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Drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Co-founder of Equitas


This story is part of the series We are human rights changemakers to celebrate Equitas’ 50th anniversary (#Equitas50). All through 2017, we invite you to discover stories of 50 inspiring human rights changemakers. These are but a few of the hundreds who have changed lives around the world through human rights education with Equitas’ support.

On the lawn of the County Court House in Hampton, New Brunswick, stands a monument to humanitarian John Peters Humphrey, one of the founders of Equitas. Humphrey’s childhood home is just a few hundred yards from this monument which consists of a curved wooden bench on which sit life-size sculptures of Humphrey both as a child and as an adult. On one end of the bench are brass doves to symbolize peace. And a nearby stone plinth is inscribed with parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document originally drafted by this remarkable man during his tenure at the United Nations.

The “young” barefoot Humphrey sitting on this bench reminds visitors that Humphrey attributes his lifelong values to having endured certain hardships as a child. His parents both died of cancer when he was young, and Humphrey himself lost his left arm at age six in an accident while playing with fire. Sent to boarding school, he endured cruel taunts from other students.

And it was at boarding school that he observed abuses of authority and developed his dream “to make the world a better place.” Humphrey turned the tragic events of his childhood into a lifetime of compassion and activism on behalf of others.

Humphrey graduated from McGill University in 1925, receiving a Bachelor of Commerce degree. He subsequently acquired both a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Law from McGill. Receiving a fellowship to study in Paris, he embarked on his journey to France, meeting Jeanne Godreau en route. They soon married.

Humphrey continued his education by earning a Master of Law at McGill, specializing in International Law. In 1943, Humphrey moved to Algeria and taught at the University of Algiers. In the aftermath of World War II, the United Nations was formed in 1945 with many objectives, including the promotion of international peace and human rights. With his background in international law, and his fluency in French, Humphrey was soon appointed to the United Nations by a friend, Assistant Secretary General Henri Laugier. This intergovernmental organization was a perfect fit for Humphrey. As historian Mary Ann Glendon notes,

“Though he had been unable [because of his disability] to fight in the war, he could perhaps help to shape the peace.”

Meanwhile, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died, and President Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to be part of the United States Delegation to the UN. In that capacity, she was elected chair of the Human Rights Commission. The first project of this commission was to task the Human Rights Division of the UN Secretariat to write a bill of human rights that could be applied to all the countries of the world. In 1946, Humphrey became the first director of this division. In this role, he prepared the primary draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was a monumental and daunting task, but Humphrey took it up with enthusiasm. According to historian Glendon, “John Humphrey had instructed his staff at the UN to study all the world’s existing constitutions and rights instruments, as well as the suggestions that had poured into the Secretariat from members of the Commission, outside organizations, and even from various interested individuals.”

With his assistant Emile Giroud, Humphrey promptly distilled this mountain of concepts into a list of 48 rights, comprising the first draft of the Declaration.

This draft provided an essential and timely focus for the ensuing, and often controversial, discussions.

Humphrey’s draft was later revised by Rene Cassin, another member of the drafting committee. Cassin’s contribution was largely to add a preamble, clarify wording, and provide an organizational structure. Cassin’s contribution to the Declaration was significant, resulting in his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968. However, historians credit Humphrey as the person who wrote the first draft upon which the final Declaration was based. The General Assembly adopted this Declaration in 1948 and Eleanor Roosevelt dubbed it “the international Magna Carta of all humankind.”

For two decades, Humphrey worked with the United Nations, including a focus on areas such as freedom of the press, the status of women, and racial discrimination. In 1988, the UN Human Rights Award was given to Humphrey on the 40th anniversary of the Declaration.

Photo: John P. Humphrey (left), women’s rights activist Thérèse Casgrain (centre) and the “ambassador of persons with disabilities”, Dr. Gustave Gingras (right)

Humphrey retired from the UN in 1966, but he continued his advocacy for human rights around the world.

With colleagues in Montreal, such as Thérèse Casgrain and Gustave Gingras, he helped create the Canadian Human Rights Foundation, later renamed the Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education.

He participated in numerous inquiries, including investigating human rights violations under Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, shining a light on abuses during the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine, and addressing other human rights issues around the globe.

In 1974, Humphrey was made an Officer of the Order of Canada “in recognition of his contributions to legal scholarship and his world-wide reputation in the field of human rights.” And, eleven years later, in 1985, he was made an Officer of the Ordre national du Québec.

In 1998, Nelson Mandela unveiled a commemorative plaque honouring Humphrey at the Human Rights Monument in Ottawa. Mandela honoured Humphrey as “the father of the modern human rights system.”

Throughout his life, Humphrey came a long way from the scrappy little barefooted boy depicted on that bench. Drawing on values forged from childhood hardship, he devoted his life to human rights work. His legacy is expressed every day in human rights initiatives, movements, commitments, constitutions, and educational programs throughout the world.


Co-drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Co-founder of the Canadian Human Rights Foundation (Equitas)

Story prepared by Joan Tornow, Ph.D. www.writingmemoir.com
Member of the Association of Personal Historians.

Sources include:
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, & Intent by Johannes Morsink, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Mary Ann Glendon, Random House, 2001.



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