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Address by Navanethem Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Commemorative session on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 12 December 2008, Geneva

12 December 2008

Mr. Secretary-General,
Mr. President of the Human Rights Council,
Director General Ordzhonikidze,
Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am profoundly honoured to join you for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Six decades ago, the United Nations affirmed that the force of shared ideas and a common vision of respectful and peaceful coexistence can prevail over brutality, hatred and destruction.

Rising above narrow national interests, the diverse group of framers of the Universal Declaration insisted on our kinship in rights, on our common claim to a life in dignity, on our right to count and be counted irrespective of our ancestry, gender and colour, status and creed.

As noted by Charles Malik of Lebanon, one of the framers of the Universal Declaration, such inspired and thus inspiring leadership made it possible for an ever expanding number of people to claim for themselves, their families and their communities those rights and entitlements that make dignity, justice and well-being possible for everyone.

Let me take this opportunity to restate the principles that underpin the human rights system born out of the Universal Declaration’s vision. They are:

· Universality of human rights
· ?Indivisibility of all human rights
· ?Interdependence of security, development and respect for human rights
· ?Responsibility of all States for the fulfillment of their human rights obligations

It is by articulating the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings that the formidable intuition of the Declaration’s framers achieved true greatness. The Universal Declaration gave impulse to a wide and growing legal architecture, as well as advocacy vehicles, for the promotion and the protection of all rights.

Today, the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration have found an echo in the constitutions and laws of more than 90 countries. Dedicated international, regional and national mechanisms, including my Office and the Human Rights Council with its independent experts, have been established to be both the custodians and the monitors of human rights, their promotion and protection. Civil society everywhere exerts vigilance over rights implementation with a growing capacity and expanding influence.

The Universal Declaration made manifest the relationship between fundamental freedoms and social justice, and the connection of both of these elements with peace and security. Its framers wisely chose not to rank rights. On the contrary, they recognized the equal status of political and civil rights with economic, social and cultural rights. They did so because all rights are inextricably linked. Violations of a set of rights reverberate on other rights and enfeeble them all. As the Secretary-General noted, the recent food emergencies, the degradation of the natural environment, the current financial crisis and the unrest that they engender, all underscore that those who are at the frontlines of hardship are also most likely to be the victims of the ripple effects of human rights violations.

Stemming from the formidable intuition and early articulation of the Universal Declaration’s framers, the discourse and action on human rights has subsequently-- and with increased sharpness-- highlighted the fundamental elements that flow from human rights’ universality. Thus, the system also emphasized the primary duty of States in giving effect to the full spectrum of rights, as well as the responsibility of the international community and its institutions for fostering a culture of solidarity and bolstering implementation capacities to give full effect to rights.


These are the reasons that make the Declaration as relevant today as it was 60 years ago and make it the gauge through which we evaluate good governance, stability and prosperity. The importance of human rights principles, such as equality, participation, accountability and the rule of law, is now widely accepted. Information and the freedom to organize and express views openly are vital for good policy making and measurable implementation. Socio-economic rights are critical for the meaningful exercise of these freedoms. And gender equality, a right in and of itself, has also been an indispensible precondition to maximizing and propagating education, development and community welfare.

Indeed, we have come a long way on the path of human rights which have known an unprecedented affirmation all over the world. As recognized by the 2005 World Summit, there is now a widely shared understanding of the indivisibility and interrelation of the components of human welfare and dignity, that is, human rights, development and security. These three pillars support and shape the structure and directions of our commitment to ensure a life in dignity and equality for all.

Today, a wide body of international law enhances fundamental protection in times of peace, war, and emergency. The process of standard setting is still ongoing as demonstrated by the recent adoption of International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol.

Only two days ago, the General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. With that measure, the United Nations has now been able to come full circle on the normative architecture envisaged by the Universal Declaration. Approved by the Human Rights Council in June and by the Third Committee last month, the Optional Protocol closes a historic gap in human rights protection. It reaffirms the equal importance of economic, social and cultural rights with civil and political rights. It will enable victims to seek justice for violations of their economic, social and cultural rights at the international level for the first time. Thus, the protocol represents a veritable milestone in the international human rights system. I wholeheartedly join the Secretary-General in congratulating the Human Rights Council for paving the way to this vital instrument.

This achievement gives us an additional crucial ground for celebration today.

As we continue to move on setting international standards, we should never lose sight of the fact that where they matter the most for individuals and communities around the world is at the national level. Renewed efforts are needed to give effect to human rights on the ground, not only through the creation of domestic institutions and additional standards, but through concrete protection and promotion measures by States. I urge all States that have not already done so to ratify and unreservedly implement all international human rights treaties.

In this task, States can be assisted by the Human Rights Council and its expert mechanisms, by my Office and by the UN system as a whole. Crucial to the realization of all human rights for all people is the involvement of civil society, including non-governmental organizations and a free press.

Let me underscore that far from being a mere idealistic aspiration, universal implementation of human rights is in the best interest of all States. And it is in the self interest of States to ensure that their neighbours respect human rights as well.

Repression and hardship often prompt those who have the means and the ability to abandon their country and seek a better life elsewhere. This results in a depletion of talent and resources—the human and social capital—that invariably exact a heavy price not only on the lives of those directly involved, but also on the development prospects of the country they leave. Furthermore, refugees fleeing war and devastation affect and can even destabilize neighbouring countries. Moreover, when persons are internally displaced, whole communities and livelihoods are destroyed.

If good governance and respect for rights are lacking, the purpose and cohesion of a nation are undermined. When dissent is silenced and persecuted, a country’s culture and polity are warped and may even cease to grow. The consequences of such failures and repression often persist long after normalcy is restored. Correcting them often requires considerable investment of lives and resources on the part of the country involved, as well as from the international community as a whole.

Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,

A year ago, the Secretary-General launched a United Nations-wide campaign to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The anniversary campaign achieved its goals, sparking a myriad of initiatives. Despite the many current fears and uncertainties, I am encouraged by the enormous attention that this year-long commemoration has brought to the issue of human rights. All across the world voluntary organizations, institutions, teachers, students, lawyers, politicians and the media have focused their attention on the Universal Declaration and its continuing relevance in today’s world. These initiatives attracted new constituencies to human rights advocacy, including the very young, and helped to promote the Declaration's ideals and principles of justice and equality for everyone. But we cannot stop here. Sixty years on, we are still a very long way from achieving the goals laid down in the Universal Declaration. No country in the world can sit back complacently and say “We’re there.”

As we conclude the campaign today, let us not forget that its fervour must be sustained and nourished beyond the ritual of commemoration. Indeed, we will only be able to wholly honour the glowing vision of the Universal Declaration when its principles are given effect in full everywhere and for everyone.

The Human Rights Council, as the direct heir of the Commission of Human Rights, the body that conceived and offered the Universal Declaration to humanity, has a leading responsibility in promoting the Declaration’s principles and protecting its values so as to make them an integral part of everyone’s life.

Let us never forget that tens of millions of people around the world are still unaware that they have rights that they can demand, and that their governments are accountable to them, and to a wide-ranging body of rights-based national and international law. Despite all our efforts over the past 60 years, it is essential that we keep up the momentum, and thereby enable more and more people to realize their rights.

We know that a great many challenges remain along the path of full human rights realization. I have just outlined some of the most daunting among them, including those that absorb our energy and attention at the OHCHR as priority matters. These challenges also highlight the fact that both States and individuals alike cannot turn a blind eye to the cascading effects that abuse and indifference produce for every occupant of our global village. Rights, or their violations, as well as the neglect of the obligations that rights engender, hold the whole world in solidarity and in responsibility.

I conclude by pointing out that the 60 years which elapsed since the adoption of the Universal Declaration have unequivocally shown the way forward. We must continue to pursue this path without hesitation and without letup.

Thank you.