John Peters Humphrey

Original drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Born: 30 April 1905 in Hampton, New Brunswick
Died: March 1995 in Montreal, Quebec

For forty years, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was attributed to René Cassin, a UN representative from France. Cassin was even awarded the Nobel Prize in 1968 for this work. However, in 1988, while researchers were going through papers at McGill University, the original handwritten draft was discovered and John Peters Humphrey would finally get the recognition he deserved.

John Peters Humphrey grew up in New Brunswick and had more than his share of tragedies at a young age. His father died before his first birthday, his left arm was amputated at age six after an accident while playing with fire, and his mother died when he was eleven. He went on to become a lawyer in Montreal before joining the Faculty of Law at McGill University in 1936. Ten years later, he was appointed Director of the Human Rights Division at the United Nations and assigned the task of drafting a declaration. He wrote forty-eight articles—thirty of which made it into the final document—and, on 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations. This document revolutionized how international law was practiced by recognizing that human rights were an issue of international concern.

Humphrey worked at the UN until 1966 when he returned to teaching at McGill. He helped to launch Amnesty International Canada and the Canadian Human Rights Foundation. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1974 and awarded a United Nations Human Rights Award in 1988 for his work on the Declaration. He died in 1995, one week after retiring from McGill.

Additional trivia:

The International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development hands out the John Humphrey Freedom Award annually.

More information on:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Sources include:

Conacher, Duff. More Canada Firsts. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1999.

Colombo, John Robert. 1000 Questions About Canada. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2001.


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Added 14 April 2002.