Header image for news printout

United Nations Foundation event in honour of the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Statement by UN High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein

Washington, 20 April 2018

Senator Coons,
Colleagues, Friends,

It is a pleasure to be in such good company today, to mark this 70th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Born from the agony and wrenching destruction of two world wars, it is a document forged from the deepest lessons learned by our forebears.

When they ratified this set of commitments, amid the ashes of World War II and with the certainty that any new global war would be even more annihilating, States knew that it constituted their only hope – and perhaps their last hope – to build peaceful relationships between them.

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

The Universal Declaration is not a work of idealism which slipped, easily, from the pens of the idle and high-minded. It stems from slaughter. It was drafted and adopted by States. And it constitutes an urgent plan of action – a list of the deeply practical and pragmatic measures which they formulated to ensure the bloodshed and destruction they had experienced would be succeeded by peace, cooperation and development.

What are those measures?

Justice and the impartial rule of law, free from arbitrary decisions and torture. An end to discrimination of all kinds, which harms and humiliates individuals, and obstructs their contributions to the common good. Equal access to fundamental services and opportunities, and measures which ensure respect for the dignity of all people. Transparent, inclusive governance to ensure service to the people is not twisted by private agendas.

This was a comprehensive vision of a great shift towards preventing violence and ending conflict. And to those who adopted this vision, it brought tremendous dividends – measurable benefits, in lives saved; prosperity gained; peoples freed from tyranny, bigotry and exploitation. Millions of individuals gained justice for their rights, and national and international protection when those rights were wronged.

That movement towards progress was never easy. Many of you, who have sought to assist my Office, know this as well as we do: the Universal Declaration has weathered many challenges and setbacks. Over the past seven decades, numerous governments have failed to uphold their commitments to protect and promote human rights. Many people have faced oppression, unspeakable violence and deprivation. And nowhere have rights been irreversibly achieved. In every country, it seems, a group of people or aspiring leaders undermine or attack fundamental principles based on fabricated pretexts.

Today, the spread of violence across many regions – many previously stable regions – is alarming. In 2016, experts have demonstrated that more countries were experiencing some form of violent conflict, usually internal conflict, than at any time in the previous 30 years. The most disgraceful attacks on civilians and civilian targets are becoming widespread and almost routine – setting back decades of work to establish minimal decencies in the conduct of warfare. And the global sense of security has been shaken far beyond any of those specific battlefields.

There is a new contempt for multilateral cooperation – which is the only way to meet challenges and resolve disputes pacifically. There is a new and shameless scorn for the principles of legality, justice and respect. And there is a very clear and ominous return to those deep, old, toxic instincts which drive violence: intolerance, prejudice and hatred.

Why is recognition of the inherent dignity, and the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings, the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world?

Because intolerance is an insatiable machine. And its wheels, once they begin to function at a certain amplitude, become uncontrollable – grinding deeper, more cruelly and widely. First one group of people is singled out for hatred; next it will be more, and then more, as the machine for exclusion accelerates into violence, and into warfare – feeding always on its own rage, a growing frenzy of grievance and blaming. As that tension begins to peak, no obvious mechanism exists that is capable of decompressing and controlling its intensity, because the machine functions on an emotional level that has very little contact with reason. Release may only come after tremendous violence. This, in the human rights community, is something we have witnessed time and again.

My friends,

Our forebears – men and women who struggled for rights – fought to end slavery, colonialism, segregation, apartheid and more. They pushed for rights as Members of Congress; on the streets of the great city which lies outside these doors; in towns throughout this country; and across many other countries and continents – taking down restrictions on human liberty and building greater justice, through their political activism, using their economic leverage, and by standing up for their
principles in the millions of gestures of their everyday lives.

Now it is up to us. 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 need to organize and mobilise in defence of human decency, in defence of a common future and in defence of human rights.

We need to stand up for the values which make human life worth living – the values that are rooted deep in traditions and cultures around the world.

Thank you.