Rights declaration still world’s brightest shining light

The idea of human rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has had “a revolutionary impact” over the last 70 years, said UN Secretary-General, António Guterres. “The Universal Declaration has unleashed the power of women’s full participation; it has spurred the fight against racism, xenophobia and intolerance – including the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa...”

High Commissioner Bachelet speaking at the high-level meeting on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN in New York, 26 September 2018 © UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Guterres was speaking at the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York where world leaders congregated last week. Several events were organised by the UN, Member States and civil society organizations to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The rights enshrined in the Declaration belong to everyone, everywhere, Guterres stressed and they have no physical or moral frontiers. “No one loses their human rights, no matter what they do,” he said.

The Universal Declaration was adopted in Paris on 10 December 1948, and the date is celebrated around the world ever since as Human Rights Day. The universality and primacy of human rights was echoed by France’s Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves le Drian.

“Human rights are not just values that are to be adapted to local cultures or identities. Respecting human rights is not a political choice, it is a legal obligation,” he said.
Many countries and civil society advocates emphasised that achievements over the past seven decades remain fragile and human rights principles are increasingly threated.

The rise of populist movements and extreme nationalism, protracted conflicts and terrorism, poverty and food insecurity, transnational crime, increased flows of refugees and migrants were among the many challenges cited. Louise Arbour, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for International Migration and Mary Robinson, both former High Commissioner for Human Rights, presented climate change as a critical human rights issue.

There was agreement, however, that the Universal Declaration has served the world well and it remains the best instrument available to address the world’s greatest challenges, including the protection of journalists, the protection of civilians in conflict, safe digital space and climate change.

Michelle Bachelet, who for the first time attended the General Assembly meeting as UN Human Rights chief, said human rights are the inter-locking blocks that build resilient societies able to withstand and surmount threats, peacefully resolve disputes and facilitate sustained progress in prosperity and well-being for all their members.
“When human rights are wronged, when violations and abuses generate explosive crises and conflicts, bloodshed, wrecked economies and human devastation are the unbearable results,” Bachelet stressed.

The tragic consequences of human rights failures were illustrated by Ilwad Elman, founder of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre, Somalia, who quoted results of a survey conducted with UNDP in conflict regions in Africa: more than 70 percent of disengaged combatants on that continent said that state violence was what drove them to join extremist armed groups.

“Human rights is not just something we should think about after war is over. It is a legitimate grievance as to why people are looking to these groups as a means of revolt. We need to create safe spaces for political dissent,” she said.

Looking ahead, Guterres urged young people, the true custodians of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to carry the torch of human rights into the future.

“I entrust you with keeping it alight for another 70 years to show us the path to a world of peace, dignity, and opportunity for all,” he said.

Read the statements from the panellists on the podium and from the floor.

4 October 2018

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