McGill Library’s John Peters Humphrey Fonds added to the Canada Memory of the World Register

John Peters Humphrey

In honour of the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the archive of John Peters Humphrey, OC (BCom’25, BA’27, BCL’29, PhD’45, LLD’76) has been added to the Canada Memory World Registry. The archive is currently housed in the McGill Library.

The archive includes the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), handwritten by the late Humphrey. Adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, the UDHR is considered “a milestone document in the history of human rights,” according to the United Nations, as it “sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected.”

It has since become the most translated document in the world – translated into over 500 languages – and is arguably the most cited legal document drafted by a Canadian.

“The John Peters Humphrey archive provides a unique behind-the-scenes look into the evolution of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the person who drafted it. Through the various drafts we can observe the additions and changes that arose from discussions with others, and gain appreciation that Canada had representation and influence in the development of this landmark work that enshrines the basic rights and fundamental freedoms of all,” said Yves-Gérard Méhou-Loko, Secretary General, Canadian Commission for UNESCO. “Mr. Humphrey’s work is the cornerstone of the thinking and actions that will lead us to build a world that is more sustainable, more just and more equitable.”

“McGill University’s reputation for excellence is owed to the many people who, for more than 200 years, have made significant contributions that enrich our University’s history and have made a positive impact on our world,” said Principal Deep Saini. “McGill alumnus and professor John Peters Humphrey is one such luminary. As the author of the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Humphrey’s contributions to the advancement of human society are as critical as they are enduring. This remarkable archive will serve as an inspiration within our community and beyond for years to come.”

The archive

Humphrey was a professor at McGill and had been named Dean of the Faculty of Law when he was invited to work with the United Nations Secretariat to help draft a statement on human rights. Appointed the first Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, he worked at the UN for 20 years before returning to teach at McGill in 1966, retiring as Professor Emeritus.

He was an internationally renowned authority on human rights, earning numerous honours and awards and regarded as a pioneering figure in the field.

The McGill University Archives’ John Peters Humphrey collection spans over 60 years. It includes speeches, diaries, correspondence – including letters exchanged with Eleanor Roosevelt, Humphrey’s UN colleague – and multiple drafts of the UDHR.

The documents were deposited by Humphrey himself and by John Hobbins, Librarian Emeritus at McGill and Humphrey’s literary executor. Much of the collection has been digitized.

“The John Peters Humphrey Fonds is a remarkable collection that represents a rich tapestry of human rights history and embodies the legacy of one of McGill’s most distinguished alumni,” says Guylaine Beaudry, Trenholme Dean of Libraries. “This recognition underscores the enduring significance of Humphrey’s work and the essential safeguarding of this invaluable resource. McGill University Libraries and Archives are deeply honoured and proud to have the John Peters Humphrey Fonds included in the Canada Memory of the World Register.”

The Canada Memory of the World Register

Created in 2017 and administered by the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, the Canada Memory of the World Register aims to facilitate preservation of Canada’s most significant heritage documents.

“It looks for documents of national importance,” says Yves A. Lapointe, Director and University Archivist at the McGill University Archives. “In this case, of course it’s national, but it’s also universal – beyond nations and persons.”

The Register currently consists of 31 entries, including Viola Irene Desmond’s court records (Desmond is featured on Canada’s $10 bill) and the archival records of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

“We look forward to sharing the John Peters Humphrey Fonds with the world, ensuring that his efforts and the ideals he stood for continue to inspire and educate generations to come,” says Beaudry.

History on display at McGill

McGill will celebrate Humphrey and the 75th anniversary of the UDHR with an on-campus exhibition titled Beyond the Declaration: A Canadian Perspective on the UDHR.

Opening on December 10 at McGill’s Nahum Gelber Law Library, the exhibition will feature select items from the McGill archive – including Humphrey’s original handwritten first draft.

“We have a lot of interesting fonds in the McGill University Archives, but this one is of particular interest,” says Lapointe. “We’re proud to be celebrating this milestone anniversary.”

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