John Peters Humphrey was born in Hampton, New Brunswick on 30 April 1905 and dedicated his life to advancing human rights for all people around the world. He is well known for writing the United Nations Bill of Human Rights. From an early age, Humphrey was motivated to make the world a better place. This was set by his parents who both died of cancer when he was young as well as his challenging experiences at boarding school. At six years old, Humphrey also lost his left arm in an accident while playing with fire.
Humphrey graduated from McGill University with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Law. He then received a fellowship to study in Paris where he earned a Masters of Law, specializing in International Law. In 1943, Humphrey moved to Algeria and taught at the University of Algiers.
In 1945, the United Nations was formed in the aftermath of World War II. The United Nations had many objectives, including the promotion of international peace and human rights. That year, Eleanor Roosevelt was elected chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. A year later, Humphrey was elected director of the Division of the UN Secretariat. This division was responsible for writing a bill of human rights that could be applied to all countries in the world.
Historian Glendon writes, “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.” Humphrey had written the first draft of the Bill, but it was Rene Cassin, another member of the drafting committee, who later revised the Bill that Humphrey had written. Cassin’s role was largely to add a preamble, provide an organisational structure and clarify wording. Cassin’s contribution to the Declaration was significant, and in 1968 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
In 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt dubbed the Declaration “the international Magna Carta of all humankind.” Humphrey made numerous contributions to the United Nations where he focused on areas such as freedom of the press, racial discrimination and women’s rights. In 1988, the UN Human Rights Award was granted to Humphrey on the 40th anniversary of the Declaration. Humphrey retired from the UN in 1966, but he continued his advocacy for human rights around the world.