John Peters Humphrey, born in Hampton on April 30, 1905, embarked on an extraordinary journey throughout his 90 years of life. He dedicated his time and talent to improving the lives of people worldwide by promoting human rights.
The experiences during the first eleven years of his life likely influenced his perspective on how individuals should be treated. Both of Humphrey’s parents, Frank Humphrey and Nellie Peters, succumbed to cancer, and he lost an arm in an accident while playing with fire. Throughout his adolescence, he faced taunts and bullying from his boarding school peers. These experiences, however, only served to fortify young Humphrey’s character. Encouraged by a friend, he applied and was accepted to Mount Allison University in Sackville at the young age of fifteen. He soon left Mount Allison for the bustling city of Montreal.
Living with his sister Ruth, who was teaching in Montreal at the time, Humphrey enrolled in McGill’s School of Commerce. There, he became captivated by the lectures of renowned Canadian writer Stephen Leacock. Humphrey earned his Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1925 and subsequently enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts program, driven by a newfound passion for law and politics. He received Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Law degrees in 1927 and 1929, respectively.
Upon graduating, Humphrey was awarded a fellowship to study in Paris. As he boarded the liner Aurania, he could not have known that this journey would lead to a romance culminating in marriage. On board, he met Jeanne Godreau, and shortly after arriving in France, the Consul-General presided over their wedding ceremony.
Humphrey’s interest in international law grew, and upon returning to Montreal, he pursued a Master’s degree in International Law while teaching at McGill University. Humphrey was something of a Renaissance man, seamlessly integrating his love for human rights, law, and art in various profound ways. He became actively involved in Montreal’s art community, where he encountered numerous accomplished painters and writers.
It was during this period that Humphrey met Henri Laugier, a refugee from France who had escaped before the Nazi invasion. Laugier had been working on behalf of the Free French organization, whose members assisted with resistance efforts both within and outside their country.
Laugier was impressed by Humphrey’s intellect, passion for art and law, and his fluency in French, which was quite rare for an Anglophone in the 1940s.
In 1943, after North Africa’s liberation, Laugier went to teach at the University of Algiers. At the end of the war, he took up a new position as Assistant Secretary-General at the newly-formed United Nations. Laugier remembered his talented friend in Canada and offered John Humphrey the Directorship of the United Nations Human Rights Division.
Humphrey’s responsibilities included supporting the work of the Human Rights Commission, which was established to create an International Bill of Rights identifying the basic human rights of all global citizens. The need for such a document became evident after the atrocities committed during World War II.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady of the United States, chaired the Commission and entrusted Humphrey with drafting the document. Despite numerous political challenges facing the Commission, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) was adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948, due to the determination and belief in their goal by the key players.
John Humphrey dedicated another 20 years as the Director of the Human Rights Division, tirelessly advocating for those in need of rights protection. He returned to McGill University after leaving the UN and taught there until his retirement in 1994.
Humphrey’s wife, Jeanne Godreau, passed away in 1980 after 51 years of marriage. Later, Humphrey married a prominent physician in Montreal, Dr. Margaret Kunstler.
John Humphrey’s life serves as an inspiration to us all. Despite humble beginnings and several early traumatic experiences, he engaged with kings, queens, world leaders, artists, and activists in an international discourse on rights.
At the unveiling of a memorial plaque honoring Humphrey in Ottawa, former South African President Nelson Mandela referred to the drafter of the UNDHR as “the father of the modern human rights system.”
It wasn’t until A.J. Hobbins, an acting law librarian, discovered Humphrey’s original drafts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at McGill University that he was recognized as the “Father of the Modern Human Rights System.”
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