John Peters Humphrey

John Peters Humphrey, lawyer, diplomat, scholar (b at Hampton, NB 30 Apr 1905; d at Montréal 14 Mar 1995). John Humphrey was called to the Québec Bar in 1929 and entered the private practice of law before joining the Faculty of Law of McGill University in 1936, briefly becoming the dean a decade later. In 1946 he was appointed director of human rights for the United Nations Secretariat, where with the assistance of others he authored the original draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Passed as a resolution of the General Assembly on 10 December 1948, the declaration was referred to as the "Magna Carta of all mankind" by Eleanor Roosevelt, committee chairperson. The document has been translated into 321 languages and dialects and is probably the most cited legal document drafted by a Canadian.

The declaration heralded a revolutionary change in the theory and practice of INTERNATIONAL LAW because of its recognition that human rights are a matter for international concern. Although the principles of the declaration are routinely violated, it is one of the UN's most important achievements, for it has become part of the customary law of nations.

John Humphrey was the director of the United Nations Human Rights Division for 20 years; he retired from the UN in 1966. He returned to McGill University where he taught full-time for 5 more years and then part-time until he retired in 1994. He remained active in international affairs and the protection of human rights, and authored several important volumes on the subject. He applied his experience to international efforts to investigate human rights abuse in the Philippines and represented Korean women forced into sexual slavery to Japanese soldiers during the Second World War.

It was not until late in his life that Humphrey's contribution to the declaration was formally recognized, after a first draft in his handwriting was discovered. Among the many awards and honours he received, John Humphrey was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1974. He was awarded the United Nations Prize for human rights advocacy in 1988. The John Humphrey Award is given annually to an individual who actively protects human rights by Rights & Democracy (International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development).