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Seminar on Traditional values and human rights: Opening Statement by Navanethem Pillay High Commissioner for Human Rights

Geneva, 4 October 2010

Distinguished delegates and experts, dear colleagues and friends,

Allow me to welcome you all to today’s seminar on traditional values and human rights. I would like to give special thanks to our Keynote Speaker, Ms. Thoraya Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA, for agreeing to change her busy schedule to be here with us today. Thoraya, you have shown real leadership on this issue, and have helped so many to understand that there is no need to choose between the twin imperatives of being culturally sensitive on the one hand, and respectful of human rights on the other. I would also like to thank all of our distinguished experts for joining us, and for leading this important discussion today. Finally, I would like to thank the government of the Russian Federation, both for their stewardship of the Human Rights Council resolution that mandated today’s event, and for the financial support that made this seminar possible. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

I stand before you a woman, a daughter of Africa, a child of Asian parents, a resident of Switzerland.  Each label brings its own history, its own expectations, and its own peculiar lens on the world.   My journey has brought me across Africa and Europe, to Asia and America and beyond. Each step has brought its own lessons, its own surprises, its own mistakes and successes. 

There have been many differences in the cultural signposts that have marked my journey, both inside multi-racial South Africa, and far from her shores.  These are the varied colors of humanity’s diversity, without which our world would be a dull and uninspiring monotone.  

But there have been many similarities, as well.  These were the most basic markers of humanity, those fundamental, irreducible, and yes – universal – values that transcend geography and know no barriers of culture or gender, class or language.

These are the values that underpin human rights.

These are the familiar claims of women and men, young and old, north and south.  These are recorded in the enduring songs of all religions, the timeless phrases of all languages, the core philosophies of all cultures.

You know them in your heart. You always have.  It is as if they are the normative content of the human genome itself.  The desire for liberty, for dignity, for freedom, from fear and want.

And what more perfect catalogue of these desires could there be than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Is it any wonder that the Declaration is often called the greatest legacy of the United Nations?   Was anyone surprised to hear the news that it had entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the most translated document in the history of the world?  What else could be expected of a Declaration drafted by men and women with names like Chang, Malik, Cassin, Humphreys and Roosevelt, and based on a project that drew from cultures and traditions across the world, and surveyed a range of thinkers, from Huxley to Gandhi.   

Of course, there will always be those who, for their own political or personal designs, would deny the universality of our rights, and seek to use arguments of tradition and culture to oppose them.  To them I say, speak to my staff who work in every corner of the globe defending human rights. Ask them if, in any of the 192 Member States of this Organization any single woman, man or child has ever stood to demand the right to be tortured, summarily executed, starved or denied medical care, in the name of their culture.            

As a woman of color growing up under apartheid and, perhaps more importantly, in the struggle against apartheid, I recall well that, while ours was a movement that cut across the many cultures and traditions of South Africa, the common thread that most bound us together was precisely that of the common values of human rights. Our values.  African values.  Universal values.            

Needless to say, tradition is a complex notion. No society, regardless of its geographic location or level of economic development, can be said to be represented by a single and comprehensive set of shared values covering all social matters.  Traditions and values change over time, and are viewed and interpreted differently by various actors in society.  Nuances, and, in some cases, radical differences in such values are to be seen depending on the historical moment, societal sub-set, or, at any moment, between conservatives and progressives.   There are traditions of hate, just as there are traditions of tolerance, traditions of repression just as there are traditions of liberation, and traditions of deprivation and exclusion just as there are traditions of social justice.  Our task, that of the 192 countries represented by the UN Charter, is to come down squarely and unequivocally, on the side of those in every society who promote and defend human rights.
And so, in today’s seminar, we focus on the traditional values underpinning human rights.  In doing so, we reject those who would seek to juxtapose traditional values against human rights in a tired and dubious old rhetorical device that long sought to erode the universal authority—and universal appeal—of human rights.

Indeed, while the Vienna Declaration recognizes that the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it reaffirms that is the duty of all States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.  Understanding the common normative underpinnings of both sides of that equation is essential to our quest for more effective human rights promotion, and, ultimately, more humane societies. 

I thank you all for participating in this important discussion, and I wish you success in your deliberations.

Thank you.