John Humphrey




A Montréal lawyer drafts and wins support for the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt called it "the Magna Carta of Mankind." Pope John Paul II described it as "the Conscience of Mankind." Adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized fundamental rights and freedoms throughout the world, and influenced national legislation, including the Canadian Bill of Rights and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

A Canadian commemorative stamp was issued on October 7, 1998, marking the 50th anniversary of the Declaration and honouring its author, New Brunswick-born John Peters Humphrey.

A Cornerstone
The creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was one of the United Nations' greatest achievements. It espouses non-discrimination based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, and politics. Its adoption sparked a revolutionary change in how international law was practiced by recognizing that human rights are a matter for international concern. Most controversial was its assertion that individuals have a fundamental right to health care, education, and work. Though its principles are routinely violated, the Declaration is significant because it has become part of the customary law of nations.

John Peters Humphrey
The author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was John Peters Humphrey, a Canadian born in the village of Hampton, New Brunswick. A product of a tragic childhood, in which he lost both parents, Humphrey attended Rothesay Collegiate and Mount Allison University. He eventually transferred to McGill University, where he obtained a Bachelor of Commerce degree and, subsequently, a Law degree. After practising law in Montréal for a few years, he joined the McGill faculty. In 1946, he was offered the position of Dean of Law at McGill, but instead chose to take up a post at the United Nations, which had been founded only the year before.

Humphrey became Director of the Human Rights Division in the UN Secretariat and was given the task of drafting the Declaration. Writing such a revolutionary document, then pursuing its adoption through committee after committee in the tense climate of the early Cold War was a demanding ordeal that tested Humphrey's character and commitment. Nevertheless, he was successful.

Unfortunately, his contribution somehow became obscured. A representative from France was credited as the "Father of the Universal Declaration" and awarded the 1968 Nobel Prize, while Humphrey modestly remained silent.

The Draft Document
Many years later, when researchers examined Humphrey's papers at McGill University, they uncovered the original draft of the Declaration, scrawled in Humphrey's handwriting. Humphrey was belatedly honoured with a UN Human Rights Award. Ever humble, Humphrey explained to an interviewer, "To say I did the draft alone would be nonsense... The final Declaration was the work of hundreds." Humphrey stayed with the United Nations for 20 years, overseeing the implementation of 67 international conventions and the constitutions of dozens of countries. He worked in the areas of freedom of the press, status of women, and racial discrimination. Upon retirement from the UN, he resumed his teaching career at McGill. He established the Canadian Federation for Human Rights, founded the Canadian Society of Amnesty International, worked as a director of the International League for the Rights of Man and served as a member of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. He died in March of 1995, a week after his McGill retirement party.

  • Humphrey 42 yrs. – Paul Stewart
  • Humphrey 82 yrs. – Charles Balovarac
  • Chinese Delegate – Luis De Cespedes
  • Chinese Delegate – Zhenhu Han
  • Swedish Delegate – Philip Spensley
  • French Delegate – Jean-Marc Moneclet
  • Emilie – Léni Parker
  • Agent – Neil Kroetsch
  • Reporter – Sylvie Potvin