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Joint opening of the sessions of the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Remarks by the Deputy High Commissioner

12 Marc 2018

Dear Chairpersons

This gathering is historic in fact and by symbol. For that, we truly thank you.

We thank you as the bodies tasked with stewardship of these two edifice Covenants; tasked with ensuring that the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights convert into realities - day to day, universally, indivisibly, inalienably.

Friends,

Seven decades on from its founding, still that Declaration rings out true - strong and clarion - in its recognition that born we all are, equal in dignity and rights; rights that if fully realized would truly mean utter “freedom from fear”; utter “freedom from want.”

Derived from cultures and traditions the world over, thanks to drafters drawn from every region, the Declaration embodies rights found in all major legal and religious traditions; blends throughout Africa’s traditions of interdependence and collective responsibility, weaves in ideals derived from Qur’anic references to the universal dignity of humankind, justice and responsibility to future generations.

A phoenix rising, not out prosperity but from the rubble and ruination of a world at war, remarkable leaders ensured we were to be gifted with text that would stand the tests of further turbulent times:

  • Chinese diplomat Chang Pengchun advocated strongly for inclusion of values from both Eastern and Western Cultures;
  • Hansa Mehta of India, was responsible for the wording of the Article I “All human beings are equal in dignity and rights,”. She argued that if the word “men” were used, it would not be regarded as inclusive but rather would be taken to exclude women.
  • Begum Ikramullah of Pakistan stood up against member states who claimed that the document was following western standards, affirming the universality of equality in marriage and speaking strongly and specifically against child marriage.
  • Charles Malik of Lebanon shaped the Declaration’s ethical basis;
  • Latin American states pushed for both international application of rights and for social and economic rights, with the strong backing of Saudi Arabia.
  • The Soviet Union pushed for racial equality

Such was the diversity of these contributions, that Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile was led to describe the result as a “consensus as to the supreme value of the human person- a value originating not in the decision of a worldly power, but in the fact of existing.”
Many countries also saw the Declaration’s human rights principles as a powerful support for the liberation movements that were fighting to end colonialist exploitation around the world. And, they were right.

Human rights are not an instrument of, or for, domination by any power. Nor are they mere cherries to be plucked only during prosperity’s harvest.

To the contrary, they endorse as the primordial state - the freedom of people everywhere at all times – defining the substance of free individuals as the building blocks of humane, human society and as the ultimate authority to which the State must give account.
Human rights thus demand governments which serve the people, instead of dominating them; economic systems that enable the people to live in dignity instead of exploiting them; decision making systems that are participatory not exclusionary and accountable rather than fiends of impunity.

The troubling question, which should not go unasked – even if it remains unanswered - is this: Would today’s member states dare to give to their children a gift such as this - the Declaration – which our foremothers and forefathers gave to us?

Friends,

The 70th anniversary is also an occasion on which to celebrate the impact of the work of your two iconic Committees:

  • You have helped formulate national constitutions and law; you have helped abolish the death penalty and abandonment of austerity measures;
  • Your work has led to the development of new human rights treaties: from only three fifty years ago, to nine core international human rights treaties today, many of which also have optional protocols;
  • You have helped establish protection and remedies that, in the face of injustice, brought justice closer to many;
  • You have tackled challenges that still we face, whose solutions are rooted in the indivisibility of rights: you have addressed the rights of migrants; protected the right of privacy in the digital age; set out the human rights ramifications of environmental degradation and climate change; and elevated the place of human rights in the context too of the Sustainable Development Goals.

And, you have given States the practical tools they need to uphold the human rights of their peoples.

On the 50th anniversary of the Covenants, in the names of universality and indivisibility, your Committees stressed the need for strengthened cooperation and we are grateful that you will hold a joint meeting during this session for that purpose.

Friends,

This is indeed a year for milestones:

  • 100 years ago women’s suffrage was advanced irreversibly;
  • 100 years ago, Nelson Mandela was born;
  • 50 years ago, Martin Luther King assassinated.
  • 25 years ago, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action was adopted, establishing a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and this office.
  • 20 years ago, the Rome Statute gave added promise for accountability in the face of the most grave violations of human rights and the Human Rights Defenders Declaration was adopted.

Each and every one of these is a milestone reminding us of just how far we have come, and urging us on, given just how far we are yet to travel.

They remind us ours is not a time for easy hope or false optimism. This is a time for courage – great courage. And it is in the exercise of courage that we would urge you onwards.

For as, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel observed – when speaking out of the very same milieu that gave as the Declaration - “As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs."
Friends, we need you. We need your wisdom, expertise and courageous leadership together for rights – rights for each one of us, to the exclusion of none of us, in the interests of all of us.

Please continue to stand up courageously for human rights, universal and indivisible.

Thank you.