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John Peters Humphrey, OC, BCom, LLB (April 30, 1905 – March 14, 1995) was a Canadian legal scholar, jurist, and human rights advocate.


Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In 1946, he was appointed as the first Director of the Human Rights Division in the United Nations Secretariat, where he was a 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".

Career in the United Nations

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 including 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 Toskov.

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.

Later life

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 90. 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.

Honours and Recognition

Among his many honors, 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".

The John Peters Humphrey Model United Nations is held in his honour every May in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Since 1988, the McGill University Faculty of Law has held the John P. Humphrey Lectureship in Human Rights, an annual lecture on the role of international law and organizations in the worldwide protection of human rights. [1]

The John Humphrey Freedom Award, presented by the Canadian human rights group Rights & Democracy, is awarded each year to organizations and individuals around the world for exceptional achievement in the promotion of human rights and democratic development. [2]

In June 2008, a memorial to Dr. Humphrey was unveiled in his hometown of Hampton, New Brunswick. The memorial, located just a few hundred yards from his childhood home, consists of a UN-style wooden bench with a young and old Humphrey seated. Several brass doves sit on the end of the bench, which sits beside two tall stone plinths, one of which has several articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights carved into it in English, French and Maliseet. The memorial sits on the front lawn of the County Court House in the center of the town.


  • 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 0-7735-1458-9, ISBN 0-7735-1456-2, ISBN 0-7735-1454-6, ISBN 0-7735-1383-3.
  • Hobbins, A.J. and Steward, A. “Humphrey and the quest for compensation: Individual claims against States and the creation of new international law.” Canadian Yearbook of International Law, 2003. XLI (2004). pp. 187-223.
  • Hobbins, A.J. “Humphrey and the High Commissioner: the Genesis of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.” Journal of the History of International Law. III (2001), pp. 38-74
  • Hobbins, A.J. “Mentor and Protégé: Percy Corbett’s relationship with John Peters Humphrey.” Canadian Yearbook of International Law, 1999. XXXVII (2000), pp. 3-56.
  • Hobbins, A.J. "René Cassin and the Daughter of Time: the First Draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights". Fontanus II (1989) pp. 7 26.
  • Hobbins, A.J. and Boyer, D. “Seeking Historical Truth: the International Commission of Inquiry into the 1932-33 Famine in Ukraine. Dalhousie Law Journal. XXIV (2002), pp. 139-191
  • King, J and Hobbins, A.J.. “Hammarskjöld and Human Rights: the Deflation of the UN Human Rights Programme, 1953-1961.” Journal of the History of International Law. V (2003), pp. 337-386.

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