John Peters Humphrey

From Academic Kids

John Peters Humphrey (April 30, 1905May 14, 1995) was a Canadian legal scholar, jurist, and human rights advocate.

He was born in Hampton, New Brunswick, and studied at Rothesay Collegiate, Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB, and McGill University in Montreal. He practised law from 1929 to 1936, when he joined McGill's Faculty of Law. In 1946, he was appointed as the first Director of the Human Rights Division in the United Nations Secretariat, where he was the principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After consulting with the executive group of the Commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, Professor 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".

He 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 incluidng 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.

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 89. 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.

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".

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.


  • Humphrey, John P., Human Rights and the United Nations: A Great Adventure (New York: Transnational Publishers, 1984) (autobiography)
  • On the Edge of Greatness, The Diaries of John Humphrey, First Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights. 4 volumes Edited by A.J. Hobbins and published as Fontanus Monographs 4, 9, 12 and 13. Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press. 1995-2001.

ISBN 0773514589 ISBN 0773514562 ISBN 0773514546 ISBN 0773513833


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