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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Universal Declaration of Human Rights will guide solutions to global challenges, Türk says

26 October 2023

Delivered by

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


Human Rights in Challenging Times - The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 75: progress made, today’s challenges, and human rights in the digital sphere, Stockholm University




Dear friends,
I am delighted to be with you at this prestigious institution as we mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A remarkable document – the most translated in history – it has been an invaluable compass on our collective journey towards a world more peaceful, free, equal and just.

Today, though, as we grapple with the global crises that coalesce around us – accompanied by political tensions within and between States - the search for effective solutions can often seem elusive, to the point of non-existence.

Of course, at the forefront of our minds is the horrific and unjustifiable violence of the attacks on Israeli civilians which were launched from Gaza on October 7, including the taking of over 200 hostages, many of them children. Then the massive bombardment of Gaza by Israel, which has killed and wounded thousands of people, and the damage to Gaza's largest hospital, amid a siege that has shut off electricity, water, food and fuel supplies for the entire population of the Gaza Strip. Yet another cycle of violence and retribution – and intolerable human pain – is underway in the Middle East.

It is clear that the laws of war and human rights law apply to all parties to this conflict. There is no exception to this requirement.

Ultimately, Palestinians and Israelis are still each other’s only hope for enduring peace, and they have got to become able to live together, in respect of each other's rights. Political leaders today need to break from vicious cycles of violence, torment and vengeance, and replace it with a vision for peaceful coexistence. 

We need to learn to live together, in dignity and respect. We must step away from the increasing hostility, polarization and divisions that tear us apart.

We need to begin to weave a social fabric that is resilient and warm; a fabric that is richly colourful and diverse so that it binds us together, enabling us to more fairly share, and care for, this fragile and lovely planet and each other.

We have made such a shift before – at a time whose bleakness and uncertainty holds much resonance, I think, with our own.

Seventy-five years ago, two brutal global wars had been fought within 20 years. The world had experienced the horrors of genocide, the advent of the nuclear bomb, economic ruin and the dislocation of millions of refugees. A grim landscape of loss, misery and devastation.

Yet, countries from every region of the world came together to found the United Nations and craft a declaration to put an end to the vicious cycles of terror and destruction and poverty which they had endured.

In doing so, they drew on our collective wisdom and experiences - across cultures and eras. From religious and philosophical traditions to the American and French Revolutions, the Haitian slave revolt, the labour movement, feminism, the fight against imperialism and the struggle against apartheid.

And they gifted us a map.

A map that made clear, for themselves and for future generations, the path away from war.

The path towards reconciliation of disputes and the building of societies that would be fairer, more equal, and, so, more resilient.

A map carefully crafted around the simple but profound truth – of our common humanity and our equal worth.

Articulating the rights inherent in each and every one of us.

The right to live free from any form of discrimination, arbitrary detention and torture. The rights to education and to adequate food; healthcare; housing; social protections, and fair conditions of work.

Freedom of expression and opinion. Freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Freedom of religion or belief. The right to asylum and the right to a nationality. And more.

Since its adoption the Universal Declaration has played a unique role in so much of the progress we have seen.

The dismantling of many structures that entrenched racial and gender discrimination; huge strides in health and education; and the growing expectation on governments to listen, inform, be responsive and involve individuals in decision-making.

Many countries took back their independence.

And people resoundingly took back their rights. Perhaps most important of all, the Universal Declaration inspired a vibrant, creative, powerful activism and solidarity.

And, in turn, this activism has provided much of the impetus for the drive to eliminate all forms of discrimination, including against LGBTI+ people. It also helped usher in the rich body of treaties, laws and other instruments that make up our international human rights framework. With young activists, for example, as a dynamic force behind the recognition last year of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

I am convinced that the human rights ideal has been one of the most animating, constructive movements of ideas in human history – and, overall, one of the most successful.

It is one we must come back to now at this moment of uncertainty and turbulence.

Conflicts are surging – the highest on record since 1945 and, as the escalation of hostilities in the Middle East so horrifyingly demonstrates, there is scant respect for the basic rights of civilians caught up in them.

Inequalities are deepening, with the 2030 Agenda promise to end extreme poverty by the close of this decade faltering in part due to spiralling food and fuel prices.

Racism and discrimination, in particular against women and girls, is disturbingly on the rise. As are Antisemitism and Islamophobia, particularly in light of the conflict that has ignited over the past two weeks. I also find utterly inexplicable – and an act of contempt and hatred - the public burning of a text held sacred by millions of people.

New technologies bring with them a cascade of human rights risks, not least disinformation and vicious hate speech which proliferates on social media platforms.

And, in more and more countries, harsh restrictions on civic space undermine independent media, institutions of justice and meaningful participation in public life.

All these trends fuel the pervasive, accelerating menace of the triple planetary crisis, undoubtedly the defining human rights threat of our generation.

And they feed into anxieties about the future – an unsettling sense of narrowing horizons.

This is true above all for young people. For these destabilizing trends will surely impact all of your aspirations, your careers – indeed, the whole trajectory of your lives, as well as those of generations to come.

I am here today, though, to assure you that that these profound challenges can still be managed and resolvedif all peoples and all States, including Sweden, share the work of building the path to solutions.

The pathway that is laid out for us so clearly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Greater respect for human rights – all human rights ­– is the only foundation for more sustainable development and peace. This is a simple but extraordinarily powerful truth.

Societies anchored in human rights are better equipped to withstand shocks – whether those stem from natural disasters, conflicts, a pandemic or global recession.

Inclusive economies and societies - in which opportunities, resources and services are equitably shared and where governance is accountable - deliver justice, opportunities, connection and hope.

Free and independent media, along with freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, contribute to better informed decisions. These rights also give everyone, including young people, a feeling that they have a stake and a voice in the common good.

Similarly, no country can truly develop, economically or otherwise, if many people are excluded from opportunities. The rights to be free from discrimination, and to have equal access to resources and opportunities, benefits society as a whole.

These values - the shared conviction that every human being is equal in dignity and in rights - lies at the core of the United Nations, acting as the connecting thread across all of our work - from conflict prevention to peacekeeping, development, environment, good governance and beyond.

And these timeless values are more than capable of navigating us wisely through new terrains as they arise. Even in the case of generative artificial intelligence - where rapid advances threaten to outpace our capacity to comprehend fully the implications for our lives and our societies. AI offers unprecedented opportunities - from accelerating scientific progress and the delivery of healthcare, to transforming education, the use of enhanced strategic foresight in policymaking, and democratizing access to knowledge.

But this comes with enormous risks – and we are already seeing these play out. AI can be weaponised as a tool of manipulation and misinformation, sowing distrust between people and institutions and with each other. It can facilitate mass surveillance, censorship and pervasive profiling, all gifts to authoritarian regimes. So-called “predictive” policing and automated justice systems blur the lines of responsibility and accountability, and are susceptible to reinforcing discrimination and to misuse.

This urgent and serious governance gap cannot be left to tech companies to self-manage. Instead, what we need is a regulatory approach that is supportive of innovation but places guardrails around it. Regulation that requires assessment of the human rights risks and impacts of AI systems before, during, and after their use. Transparency guarantees, independent oversight, and access to effective remedy, especially in those situations where the State itself is employing artificial intelligence tools.

AI technologies that cannot be operated in compliance with international human rights law must be banned or suspended until adequate safeguards are in place.

We must ensure that the prize of technological breakthroughs is not at the cost of human dignity and freedoms.


Last month, a survey  of over 36,000 people in 30 countries by the Open Society Foundation found that 72% of respondents believed human rights to have been a “force for good” with a similar number considering these principles to reflect their own values.

It also reported, though, widespread disillusionment amongst young people with the capacity of democratic politics to solve issues, and I think this point is key.

To build trust in government, it is vital that governments demonstrate their willingness to protect and advance human rights, and to deliver fair and effective solutions.

In our increasingly complex, contested environment, how do we get to these solutions?

First, we need to overcome geopolitical divisions, through a common language, and a sense of common goals. An approach that is ideologically neutral, but which engages the deep, shared values of humanity.

Second, solutions for the myriad of challenges we face must be consistent with each other. Measures to advance sustainable development must also mitigate climate change and tackle systematic discrimination. If one workstream undermines another, the result is a chaotic waste of time. But if one solution can build on another, we’re making progress.

Third, solutions need to engage our deepest reflexes: solidarity and empathy. Today, the people with the least are being hurt the most. In terms of climate change, for example, countries and businesses that have generated the problem must contribute decisively to righting those wrongs. And, in the case of refugees - amongst the most vulnerable of all - every State should be living up to its responsibilities to provide asylum, recognising that the countries and communities with the least resources are the ones hosting the vast majority of people displaced by persecution and conflict.

Fourth, effective solutions will also need the full contributions of every member of every society. Free and meaningful participation by all is essential to bring about real change. We need to draw on the creativity, the skills and the insights of everyone, especially those marginalized. Governments must bring genuine commitment to reducing tensions and divisions within society that risk excluding so many from public life. This includes concerted measures to tackle the rise in religious and racial hatred. And, in every aspect of decision-making, it is vital to build bridges between people – especially the people most affected – and the institutions of Government and businesses.

What we need, in short, is the Universal Declaration.

A constant and powerful reminder of our common humanity.

Let us together ensure that 2023 is remembered as the turning point in renewing our commitment to solving challenges through human rights.

Through recapturing the spirit that led to the Declaration’s adoption, and projecting this confidently into the future.

The Human Rights 75 Initiative that my Office is leading will culminate in a high-level event on 11 and 12 December.

I encourage the Swedish Government, along with Swedish businesses and civil society groups, to join our collective effort by making significant, catalytic pledges on specific human rights action to help bring about the transformative changes we so urgently need.

Human rights matter at any time.

But these laws and principles are especially vital in times of crisis – when the future is uncertain, discord reigns and options seem vanishingly thin. It is then that core values, and the lessons of history, can steer us firmly back onto the right course.

Thank you.