A conversation by e-mail with Mr. John Hobbins

by Victor Manta, Fall 1999

Mr. John Hobbins is the historian at McGill University, thanks to whom the true role of Mr. John Peters Humphrey was (re)discovered and recognized.  Mr. Hobbins is also the literary executor of Mr. Humphrey. 

The Beginning

    Mr. John Hobbins wrote the 10/7/99: "I read your question posed on the web as to the authorship of the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It was proved in 1988 than John Humphrey did this but for forty years Cassin was given credit because he claimed to have done and people believed him.  Proofs provided if you wish.
    As for the photograph the Swiss used, it must have been taken before August 1946 when Schmidt was still in the UN Division of Human Rights. None of the people in the photograph except Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the HRC, and Henri Laugier, Asst. Sec-Gen for Social Affairs, had anything to do with the Declaration."

    My answer: It is indeed important to establish who wrote the Declaration (even if personally I don't like it - see for reasons the article of Mr. Stevens at ). But even more important is to ascertain that during 40 years an organization like UN gave us a misleading information on an intellectual property issue.
    It is historically important, but in fact less important to know if all persons on the photograph had something to do with the elaboration of the Declaration. I can suppose that many of them were, in a way or another, involved in the approval of it. What counts is that the Declaration was made public in the name of all of them (i.e. also in the name of some countries that before to adhere to it and even after its acceptance infringed both its spirit and its letter).

The Continuation
(assembled from the original messages)

Mr. John Hobbins

     I think my research merely proved what Humphrey (and other relatively silent people) had known all along, but had not been broadly accepted by the scholarly community or the world at large including the Canadian government. The proof did result in greater recognition for John in the last few years of his life and, especially, post mortem.

    When the claims were made on Cassin's behalf, when articles were written in his name, he was close to 80 - I have some doubts in my mind as to whether he actually wrote those articles or merely had his name attached. It would also be charitable to assume that his recall was less than perfect. I would agree that if he knowingly attempted to take credit for other's work, his morality would be doubtful. However, I don't consider the evidence conclusive.

    There are those (and I respect them and their scholarship) who feel that Cassin took Humphrey's draft and gave it form (improved it) and they make a strong case. I cannot really comment on the collectivist views - Humphrey and Cassin both felt the Declaration should contain social and economic rights as well as the older civil and political ones, and so it did from the first draft to the last iteration. Personally I think this is one of the strengths of the UDHR although there are those like Mr. Stevens and yourself who may not.  However, I don't push my point of view because I lack the background and expertise to be credible.  I am basically an historian not a lawyer. I do not think - as Stevens suggests - that the Declaration weakens national legislation - rather it sets a minimum standard for such legislation which can of course go far further. But who am I?

    Humphrey wrote in a couple of places (in the 1970s) that he, not Cassin, had written the first draft. No one paid much attention and Humphrey dropped the issue. He found other causes such as compensation for the Korean comfort women (WWII sex slaves of the Japanese army) - compensation was finally paid last year three years after John died.

    I am not sure the UN gave us misleading information. Humphrey's draft was known as the Secretariat Outline and was a draft declaration. He also gave the Human Rights Commission a 400 page booklet of supporting documentation called the Document Outline.  These two have become confused.  Rene Cassin claimed that Humphrey only gave them the 400 page indigestible document and state the first draft.  This was generally accepted until 1988. In that year I found all of Humphrey's drafts including the first handwritten one and wrote the article that showed Humphrey was indeed the author of the first draft.  You can find it (Rene Cassin and the daughter of Time) at:

    Over the last ten years Humphrey's authorship has been accepted by most scholars out side France.  His draft was, however, distilled from many other documents (which he included in the 400 page commentary) so the intellectual property could be said to be that of mankind.

    I don't know what they did or did not do (the UN - V.M.), although I would not expect them to get involved in arguments on historical truth.  That's for people like us.

    The Nobel Prize text for Cassin does not mention authorship of the first draft as one of his achievements.  The 1948 (I think) UN yearbook clearly states the Secretariat prepared an initial draft and the documents are generally available to scholars. I don't think it is the UN's role to launch a campaign against an individual receiving an award, nor would they necessary know if and why he had been nominated.  If we allow that the one strike against Cassin is his claim to authoring the first draft (there are others I think but I'm in a charitable mood) then he did not get the Prize under false pretenses.

    You have raised the question - should the UN have given credit to Humphrey? I am not sure what the answer is. It certainly does not seem to be their general policy to promote individuals who are not at least at the Assistant Secretary-General level - below that level they seem to expect their staff to do their work in relative anonymity. That may be part of the difference between Humphrey and Cassin - Cassin represented his country on the Human Rights Commission, Humphrey represented the UN Secretariat and his role was to facilitate the work of the Commission - not to advocate a particular point of view. For your information I should note that Humphrey felt he was simply doing his job when he wrote the first draft of the UDHR and that it was by no means his most important contribution to the UN human rights programme. Indeed, he felt his greatest contribution was keeping the programme alive in the 1950s and early 1960s when a number of countries and individuals, including Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, tried to close it down. But that's another story...

    The adoption of the Declaration has forced repressive regimes to change against their will (in my view).  This is the moral force that Humphrey talked about. However, again it should be international lawyers who research these things.

    The photograph (on the previous page - V.M.) must date from before August 1946 when Humphrey went to the UN and Schmidt quit (as Acting Head of the Division of Human Rights) in disgust that he was passed over. The Human Rights Commission met for the first time in January 1947. However, in 1946 there was a Nuclear Commission which set up the HRC and this photo may have represented that announcement. Chang represented Republican or Nationalist China, not Communist or Red China which did not join the UN until many years later.  The four Russian reps (none of whom was in the photo) were obstructionist throughout the two years and abstained on the final vote.  As did Yugoslavia.  There were many "heros" in creating the Declaration but Eleanor Roosevelt, Chang, Charles Malik (Lebanon), Rene Cassin (France) and Humphrey are usually considered to stand above the rest.

Victor Manta

    I'm honored by the privilege to speak to the person who uncovered the whole thing. I attentively read yours very interesting article: René Cassin and the Daughter of Time, thanks for pointing me to it. All quotations below are taken from this article. Being confronted here with an ethical problem, I will rather insist on its moral aspects and not on effective contributions of different historical figures to the final text of Declaration.

   Recapitulation of facts, as understood from your article:
- Mr. Humphrey was charged to write a first draft of the Declaration and has done it, a serious and documented work
- Mr. Cassin used this draft in his subsequent work
- Mr. Cassin didn't claimed to be the author of the Declaration, but claimed to be the author of the first draft
- Based on his claim (and of his authority) this fact was unanimously (?) accepted, even if "they have been contradicted consistently, if quietly at first, for some time."
- Mr. Cassin was rewarded with the Nobel price for his entire activity, not explicitly as the author of the first draft of the Declaration. But he was widely known and accepted as the author of the Declaration.
- Mr. Humphrey's position was that  "credit is inappropriate and that the universality of the Declaration transcends the need for recognition of the contributions of individuals."
- The true role of Mr. Humphrey was (re)discovered and recognized after the research made at McGill University (great work - V.M.).

My point of view (basically unchanged):
- Mr. Cassin was a person of a doubtful morality, indifferently of his eventual earlier or later merits, because he claimed to be the author of the first draft, what was untrue and he knew it.
- The basic ideas of the Declaration were put on paper by Mr. Humphrey. Mr. Cassin took them as such or altered (worsened) some of them, in the light of his collectivist views.
- The position of Mr. Humphrey (who saw no need for the recognition of merits of individuals in this matter) eased Mr. Cassin's task to "take his place".
- The UN did nothing to establish the truth, something that I would expect, its fundamental document being involved.
- The best moment for the UN to take an official position was in 1968, when Mr. Cassin candidated for the Nobel price and when still many people who knew the truth were alive. UN was in possession of the documents needed for a research (or could find them) and the witnesses were still available; but UN failed to react. The proper name for such a position is moral cowardice and the result of it are evident: false knowledge spread, polemics, distrust in people and in the UN itself.

    I have made some fast "research", mainly of the Web, on our topics. Please look below for the results.

1. "Cassin was the principal author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1948 and for which he received the 1968 Nobel Peace Prize." Microsoft Encarta 96.

Here we clearly see the problem, isn't it? Even if, as you write, "the Nobel Prize text for Cassin does not mention authorship of the first draft as one of his achievements", and I believe you,  the general opinion and probably the main reason for the Nobel committee was that he was thought as the author of the UDHR, in its totality.

2. "RACE AND ETHNIC RELATIONS: John Peters Humphrey from Year in Review 1995: Population and Human Relations.
In 1968 French jurist René Cassin was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize as the author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed by the UN General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948. This document, which served as "a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations," was vitally important in... " From Encyclopaedia Britannica, on-line.

See, even you have written something that make me think what I think... ( I mean R.C. - the Author :-)

3. "Réne Cassin spent his life defending the rights of men, women, and children. His dedication to bettering the lives of others and his contribution to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were eventually recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize."

Contribution, eventually...

4. "RENÉ CASSIN 1887 - 1976 Prix Nobel de la Paix. Père de la Déclaration universelle des droits de l´homme"

Bon père...

5. "Between 1949-1950 Mr. R. Cassin was Second Vice-Chairman, 1951-1952 First Vice-Chairman." . No high official positions for Mr. Humphrey (V.M.)

6. He was a member of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from its creation in 1946; vice-chairman from 1946 to 1955, a period which included Eleanor Roosevelt's chairmanship (1946-1953); chairman from 1955 to 1957; and again vice-chairman in 1959. The workhorse of the Commission, he was the one most responsible for the draft of the Declaration of Human Rights approved by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

This shows, like 5. too, that Cassin had a much stronger position then Mr. Humphrey.

7. Even at this early stage, John P. Humphrey's Division of Human Rights had described most of the rights and freedoms that eventually became a part of the International Bill. The Division's draft listed the rights to life, personal liberty, and choice of residence; rights to property, emigration, freedom of conscience and speech and belief and peaceful assembly; rights to democratic elections, education, work and social security. It also detailed rights to protect the individual against government manhandling: freedom from torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, slavery and compulsory labor, arbitrary searches and seizures, oppression and tyranny. From THE INTERNATIONAL BILL OF HUMAN RIGHTS: A BRIEF HISTORY No word about R. Cassin (V.M.)

At last something that I hold for truth, the same reason for which I was satisfied to read the results of your research.

The End

8. In the Assembly the Soviet Union found the Declaration defective. Its delegate, maintaining that "the question of national sovereignty is a matter of the greatest importance," claimed that "a number of articles completely ignore the sovereign rights of democratic governments."* He asked the Assembly to postpone consideration of the Declaration until the following year. The Assembly rejected the proposal. And on the night of December 10,1948, meeting in Paris, the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 48 to 0. Eight countries abstained from voting: Poland, Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, the Ukraine, Yugoslavia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union. *In dismissing the charge that the USSR wanted to subordinate the individual to the state, the Russian delegate provided a good glimpse of the gulf which separated many of the UN members. "In a society where there are no rival classes," he argued, "there can not be any contradiction between the government and the individual since the government is in fact the collective individual.... Therefore the problem of the State and the individual, in its historical sense, does not exist. History has already solved that problem in my country.... That relationship is expressed in the formula of which all progressive persons are justly proud: 'the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is the socialist State of workers and peasants.' From THE INTERNATIONAL BILL OF HUMAN RIGHTS: A BRIEF HISTORY .

We have all seen how the USSR "solved" the problem of individual liberty during its whole existence - by condemning the principle and by annihilating by all means the fighters for the rights and liberties.

Quoting you: "I do not think - as Stevens suggests - that the Declaration weakens national legislation - rather it sets a minimum standard for such legislation which can of course go far further. But who am I?"

You are a reasoning person, so why have doubts in expressing your point of view? BTW, it is the Declaration that goes far further and often in the wrong direction, but this is a long discussion, where obviously our philosophic positions are quite different.

In my opinion the relative and absolute positions of Mr. Humphrey and Mr. Cassin inside the UN are less relevant for a conclusion about their respective merits.

Thanks a lot for the interesting discussion, for permitting me to publish it and especially for repairing an injustice against a man (Mr. Humphrey) who deserved more recognition than he has seen during his life, being badly supported by the organization for which he made a remarkable job.

Please click the link on the right to read an article where its author compares the U.N.'s Declaration with the Bill of Rights and the American Constitution.          Next Page Please

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