Government of New Brunswick

John Peters Humphrey: The New Brunswicker who wrote the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The principal author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a native of New Brunswick, John Peters Humphrey. He wrote the first draft of what eventually became perhaps the most important human rights document in contemporary history. In the decades that followed, Humphrey devoted his life to the advancement of human rights at the United Nations, and as an academic and rights advocate in Canada.



Humphrey was born in Hampton, NB on April 30, 1905. His childhood was marked by tragedy. By the time he was 11-years-old, Humphrey had lost both his parents to cancer. Also, at the age of five, he suffered severe burns to his left arm, which had to be amputated after prolonged treatment. As a child, Humphrey was bullied by his classmates. These early experiences shaped his views about the value of treating individuals with dignity and respect.


John Peters Humphrey, 1910
(courtesy McGill University Archives)



Humphrey was admitted to Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB at the age of 15 and soon after transferred to McGill University in Montreal, QC. He graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce in 1925, a Bachelor of Arts in 1927, and a Bachelor of Law in 1929.

Humphrey was called to the Quebec Bar in 1929 and practiced law before joining the Faculty of Law at McGill as a professor in 1936. Later he would become Dean of Law at McGill after earning his PhD in 1945.

John Peters Humphrey, 1930
(courtesy Blank and Stoller / McGill University Archives,




Humphrey spent another 20 years at the UN where he tirelessly advocated for human rights protections. During this period, he oversaw the implementation of many international conventions including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. He also put forth the idea of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, although this office did not become a reality until decades later.


“If I have any real merit […] it is because of the role that I was able to play in keeping the United Nations human rights programme alive when it was under attack, especially in the United Nations Secretariat.”

- John Peters Humphrey



After leaving the UN in 1966, Humphrey returned to McGill where he devoted himself to human rights teaching and advocacy until his retirement in 1994. During this time, he was also the founding President of the Canadian Chapter
of the International Commission of Jurists
and helped establish Amnesty International Canada and the
Canadian Human Rights Foundation (now known as Equitas).

Humphrey also founded the Human Rights Education Foundation, which later evolved into the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights. In addition, Humphrey served as director of the International League for Human Rights and as a member of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.

“If there is to be perpetual peace in a world of nation states, the individuals who live in them must be free, their human rights must be respected.”

John Peters Humphrey


Humphrey's wife, Jeanne Godreau, passed away in 1980. They had been married over 50 years. Humphrey later married a prominent physician, Dr. Margaret Kunstler. In 1995, Humphrey passed away in Montreal. He is buried in his hometown of Hampton, NB.





Humphrey authored numerous articles and several books. He received many honorary degrees. In 1974, he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 1988 he received the UN Prize for human rights advocacy.

Since 1988, the McGill University Faculty of Law has held the John P. Humphrey Lectureship in Human Rights, an annual lecture on the role of international law and organizations in the worldwide protection of human rights.

In 1998, Canada Post issued a stamp in his honour. The John Peters Humphrey Model United Nations is held in his honour every year in Fredericton, NB.

Each year, the Canadian Council on International Law grants John Peters Humphrey Student Fellowships which provide funding for individuals to begin or continue graduate studies in Canada or abroad in the field of international human rights law or international organizations.

In 2008, a memorial to Humphrey was unveiled in his hometown of Hampton. As a tribute to Humphrey, the Hampton John Peters Humphrey Foundation educates individuals of all ages about his life and accomplishments. A new bronze statue was unveiled by the Foundation in 2023, to mark the 75th anniversary of the UDHR.

“Just one more word about education. When people know what their rights are, it is easier for them to put pressure on governments to respect them, and governments are consequently more likely to respect them.”

– John Peters Humphrey


At the unveiling of a memorial plaque honouring Humphrey in Ottawa, Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, referred to him as "the father of the modern human rights system."

It is important to acknowledge that Humphrey was not formally recognized as the original drafter of the UDHR until after a first draft in his handwriting was discovered. Furthermore, it is also significant to note that, despite being authored by a Canadian, Canada initially abstained from voting in favour of the UDHR.

Three pages from Humphrey’s original draft of the UDHR
(courtesy McGill University Archives)


Since its adoption, the UDHR has brought a revolutionary change in the theory and practice of international human rights law. It is one of the UN’s most important achievements and, although it is not a treaty and therefore does not directly create legal obligations for countries, it is an expression of the foundational values which are shared by all members of the international community.

Since many governments and courts have consistently invoked the UDHR ever since its inception, it is widely agreed that the document has become binding on nation states as part of customary international law.

Throughout his life, Humphrey advocated not only for human rights protections but also for human rights education. The New Brunswick Human Rights Commission is committed to continuing Humphrey’s legacy by equipping people with the knowledge and skills to claim and defend their rights. Through education, training, and information, we can create a culture of human rights in New Brunswick that promotes the values of equality, dignity, and respect in our communities.

“By paying tribute to John Peters Humphrey, we help ensure that his legacy endures. He is a true Canadian hero, and his life is an example for us all. For he showed us that, with hard work and perseverance, an individual really can make a difference”

– Noël A. Kinsella, First Chairperson, New Brunswick Human Rights Commission