Editorial: John Humphrey, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In 1946, John Humphrey became director of the United Nations Division on Human Rights, and Eleanor Roosevelt was named the United States representative to the UN’s Commission on Human Rights. Humphrey was an obscure Canadian law professor. Roosevelt was the world’s most celebrated woman. For two years, they collaborated on the creation of one of the modern world’s great documents: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was adopted on 10 December 1948.



Declaration of Human Rights

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

Humphrey had been teaching at McGill University when he seized the UN opportunity. He was a natural at international human rights. (See also International Law.) He was deeply committed to social change; at ease in French and English; and an expert in the way the law worked between nations.

He was bound to be a champion for the underdog. 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 came another. A horrible accident took away his left arm.

There were other tragedies, not Humphrey’s alone. The Great Depression made him into a socialist. The Second World War turned his mind, as he wrote, to “the cynical, studied and wholesale violation of human rights in and by Nazi Germany.” Unlike any previous conflict, that was “a war to vindicate human rights.”

Eleanor Roosevelt was the widow of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States. She was a prominent advocate for liberal causes and was elected chair of the Human Rights Commission in April 1946. She immediately set Humphrey to work on an international bill of rights.

Humphrey and his small New York staff pored over every available source from around the world. They compiled what the UN boasted was “the most exhaustive documentation on the subject of human rights ever assembled.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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

That essential starting point was reached by June 1947. Over the next year, with Humphrey at her side, Mrs. Roosevelt steered the Human Rights Commission to a document that was ready to be sent up the line at the UN’s fall meeting in Paris. It was never easy work. There were clashes of personality and philosophy, along with the complications of international politics as the Cold War took shape. (See also Igor Gouzenko; Editorial: Igor Gouzenko Defects to Canada.)

Then the drafting began. Humphrey found the quiet he needed at the Lido Beach Hotel, where he and his wife were living out of a suitcase. When his version was complete, it listed in plain prose almost 50 political, civil, cultural, economic and social rights and freedoms.

The Canadian government was no admirer of the Commission’s labours. Its document was seen as vague, permissive, and in need of further study. It also trampled on the jurisdiction of the provinces. (See Distribution of Powers.) The government did not see much point in telling Canadians what they already knew about human rights, or in giving the international community a declaration that many countries would simply ignore.

So, when the declaration came up for approval at the committee stage in Paris, Canada abstained. Next came the big vote in the General Assembly. Canada’s partners in another abstention were South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet Union and its satellites — “a rather undesirable minority,” the delegation at the UN observed.

Retreat was in order. The federal Cabinet reluctantly allowed its representatives to side with the overwhelming majority of states that voted for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon has written that the declaration “charted a bold new course for human rights by presenting a vision of freedom as linked to social security, balanced by responsibilities, grounded in respect for equal human dignity, and guarded by the rule of law.” It affirms “that its rights belong to everybody, everywhere.”

Any accounting of the Universal Declaration must take account of its vast influence and imperfect application. There have been impressive advances in human rights, many of which can be linked to the Declaration, and yet serious abuses regularly continue to occur.

It is ultimately up to us, concludes Glendon, whether we build upon or waste the legacy left by Humphrey, Roosevelt and “other large-souled men and women who strove to bring a standard of right from the ashes of terrible wrongs.”

See also 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 Humphrey, Human Rights and the United Nations: A Great Adventure (1984).