On the Edge of Greatness: The Diaries of John Humphrey, First Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, Vol. 1, 1948-49


286 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7717-0040-2
DDC 341.4'81'092




Edited by A.J. Hobbins
Reviewed by D.M.L. Farr

D.M.L. Farr is professor emeritus of history at Carleton University and
the editor of Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.


John Humphrey, who died in 1995, is probably the most important
international civil servant

to have come from Canada. He left a teaching position in the Faculty of
Law at McGill University in 1946 to become the first director of the
Division of Human Rights at the nascent United Nations. He prepared the
first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was
adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. The Universal Declaration—a
“revolutionary” manifesto, in Humphrey’s own words—transformed
human rights into an international responsibility.

Humphrey’s diaries, which were written not for publication but for
his personal use, were found among his papers after his death and are
now being published by their owner, the McGill University Libraries.
A.J. Hobbins, associate director of the McGill Libraries, has
meticulously provided references for the 600 individuals—politicians,
bureaucrats, and cultural figures—mentioned in the diaries. He has
also written a useful introduction describing Humphrey’s early life
and his connection with the Universal Declaration.

Humphrey’s diary entries are short (each contains only a paragraph or
two) and were mainly done on a daily basis. For students of
international bureaucracy, they are a mine of information. Humphrey had
to find staff from a variety of countries for his division, motivate
them, and get them to work together. He had to sell his ideas to
supervising bodies within the UN. His comments on the working of the UN
Secretariat are shrewd: for example, he says that the organization was
hampered by the tendency of certain permanent staff, notably the
Americans, to talk rather than work. His observations on associates are
frank. He had serious reservations about Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, with
whom he had to work closely. Her great prestige brought needed world
attention to human rights, but she was an abysmal chairperson of the
UN’s early Human Rights Commission and hurt the cause through her
attacks on the Soviet Union.

The diaries fill out the life of a hardworking public servant through
references to the books he was reading, the discussions and arguments he
engaged in, the operas and plays he attended, the traveling he and his
wife did. These books are recommended for the specialist in public
administration but also for the interested general reader. Each volume
contains illustrations of Humphrey’s associates and an index of names.


“On the Edge of Greatness: The Diaries of John Humphrey, First Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, Vol. 1, 1948-49,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 21, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/3745.