly formed United Nations. He had not forgotten his talented friend back in Canada. He offered Humphrey the Directorship of the United Nations Human Rights Division.

One of Humphrey’s responsibilities was to support the work of the Human Rights Commission. The Commission was set up to create an international bill of rights that would identify the basic human rights of all global citizens. The need for such a document was evident following the atrocities committed during the Second World War.

Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the Commission, and she handed the responsibility for drafting the document to Humphrey. At that time, there were many political challenges facing Humphrey and the Commission, but since the key players were determined and believed in their goal, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948.

Humphrey spent another 20 years as Director of the Human Rights Division. He was a tireless advocate for those in need of rights protection. During this period, he oversaw the implementation of 67 international conventions and the constitutions of dozens of countries. He worked in areas including freedom of the press, the status of women and racial discrimination. In 1988, on the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, Humphrey was awarded the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights.

Today, 70 years after the Declaration was signed, demanding justice and equal rights is still one of the UN’s central tasks.

Respect for human rights has increased since 1948, but today democracy and human rights are being challenged around the world. This requires their defenders to make their voices heard.

Sweden will always stand up for human rights.