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Conseil de Paris Commemorating the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

11 December 2017

Madam Mayor,
Distinguished representatives of the people of Paris,
Colleagues, friends

It is an honour for me to participate in the commemoration of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the City of Paris – the city where, in 1948, the Universal Declaration was adopted. It drew deeply from another text written and adopted in this city: the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

With their profound commitment to ideas of liberty, justice and equality, the men and women of Paris have contributed enormously to the cause of human rights. I am here to thank you, as their representatives, and to ask you to take up once more the banner of this, the greatest cause in history: the struggle to enable justice, equality and dignity for every human being.

Because human rights are inalienable, and no Government or other actor may legitimately take those rights away.

Because the principles of justice, equality and dignity are the only possible basis for enduring peace – whether within societies, or between them.

Human rights principles are in danger today. State and non-State actors are deliberately and wilfully violating the rules of basic human decency we term international humanitarian law. Millions of people are suffering from the humiliation and violence of discrimination, exploitation, deprivation and tyranny. Here in Europe, and elsewhere, an antagonistic nationalism is on the rise – cultivating fear, racism and xenophobia; shaping them into blame; and then harvesting it as roaring crowds who blindly lash out at the vulnerable. In numerous countries across the world we are seeing a backlash against rights, including the rights of women, the rights of minorities, the rights of migrants, and the fundamental principle that civil society must freely participate in decision-making.

Many of us fear that if we continue along this calamitous path, we will be making our way back to the beginning of our story – a planet devastated by the suffering and destruction of war. For justice is the foundation of peaceful relationships.

You, as representatives of the people, have an important role to play in advancing human rights and respect for human dignity in your communities. In the Conseil de Paris, you can work to safeguard a strong and resilient fabric of common values. By promoting the equality of every individual, regardless of their sex, their ethnic or racial background, religious belief, disability status, sexual orientation – and regardless of their migrant status. By helping people perceive our similarities as far more significant than our differences. By building bridges between communities, and tearing down – not building – walls.

Violent extremism draws on alienation and discrimination. In this lovely city which suffered the atrocious attacks of 13 November 2015, you can promote empathy and respect – those values of inclusion which undermine the forces of hatred, and build peace.

You can work to provide equal access to services, to protect people’s rights to access healthcare, adequate housing, education, equal access to employment, and to uphold their right to a healthy environment. You can ensure opportunities for youth, who deserve as much respect as their elders. For when large numbers of young people are condemned to a hopeless economic limbo, their bitterness corrodes the social fabric. And when the rule of law is twisted to fit personal and political agendas – when law enforcement is perceived as violent, arbitrary and unjust – it feeds grievances and the desire for vengeance.

As political, economic and social actors, with important influence in this country and across Europe, you can also have essential impact on the human rights of migrants. I share the concerns of many of you about the inhuman violations inflicted on so many migrants in Libya; the European Union has a role to play in this. My concerns are also deepening about the rights of migrants in many European countries, and I remind you that all authorities have an obligation to respect and protect the fundamental human rights of all people, regardless of their administrative status.  

And so today, I ask much more of you than simple participation in another sentimental anniversary. I ask you to reflect on the essential, hard-headed urgency of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To engage the broadest possible audience for our cause. To act to push back against the haters and enemies of rights. To push forward in realising rights.

For today, we have a clear choice to make. We can actively defend the rights which nourish justice and build peace. Or we can allow them to be dismantled and eroded, until they crumble under our feet and our world is overwhelmed by violence.

This is the struggle which has fallen to our generation. And it is far from hopeless. Our predecessors, the giants of the rights movements, ended slavery, colonialism, segregation, apartheid and more. The challenge we face today is real, but we can – we must – succeed.