This Week in History

John P. Humphrey and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

John Peters Humphrey. Photographed by Blank & Stoller, 1930. © McGill University Archives, 2002-0086.04.10

For the week of Monday, December 4, 2023.

On December 10, 1948, in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, 48 member states voted in favour of a resolution adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. John P. Humphrey, a Canadian international civil servant, played an important role in its drafting as the first director of the UN Human Rights Division (1946–1966).

Humphrey was born in Hampton, New Brunswick, in 1905. At age 17, he followed his older sister, Ruth, to Montréal, where he studied at McGill University. He passed the bar in 1929 and received a Macdonald Travelling Scholarship to continue his studies in France. In 1930, he returned to Montréal and worked at a law firm before pursuing graduate studies. In 1937, he started teaching at McGill, developing a new course in Roman Law and becoming an outspoken advocate for peace and internationalism.

Humphrey led a rich social life within the vibrant intellectual and cultural scene of 1930s Montréal, but perhaps his most important friendship was with physiologist Henri Laugier. After joining the UN as Assistant Secretary-General for Social Affairs in 1946, Laugier asked Humphrey to lead the Human Rights Division. Humphrey accepted and served as director for the next two decades.

The most significant work he undertook during that period was supporting the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The executive of the Human Rights Commission had asked Humphrey and his staff to collect examples of models from around the world and prepare a draft in January 1947. By March, Humphrey and his staff had completed a preamble and 48 articles that served as the basis for the final version adopted by the General Assembly in December 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights gradually became part of customary law, inspired many international human rights conventions and declarations, and informed subsequent Canadian efforts to recognize and protect human rights. Humphrey continued to defend and advance the UN human rights program in the years that followed, organizing seminars, giving public lectures, and supporting the development of two legally binding, multilateral treaties, or covenants, that together with the Declaration, made up the International Bill of Human Rights.

First meeting of the Commission on Human Rights, Lake Success, Great Neck, New York. From left to right, front row: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Peters Humphrey, Malik Dukes, Valentin F. Topliakov, Carlos P. Romulo, date unknown. © McGill University Archives, 2002-0086.04.10

When he reached the age of retirement in the UN Secretariat in 1966, Humphrey returned to Montréal. In the years that followed, he taught at McGill University, served on numerous international and national bodies, including the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities (1966–1971), and championed human rights as a founder of such organizations as Amnesty International (Canada) and Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education (formerly the Canadian Human Rights Foundation). His many honours include appointments to the Order of Canada (1974) and the Ordre national du Québec (1985), and the United Nations Human Rights Prize (1988). John Humphrey retired from McGill University in 1995, shortly before his death at the age of 89.

John P. Humphrey was designated as a national historic person in 2022. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, persons and events of national historic significance. Any member of the public can submit a subject to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.

Learn more about Parks Canada’s approach to public history by checking out the Framework for History and Commemoration (2019) on our website.

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