Study Guide

John P. Humphrey in Universal Declaration of Human Rights

By United Nations Drafting Committee

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John P. Humphrey

Troubled Boy Genius

John P. Humphrey had a pretty crazy early life.

As a boy, he lost both of his parents to cancer and had to have one of his arms amputated because of severe burns. At boarding school, his peers teased him mercilessly about it.

Rather than going full-on emo, these difficult experiences made Humphrey develop deep compassion for humanity and contributed to his interest in furthering the cause of human rights (source).

Humphrey also happened to be a child prodigy. He was accepted into college when he was only 15, and he went on to earn degrees in business and law. He hung out with writers and artists and was a guy with wide-ranging interests beyond his own field of law.

The Blueprint

After the formation of the United Nations, Humphrey's friend Henri Laugier, the U.N.'s assistant secretary general, appointed him the director of the new organization's human rights department. (He'd met Laugier, a refugee fleeing Hitler and member of the French Resistance, while teaching law at McGill University.) He worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt, who tasked him with outlining the earliest version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Humphrey's first handwritten copies contained much of the core of the final document. In particular, his outlines for the preamble expressed some of the ideas that were most important to him and Roosevelt. Among these was the belief that world peace would be impossible without an agreement to observe human rights.

It was his idea to include passages saying that everyone had the right to share the benefits of the arts and sciences. Other aspects of his early drafts got cut, such as a line in the article about the right to life that made an exception for the death penalty (source).

After the U.N. adopted the UDHR, Humphrey stayed in his role as human rights director for another two decades, contributing to 67 international agreements (source).

Retirement from the U.N. didn't stop Humphrey's involvement in international human rights. A thorn in the side of despots everywhere, he continued to serve on commissions investigating human rights abuses around the world. Canada showered him with honors, and Nelson Mandela, the South African president, human rights advocate, and Nobel Prize laureate, called Humphrey the "father of the modern human rights system."

All in all, we'd say he's one of the world's most important people you've never heard of.

Until now.

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