The One-Armed Orphan Who Brought Human Rights To The World

The human wrongs many experienced during the twentieth century—individually and collectively—spawned today’s human rights movement.

Even the Thomas Jefferson of human rights, John Peters Humphrey, was a one-armed orphan bullied in private school. After working in the United Nations for twenty years, he concluded that this hope of humanity had become an “organization of shame.” His greatest achievement, drafting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was ignored for decades as the movement’s George Washington—Rene Cassin—won the Noble Prize and its Paul Revere—Eleanor Roosevelt—became America’s liberal saint.

The origins of John Peters Humphrey’s commitment to human rights are so cinematic, even Hollywood would fear constructing such obvious psychological motives. Born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1905, Humphrey had the kind of childhood that could have produced a criminal—or a do-gooder. His father died before he turned one. Doctors amputated his left arm, after his clothing caught fire, when he was six. Then, his mother died, when he was eleven.

With his father’s life insurance covering tuition at Rothesay Collegiate School, John hoped this boarding school bubble would provide the warm community he lacked and the intellectual challenge he craved. But this was no Gryffindor. The boys mocked his lost parents, his missing arm, his excess weight. The one indignity he didn’t suffer, he recalled, was sexual abuse. Displaying the self-deprecation smart kids deploy as emotional armor, he wondered if he was too fat to attract the predators.

Trusting his brain as his passport out, Humphrey trained his heart to seek justice not revenge. He became an academic with an exotic passion at the time, human rights. After graduating from McGill University in 1929 with degrees in Commerce and Law, he studied in Paris. Five years of practicing law in Montreal sent him back to McGill—where he taught international law until 1994.

The Nazis’ mass murders during World War II taught the world how much people need their rights guaranteed. Even before America entered the war, President Franklin Roosevelt started shaping the postwar world with his Four Freedoms.  FDR took the individual liberty Thomas Jefferson put in the center of the American Revolution—and shared them with everyone “in the world.” Starting with the more familiar freedoms of speech and religion, FDR added two. Freedom from want answered the Communists, promising democratic prosperity without Marxist dictatorship. Freedom from fear countered totalitarian terror.

After the war, the UN became the idealists’ tool to fix the world—making international lawyers pop stars.

The UN Economic and Social Council established a Commission on Human Rights in 1946. In 1947, the Commission struck a committee, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt to draft a Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR]. Roosevelt hoped this declaration would do for the world what the Declaration of Independence had done for America—inspire, shape, and ultimately reform and heal.

Roosevelt’s role was mostly symbolic—and hortatory. “Where, after all do universal human rights begin?” she proclaimed: “In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, and equal dignity, without discrimination.”

Roosevelt relied on the French-Jewish jurist peace activist, Rene Cassin who in turn relied on the the Director of the Division of Human Rights—Professor John Humphrey. “I am now playing the role of a Jefferson,” Humphrey reported proudly from New York. He agreed with Eleanor Roosevelt’s classic, mid-century liberal vision.

Globalizing Western liberalism wasn’t easy. The British wanted legal guarantees not moral visions. Most intense, as the Cold War began, was the Marxist repudiation of American liberalism. Communists cared about group rights—and state power—not individual rights.

Humphrey produced a well-researched 408 page document outlining his thoughts. His first draft of the UDHR detailed 46 articles, advancing the Roosevelt revolution by adding economic and social rights. Rene Cassin shaved them down to 44. Fourteen hundred resolutions in 187 meetings later, on December 10, 1948, 48 nations voted unanimously for what Mrs. Roosevelt labeled a “Magna Carta for all mankind,” with 30 articles. Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and six Soviet bloc nations abstained—for obvious reasons.

Article 1 states, simply, magnificently: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Professor Humphrey later explained that it advanced the UN’s core mission because “there will be peace on earth when the rights of all are respected.”

Alas, despite the goodwill and nice words, human rights wasn’t quite ready to become what Humphrey’s future student and colleague Irwin Cotler now calls “the new secular religion of our time.”

Humphrey soon became frustrated. When Dag Hammarskjold became the UN’s second Secretary-General in 1953, Humphrey realized that his new boss “would like to throw the Human Rights Covenants out the window.” Budget cuts and employee firings soon followed. Humphrey considered quitting, emboldened by what every government official—a job awaiting him when the work ended or his conscience became too strained.

Humphrey lasted until 1966, grumbling as the UN’s bureaucracy metastasized and its effectiveness diminished. He later characterized the rearguard actions from those years as his greatest gift to human rights. Humphrey helped shape 67 international conventions and numerous national covenants promoting freedom.

Humphrey returned to McGill dejected not defeated. He started targeting Canadian human rights lapses along with Quebec separatism. The illiberal Marxist collectivism shaping language laws and other assaults on individual freedoms appalled him. Most important, Humphrey became an academic pioneer, teaching one of the first classes on human rights law—when civil rights was on everyone’s minds but the phrase “human rights” was rarely on anyone’s lips.

Ultimately, Humphrey raised generations of legal scholar-activists like Irwin Cotler, who served as Canada’s Justice Minister and Attorney General from 2003 to 2006. Cotler, now the founder and chair of McGill’s Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights explains that the Helsinki Accords of 1975 changed history. In establishing the ideological and jurisprudential primacy of human rights worldwide, these human rights protocols, which even the Soviets signed, contributed to “the most revolutionary act in the twentieth century.”

Even with his efforts bearing fruit, Humphrey, like most aides, was forgotten. It rankled every now and then but didn’t ruin him—or stop him from lecturing, writing, publishing, and hectoring governments—when necessary.

Then, another cinematic stroke. McGill hires a temporary law librarian in 1988. His first week on the job, John Hobbins discovers scholarly gold: a first draft of the UDHR in his new office’s filing cabinet, in Humphrey’s handwriting. Hobson launches a crusade to get Humphrey recognized as the author.  Canadians take the cause up as a mark of national honor.  Nature then intrudes: Humphrey lives until 1995, outliving Cassin by almost twenty years—and finally upstaging him.

Today, Humphrey’s role may be overstated and Cassin’s a bit understated. The fairest assessment is to hail both, with Cassin as the big thinker, Humphrey the implementer. While we like our superheroes flying solo, triggering the human rights revolution required a more complicated group effort.

Were Humphrey, who died in 1995, to return to his beloved university world today, he would be amazed by how committed students and colleagues are to human rights talk. But he’d be equally appalled that postmodernists neglect the essential liberal lesson emphasizing individual freedom as the bedrock of human rights.

Removing individual rights from human rights is as counterintuitive as removing Jesus from Christian theology. Humphrey wouldn’t tolerate ostensible human rights devotees squelching freedom of speech or defining individuals by the group they belong to more than the inherent rights they enjoy. In resisting Marxist groupthink, authentic egalitarian liberals like Humphrey understood that individual freedom is like oxygen: it can be combustible and risks doing harm but who can live without it?


Further Reading

Alan John Hobbins, On The Edge Of Greatness: The Diaries of John Humphrey (1995)

 John Thomas Peters Humphrey, Human Rights and the United Nations: A Great Adventure (1984)