John Humphrey

John Thomas Peters Humphrey, OC, lawyer, diplomat, scholar (born 30 April 1905 in Hampton, NB; died 14 Mar 1995 in Montreal, QC). John Humphrey was the director of the United Nations Human Rights Division from 1946 to 1966. He was instrumental in drafting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. He also taught law and briefly served as dean at McGill University. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1974 and received the United Nations Prize for human rights advocacy in 1988.



The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

John Humphrey with his collaborator on the Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Early Years and Education

Humphrey’s childhood was marked by tragedy. He lost his father at the age of thirteen months and his mother when he was eleven; both died of cancer. In between those calamities, a horrible accident took away his left arm.

Humphrey proved to be a precocious and accomplished student. He was admitted to Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, at the age of 15 and soon transferred to McGill University in Montreal. He graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1925, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1927 and a Bachelor of Law degree in 1929. He earned a PhD in 1945, and wrote his dissertation on the distribution of powers in government.

Early Career

Humphrey was called to the Quebec Bar in 1929. He entered a private law practice before joining the Faculty of Law at McGill University in 1936. He briefly became the dean a decade later.

Career with the United Nations

In 1946, Humphrey was appointed director of human rights for the United Nations Secretariat. With the assistance of others, he authored the original draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was 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. It is probably the most cited international legal document drafted by a Canadian.

Declaration of Human Rights
Eleanor Roosevelt holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Lake Success, 1949. Canadian John Humphrey was the principal author.

The declaration brought a revolutionary change in the theory and practice of international law because it recognized that human rights are a matter of international concern. Although the principles of the declaration are routinely violated, it is one of the UN’s most important achievements. 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.

Career After the UN

Humphrey returned to McGill University in 1966. In 1967, he co-founded the Canadian Human Rights Foundation (now Equitas) with Thérèse Casgrain and Dr. Gustave Gingras. He taught full-time until the early 1970s and then part-time until he retired in 1994. He remained active in international affairs and the protection of human rights. He authored several important volumes on the subject and helped investigate human rights abuse in the Philippines. He also helped win compensation for Canadian prisoners-of-war held by the Japanese after the Battle of Hong Kong, and represented Korean women forced into sexual slavery during the Second World War.


Honours and Legacy

It was not until late in his life that Humphrey’s contribution to the UN declaration was formally recognized, after a first draft in his handwriting was discovered. He received many awards and honours. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1974 and received the United Nations Prize for human rights advocacy in 1988. Between 1992 and 2011, the federal government bestowed the annual John Humphrey Award to an individual who actively protects human rights.

See also Editorial: John Humphrey, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Canadian Bill of RightsPhilosophy of Human Rights; Canadian Human Rights Commission; Canadian Human Rights Act; Rights Revolution in Canada; Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


Further Reading

  • John P. Humphrey, Human Rights and the United Nations: A Great Adventure (1984).