Exploiting a legacy: John Peters Humphrey and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This is the second of a two-part series to mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. The first part appeared on this site previously.

Jennifer Tunnicliffe

On December 10, Canada will take part in celebrations of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). On its website, the federal government claims that “Canada has been a consistently strong voice for the protection of human rights”, starting with its “central role in the drafting” of the UDHR in 1948, and continuing with its work at the UN today. [1] Given the reality of Canada’s resistance to the UDHR, how has the Canadian government worked to reconcile this history with the image it promotes of Canada as an historic advocate for international human rights?

The answer comes largely through the experiences of one Canadian: John Peters Humphrey. Humphrey is remembered for his role in helping to draft the UDHR, yet in doing so he was working for the UN and not representing Canada, so the repurposing of his legacy to serve a national mythology around human rights is deeply problematic.

Born in Hampton, New Brunswick, Humphrey was a legal scholar and a professor of law at McGill University who became the first Director of Human Rights at the UN in 1946. He had developed an interest in international law and foreign affairs in the 1930s and became an active member of the Canadian Institute for International Affairs, where he supported an enhanced role for Canada in the world.[2] During the Second World War, Humphrey became friends with Henri Laugier, a French academic who taught at McGill while on exile from German-occupied France. When Laugier became the assistant secretary-general for social affairs at the UN at the conclusion of the war, he invited Humphrey to take a position in the UN Secretariat as director of its Human Rights Division. There, Humphrey was asked to work with the newly formed Commission on Human Rights to help develop an international bill of rights.

The Commission was composed of representatives from eighteen member states and chaired by the American delegate, Eleanor Roosevelt.[3] As one of its first tasks, it developed a committee to draft what would eventually become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Humphrey supported the work of the drafting committee by gathering and analyzing background documents to provide a fuller understanding of the various traditions of rights and freedoms around the globe. The more-than 400-page annotated document Humphrey created helped to inform the debates of the drafting committee and the Commission on Human Rights as they developed the UDHR.[4] Humphrey worked closely with members of the drafting committee, including Roosevelt, René Cassin, Peng-chun Chang, Charles Malik, Hernan Santa Cruz and others. From their discussions, it was Humphrey who was tasked with formulating the very first draft of the Declaration. Humphrey’s first draft was revised several times by the committee, and he continued to play an important role in its evolution, before it was passed on to the Economic and Social Council and then the General Assembly for consideration by all member states. Almost two years after the work began, on December 10, 1948, the UN adopted the UDHR.

Humphrey served as the Director of the UN’s Human Rights Division for twenty years. In addition to his work on the UDHR, he supported the development of the two international covenants on human rights and several other rights-related conventions, and worked to promote stronger rights protections in areas ranging from freedom of the press to the self-determination of colonized peoples. After his retirement from the UN, Humphrey returned to McGill and remained active in the field of Canadian and international human rights.[5]

While John Humphrey played a key role in the development of the UDHR, and was a strong advocate for international human rights, the Canadian government did not share his enthusiasm.

As a member of the UN Secretariat, Humphrey did not represent the Canadian government in his work at the UN, nor was he privy to Canadian policy toward the UN’s human rights initiatives. Throughout 1947 and 1948, he appeared before various Canadian parliamentary committees to explain the purpose of the proposed declaration and to encourage Canadian support. He tried to use his position at the UN to generate enthusiasm for the instrument at home, with little success.[6] More often, he met either opposition or indifference to the declaration. In a letter to R.G. Nik Cavell, chair of the Canadian Institute for International Affairs,  Humphrey expressed his frustration at being unable to stimulate more interest in the UDHR at home: “One thing that has appalled me since coming down here is the realization that, in our own country Canada, there is relatively less interest in this question than in certain other countries which we sometimes think are less democratic than our own.”[7]

In his personal diaries[8] and in later writings and speeches, Humphrey described how he was “embarrassed” by Canada’s lack of support for the UDHR, and on the twentieth anniversary of its adoption he admitted that he was disappointed with the Canadian government’s continued lack of commitment to international human rights.[9]

Despite this, it is Humphrey’s work, and specifically his role in helping to draft the UDHR, that forms the basis of the claim that Canada played a “central role” in the development of the instrument, with little to no recognition that Humphrey was exceptional in his early support for the UN’s human rights regime, or of his frustration with Canada’s official position.

One example of this is a Heritage Minute, created in 1997, to celebrate Humphrey’s work. The dramatized video concludes with a shot of Humphrey, with a woman in the background whispering, “Isn’t that the Canadian that actually wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?” Humphrey’s “Canadian-ness” is used to create a collective memory in which his efforts become a symbol of Canada’s leadership in developing and promoting international human rights instruments that can be used to fight discrimination around the globe.

What is perhaps most ironic about this presentation of Humphrey as the individual who “wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” is his own assertion, especially later in his life, that there was no one single author of the UDHR. In a letter written in 1979 in response to depictions of René Cassin as the “father” of the Declaration, Humphrey wrote,

Le fait est que la Déclaration n’a pas de père. Littéralement des centaines de personnes y ont contribué… L’anonymat de la Déclaration est d’ailleurs une des raisons pour sa grande autorité morale et politique et même juridique.[10]

Humphrey’s own role in the drafting of the UDHR was not publicly known until his handwritten first draft was submitted, as a part of his personal collection, to the McGill University Archives.

Copy of the handwritten first draft of what would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. McGill University Archives, MG4127, 2002-0086. FirstDraft_Page11

Since that time, much has been written about Humphrey, his work, and his contributions. Among many honours, he was decorated with the Order of Canada and the Ordre national du Québec, and just this week it was announced that the John Peters Humphrey fonds at the McGill Archives – including Humphrey’s handwritten first draft of what would become the UDHR – were added to UNESCO’s “Memory of the World Programme” in the Canadian registry.[11]

John Humphrey is an important example of an individual who was dedicated to creating international and domestic law to protect the rights of human around the globe. But he did not represent the Canadian government in his work at the UN, and to use his legacy as evidence of Canada’s commitment to international human rights is a disservice to Humphrey. It also obscures Canada’s history of resistance to international human rights, a history that needs to be acknowledged, and corrected.

Jennifer Tunnicliffe is an Assistant Professor of History at Toronto Metropolitan University. Her research focuses on Canadian and international human rights history, with particular attention to how social movements shape legislative approaches to rights and freedoms. Her first book, Resisting Rights: Canada and the International Bill of Rights, 1946-76 (UBC Press, 2019) examines Canada’s resistance to the development of human rights instruments at the United Nations after the Second World War. She is also co-editor of Constant Struggle: Histories of Democratization (McGill-Queen’s, 2021), a collection of essays that explores Canada’s history with democracy. Her current book project focuses on the history of free speech and of hate speech laws in Canada, working to situate Canada’s efforts to regulate hate speech into a global perspective.


[1] For an explanation of how Ottawa can make this argument, see the second part of this article, which explores the role of John Peters Humphrey in the drafting of the UDHR. Government of Canada. “Canada’s approach to advancing human rights.” Global Affairs Canada, July 19, 2023. https://www.international.gc.ca/world-monde/issues_development-enjeux_developpement/human_rights-droits_homme/advancing_rights-promouvoir_droits.aspx?lang=eng#

[2] A.J. Hobbins, “Eleanor Roosevelt, John Humphrey and Canadian Opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” International Journal 53, no. 2 (1998): 325–42.

[3] Original membership included Australia, Belgium, Byelorussia, Chile, China, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Lebanon, Panama, the Philippines, the Soviet Union, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States, Uruguay, and Yugoslavia.

[4] William A. Schabas, “John Peters Humphrey (1905-1995): The Man Behind the First Draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” in The Faces of Human Rights, eds. Kasey McCall-Smith, Jan Wouters, and Felipe Go?mez Isa. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2019.

[5] For details of Humphrey’s activism, see A.J. Hobbins, ed., On the Edge of Greatness: The Diaries of John Humphrey, First Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, Volumes 1-4 (Montreal: McGill University Libraries, 1994-2000).

[6] Humphrey did have some success within the CCF party and from individuals such as R.G. Nik Cavell, chair of the Canadian Institute for International Affairs. See Richard Arès, “Les droits de l’homme devant les nations unies,” Relations 8, no. 96 (December 1948): 325–42.

[7] John Humphrey, as quoted by A.J. Hobbins, “Eleanor Roosevelt, John Humphrey and Canadian Opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 333.

[8] Copies of Humphrey’s personal diaries are held in his fonds at the McGill University archives. They have also been published into volumes. A. J. Hobbins, ed. On the Edge of Greatness: The Diaries of John Humphrey, First Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, Volumes 1-4 (Montreal: McGill University Libraries, 1994-2000).

[9] Krista Maecots, “Ex-UN official raps Canada on its human rights record,” Ottawa Citizen, 14 November 1968, 29.

[10] Letter from John Peters Humphrey to Edgar Faure, 12 March 1979. John Peters Humphrey fonds, McGill University Archives.

[11] More more information on the Canada Memory of the World Programme, and Humphrey’s registry, see https://en.ccunesco.ca/our-priorities/memory-of-the-world/canada-memory-of-the-world-register#sort=%40memoryoftheworldcanadianregisteryear%20descending

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

Please note: ActiveHistory.ca encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.