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Launch of the Commemorative Year of the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein
Palais de Chaillot, Paris, 10 December 2017

Mayor Hidalgo,
Ambassador for Human Rights Croquette,
Director General Deschamps,
Distinguished representatives of the people of Paris,
Excellencies,
Colleagues, Friends,

It is a profound honour to speak to you on this occasion, and I am most grateful for the initiative of Mayor Hidalgo in calling us to this deeply symbolic place. Here in the Palais de Chaillot, 69 years ago, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Just outside is the great area known as the Parvis des Droits de l'Homme – a place of activism, where ordinary people come together to demand an end to deprivation and oppression of all kinds. Beyond lies the Eiffel Tower, which was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1889, to celebrate democracy and the centenary of the French Revolution.

And throughout the city of Paris, whose brilliance has been nourished by cultures from across the world, echo those myriad voices calling for justice and freedom, which arise from every ethical, religious and philosophical tradition in world history, the French Revolution among them: these are the sources from which the Universal Declaration was formed. 

In perhaps the most resonant and beautiful words of any international agreement, it proclaims "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". Human rights are not a reward for good behaviour. They are not country-specific, or particular to a certain era or social group. They are the inalienable and inseparable entitlements of all people, at all times, and in all places — people of every colour, from every race and ethnic group; whether or not they are disabled; no matter their sex, their class, their caste, their creed, their age or sexual orientation; whether they are citizens or migrants – and I must insist on this: migrants too have human rights, and the migration crisis which Europe is facing is above all a matter of human rights.

The Declaration's affirmation of our universal equality, and its enumeration of the rights which are fundamental to lives of dignity and freedom, have empowered millions of people to demand an end to tyranny, discrimination and exploitation. In discrediting the oppression and contempt for human beings that have scarred human history, the Declaration is a mighty philosophical achievement. But it is also a plan of action.

Since the Universal Declaration was adopted, countless people have gained greater freedom. Violations have been prevented. Independence and personal and collective autonomy have been attained. Many people – though not all; tragically, far from all – have secured freedom from torture, unjustified imprisonment, persecution and discrimination, and fair access to education, economic opportunities, and adequate resources and services.  They have obtained justice for wrongs, and national and international protection for their rights.

That movement towards progress has not been easy or smooth. In the past seven decades, many governments have failed to uphold their commitments to protect and promote the rights of all people. Activists have struggled to attain justice and rights, and many have faced disgraceful oppression. The global human rights movement has suffered obstacles, assaults and backlashes; today we pay tribute to the countless heroes who have risked, and sometimes lost, their lives to defend the lives of others. Nowhere have rights been irreversibly achieved; in every country, it seems, groups of people or aspiring leaders may seize on the pretext of a conflict, or security threat, to undermine or attack fundamental principles.   

This abandonment of humanity's values puts all of us in danger. Time and again, the denial of human rights considerations by the leaders of nations has proven itself to be absolutely disastrous in terms of preventing terrorism, misery, violence and conflict. Only justice can build sustainable peace – within nations, and between them. This is the lesson our forbears learned, so bitterly, from the calamities of war and exploitation – and among those many wise men and women, allow me to cite René Cassin, that great French hero, wounded in the First World War, a Résistant in the Second, who lost many members of his family in the Shoah and who brought to us this lesson: It is by upholding human rights that we build enduring security.

And these rights are too important to be left to States alone. Our forbears, the men and women of the historical struggles for rights, fought to end slavery, colonialism, segregation, apartheid and more. They did this with political activism, using economic leverage, by standing up for their principles in the millions of gestures of their everyday lives. 

It is up to us, now. It is up to me; to you, in this room; to every kind of audience we can reach, in every city and province and country where there is still space to express thoughts, participate in decisions, raise one's voice. We need to stand up for the human rights system, and act to promote peace.

We need to fight back against discrimination, and uphold justice.

We must organize and mobilise in defence of human decency, in defence of a common future and in defence of human rights.

The time is now, and the leader you are looking for is – you.

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