Born in Hampton, New Brunswick, on April 30, 1905, Humphrey would go on to experience an incredible journey. Over the next 90 years he devoted his life to enhancing the lives of world citizens by dedicating his talents to the advancement of human rights.
It is likely that the experiences of the first eleven years of his life helped to
shape his worldview and his views about how individuals should be treated.
The young Humphrey lost both his parents Frank Humphrey and Nellie Peters,
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. However, these experiences only
served to strengthen young Humphrey's character, and with the
encouragement of a friend, he applied to and was accepted at Mount Allison
University in Sackville, NB at the tender age of fifteen. Soon after, building
upon his new found freedom, he abandoned Mount Allison for the big city of
Humphrey lived with his sister Ruth, who was teaching at the time in Montreal. He entered McGill's School of Commerce and it was there that he became interested in the lectures of one of Canada's foremost writers, Stephen Leacock. Humphrey graduated with his Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1925 and soon thereafter enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts programme because of a new passion, law and politics.
In 1927 and 1929, he received the degrees of Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Law respectively.
At his graduation, Humphrey was awarded a fellowship to study in Paris. As he boarded the liner Aurania, he could not have imagined that the trip would begin a romance that would lead to marriage. On board the ship, Humphrey met Jeanne Godreau and a short time after arriving in France, the Consul-General officiated over their marriage.
Humphrey became more and more interested in international law. Upon his return to Montreal, he began studying toward a Master's degree in International Law while teaching at McGill University.
It seems that Humphrey was, to some degree, a renaissance man. He would balance and connect his love of human rights, law, and art in many profound ways. He became very active within Montreal's art community where he would meet many accomplished painters and writers.
It was at this time that 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 organization, whose members assisted with resistance efforts both in and outside of the country.
Laugier was impressed with Humphrey's intellect, love of art and law and by the fact that he was fluent in French. In the 1940's, it was rare to meet an Anglophone who had dedicated so much time to learning French.
When North Africa was liberated in 1943, Laugier went to teach at the University of Algiers. At the end of the war, he moved to a new post: Assistant Secretary-General at the newly formed United Nations
Laugier had not forgotten his talented friend back in Canada. He offered John 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 World War II.
The former First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, chaired the Commission. It was she who handed the responsibility for drafting the document to Humphrey. At the time there were many political challenges before Humphrey and the Commission. But, because the key players were determined and believed in their goal, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) was adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948.
John Humphrey spent another 20 years as the Director of the Human Rights Division. He was a tireless advocate for those in need of rights protection. He returned to McGill University after leaving the UN and he taught at the university until he retired in 1994.
Humphrey's wife Jeanne Godreau passed away in 1980. They had been married for 51 years. Humphrey would later meet and marry a prominent physician in Montreal, Dr. Margaret Kunstler.
The life of John Humphrey is one of inspiration to all of us. From humble beginnings, after having endured several traumatic events early in life, Humphrey engaged kings and queens, world leaders, artists and activists in an international discourse on rights.
At the unveiling in Ottawa of a memorial plaque honouring Humphrey, Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, referred to the drafter of the UNDHR as, "the father of the modern human rights system."
Humphrey was not recognized as the "Father of the Modern Human Rights System" until his original drafts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were discovered at McGill University by acting law librarian A.J. Hobbins. - (as taken from the McGill Archives John Peters Humphrey: Citizen of the World virtual exhibit)
For more information about John Peters Humphrey, visit:
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
When the Assistant Secretary-General of the newly formed United Nations, Henri Laugier of France, asked Hampton native John Humphrey to be the first director of the U.N. Human Rights Division, he responded:
"Ce sera une grande aventure."
Early in his mandate, in 1946, Humphrey would be asked by Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady of the United States and Chair of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, to do something that had never been done before; to draft an international bill of rights.
Chair of the UN Human Rights Commission, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Humphrey Rights documents had existed since the Magna Carta. The Americans crafted their Declaration of Independence, and the French had incorporated the Declaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen into the fabric of their republique.
The authors of these significant documents were working to identify and highlight rights to be enjoyed by citizens within a particular country. The citizens shared, for the most part, a common ideology and goal. But to create a document that clearly defined the inalienable rights of all global citizens, one that transcended political, societal, economic, ideological and religious beliefs, was a monumental task.
By this time, in 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt had delivered his 'Four Freedoms' address to the U.S. Congress. Roosevelt and Churchill had given the world the 'Atlantic Charter' and at the end of World War II both the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials would draw attention to the need for identifiable human rights for all.
So, Humphrey went to work. He and his staff in the Human Rights Division compiled and examined all of the previous rights documents created throughout history. By poring over these documents they were able to get a sense of the rights traditions that had been established and by doing so began to understand the direction the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) had to take. The result, after months of meticulous work, was a 408-page blueprint.
The draft was presented to the members of the Human Rights Commission:
Chair : Eleanor Roosevelt, US
Rapporteur : Charles Malik, Lebanon
Vice-Chair : P.C. Chang, China
Vice-Chair : Rene Cassin, France
Soviet Representative : V.M. Korentsky
Beginning with Humphrey's work, Rene Cassin composed the first complete draft of the UNDHR. For this contribution and for his human rights related initiatives in France, Cassin would later be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968. Many argue that if Humphrey had not been a modest man, continually revealing that the drafting success was the result of an accumulative effort of many, both he and Cassin might have been co-recipients of the prize.
In 1948 the member states were ready to vote on whether the UNDHR should be adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Of the 58 members represented that day, 48 voted in favor, 8 abstained and two members were absent. None voted against the Declaration.
The following countries abstained:
6 Soviet Bloc countries
Because of a fear that religious and linguistic minorities would use the Declaration to obtain a stronger political position, and because of the concern that the UNDHR could possibly put more power into the hands of provincial legislatures, Canada was planning to abstain from voting. Of course, Humphrey was furious about the fact that his own country was considering the abstention.
On December 10th, 1948 the Canadian representation from the U.N. General Assembly, along with 47 others from the U.N. member nations, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights each year, since 1965, global citizens have commemorated Human Rights Day on Dec. 10th.
A lot has changed since 1948. It is interesting to note that some countries of the world that have democratized since the fall of communism in the Soviet Bloc have turned to the UNDHR as a guide in constructing their new constitutions, including Russia.
In her speech on the day that the UNDHR was adopted, Eleanor Roosevelt referred to the rights document as the 'Magna Carta for all mankind.'
To find the written material of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights written out, click here
Universal Declaration of Human Rights Animated
The Hampton JPH Foundation has been a supporter of Peter Pickersgill in his efforts to animate the Universal Declaration Articles. His work can be found here.
"It is strange how when unoccupied my mind tends to fix itself on some event or scene connected with Hampton. Thus tonight at dinner I happened to look at a picture on the wall which contained amongst other things a rowing boat. My mind began to picture 'the boat' at Hampton and a whole series of other pictures connected with Hampton came up. And when I dream (no matter what about) the background is always Hampton."
Diaries of John Humphrey
John Humphrey, 1905-1995
Wrote the first draft of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, 1947
Was the first Director of the UN Human Rights Division, 1946
Was the founding President of the Canadian Human Rights Foundation, 1967
Was the founder of Amnesty International Canada, 1973
Became an Officer of the Order of Canada, 1974
Was founding President of the Canadian Chapter of the International Commission of Jurists
Was Director of the International League for Human Rights
Received 13 honorary doctorates from universities around the world
Was honored by a stamp issued by Canada Post, 1998
Several national and international human rights awards bear his name
Childhood, education and academic career:
Humphrey was born to Frank Humphrey and Nellie Peters on April 30, 1905
in Hampton, New Brunswick. His childhood was touched by tragedy as he lost
both his parents to cancer; he also lost one of his arms in an accident while
playing with fire. Humphrey attended a boarding school where he endured
teasing from other students; it is claimed that this was instrumental in
building his character and compassion.
Humphrey applied to Mount Allison University at age 15 and was accepted.
He transferred to McGill University and lived with his sister Ruth who was a teacher in Montreal. Humphrey graduated from McGill in 1925 where he was awarded a Bachelor of Commerce degree. He promptly enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Law at McGill, graduating in 1927 and 1929 respectively.
Upon graduation, Humphrey was awarded a fellowship to study in Paris, sailing from Montreal on the RMS Aurania. He met fellow passenger Jeanne Godreau while onboard and they were married in Paris shortly after arriving. Humphrey returned to Montreal after the fellowship to a teaching position as a professor at McGill; he also enrolled in a Master of Law specializing in international law.
During the 1930s Humphrey was considered a renaissance man with his interests in education, the arts and humanities, and human rights. While teaching at McGill in the early 1940s, Humphrey met Henri Laugier, a refugee from France who was working on behalf of the Free French. In 1943 Laugier moved to Algeria to teach at the University of Algiers and later became the Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
In 1946, Assistant Secretary-General to the United Nations, Henri Laugier, appointed John Peters Humphrey as the first Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, within the United Nations Secretariat. Humphrey was a principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After consulting with the executive group of the Commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt,
Humphrey prepared the first preliminary draft of what was to become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the night of December 10, 1948, the General Assembly unanimously adopted the Declaration, dubbed by Mrs. Roosevelt as "the international Magna Carta of all mankind".
Career in the United Nations
Humphrey remained with the UN for 20 years. 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, status of women, and racial discrimination. In 1988, on the 40th anniversary of the Declaration, the UN Human Rights award was bestowed on Professor Humphrey. In 1963, he put forth the idea of a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. While the idea was initially received quite positively, it was only after more than thirty years, under Secretary-General Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, that the office became a reality.
He retired from the UN in 1966 to resume his teaching career at McGill University. He remained active in the promotion of human rights in Canada and internationally until his death at the age of 90.
He was a director of the International League for Human Rights; served as a member of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women; part of the team that launched Amnesty International Canada; and, with colleagues from McGill University, was instrumental in creating the Canadian Human Rights Foundation. He took part in a number of international commissions of inquiry, including a mission to the Philippines investigating human rights violations under Ferdinand Marcos. In Japan he represented Korean women forced to act as sex slaves. He also campaigned for reparations for Canadian prisoners of war under Japanese captivity.
Awards and Recognition
Among his many honours, Professor Humphrey was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1974, "in recognition of his contributions to legal scholarship and his world-wide reputation in the field of human rights".
Since 1988, the McGill University Faculty of Law has held the John P. Humphrey Lectureship in Human Rights, an annual lecture on the role of international law and organizations in the worldwide protection of human rights.
The John Humphrey Freedom Award, presented by the Canadian human rights group Rights & Democracy, is awarded each year to organizations and individuals around the world for exceptional achievement in the promotion of human rights and democratic development.
In June 2008, a memorial to Dr. Humphrey was unveiled in his hometown of Hampton, New Brunswick. The memorial, located just a few hundred yards from his childhood home, wooden bench in the form of the UN building with a young and old Humphrey seated. Several brass doves sit on the end of the bench, which sits beside two tall stone plinths, one of which has several articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights carved into it in English, French, Mi'kmaq and Maliseet-Passamaquoddy. The memorial sits on the front lawn of the Town of Hampton Town Hall in the center of the town.