Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic Human rights, global governance and a better future for people and the planet: 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Dear colleagues and friends,
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you in this distinguished and iconic centre of learning. The rich legacies of Charles University’s many former students, including your former President Václav Havel, not to mention Franz Kafka or Rainer Maria Rilke – two writers whom I personally deeply admire – still hold strong.
As students of international law and international relations, you know all too well that these are extremely difficult times for human rights.
Global challenges coalesce around us. Each formidable on its own – together forming a volatile mix with the potential to unleash disastrous consequences for all.
Almost two years ago, Russia began its full-scale armed attack against Ukraine. More than ten thousand lives have been stolen. The conflict has caused shockwaves across the region and the globe, triggering a fuel and food crisis and exacerbating the trend of economic downturns in many countries. 6.2 million have fled, including some 368,000 here to the Czech Republic, not knowing if, how or when they can safely return home.
The situation in the Middle East is one of intolerable suffering, which seems to worsen by the hour. All those with influence must do everything possible to de-escalate this conflict and broker a ceasefire on humanitarian and human rights grounds. We must ensure immediate relief for the people of Gaza. Accountability is also needed for all violations of international humanitarian and human rights law – while supporting determined efforts finally to achieve the goal of Israelis and Palestinians side by side, in peace and in full enjoyment of their human rights.
Wars have rules and for good reason. They are the guarantor of our humanity. Disproportionate and constantly escalating violence where civilians pay the price only plays into the hands of extremists.
And yet, across the globe, we are witnessing levels of violent conflict not seen since 1945. Today, one quarter of humanity lives in areas affected by conflict.
War is what happens when we lose sight of the values that bind us together.
It is what happens when the level of contempt for fellow human beings is so great that those human beings become faceless and nameless.
When children are killed simply for the sake of power, or vengeance.
When trust in each other and our institutions that are intended to guide us disintegrates to a point that human life no longer matters.
This global turbulence does not stop at conflict. We are seeing pushback on women’s rights in many countries, trapping women and girls in a cycle of deprivation and diminished opportunities, all in the name of traditional values and feeding the patriarchy’s grip on power.
Inequalities are deepening, with poverty levels not seen in a generation.
Social media and other digital platforms are driving disinformation and hate speech targeting Jews, Muslims, Christians, women and girls, minority groups, refugees and migrants, people of African descent and LGBTIQ+ individuals. And the largely unregulated and unchecked progress in artificial intelligence carries enormous risks for human rights notably the right to privacy, even as it also offers tremendous potential for social advances.
Adding to these destabilizing trends is the triple planetary crisis of the climate emergency, pollution and biodiversity loss – a human rights crisis that is existential in its nature.
Here in the Czech Republic, according to the International Energy Agency, in the last two decades, the average temperature has been rising at a faster pace than the global average.
Around the world, we’re hurtling towards an increase of 3 degrees Celsius more than pre-industrial times, and an environment of widespread, choking pollution.
This is a dystopia of our own making.
As we continue to slide into environmental chaos, we need still more action from governments and business leaders. I sincerely hope that next week’s COP 28 will deliver the decisive steps that the world has been asking for.
As these global challenges accumulate, one wonders what the crescendo will be, and when it is coming.
It is easy to lose sight of hope, or even give up in despair.
But I’d like here to refer to the words of your former President Václav Havel, also a well-known dissident and writer, who grounded much of his philosophy in the power of hope.
“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.”
Yes, we are experiencing doubt and disaster unfold around us.
Yes, we are living a most troubling chapter of history.
But this is a chapter which compels us to act, and to take a firm grip on the hope we all need.
As a young student, I was able to find this hope in the transformational vision provided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I was born in Austria, just twenty years after World War II ended. The horror that had taken place in my own country, throughout Europe and indeed much of the world, was still palpable.
Back in 1948, after genocide and the Holocaust, after war, the Great Depression and the very real nuclear threat, the world was at breaking point.
As world leaders gathered to create the United Nations, and later to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they were driven by the collective ambition of a world free from fear and want.
The Universal Declaration offered our generation and the ones that followed a path out of turmoil.
It was not just another ideology; it was a set of pragmatic tools for countries and individuals.
A map for societies grounded in fairness, equality and dignity.
It reaffirmed the universality of all human rights: that economic, social and cultural rights were just as central to human well-being as civil and political rights.
Over the last seven and half decades, this map has steered great progress.
Deeply entrenched structures of racial and gender discrimination have been dismantled in many places. Significant strides have been made in access to education and healthcare. Movements to further gender rights, anti-apartheid, decolonisation and environmental protection have taken root and achieved results.
The 30 articles of the Universal Declaration are timeless. They speak across generations, and across crises – whether they be conflicts, pandemics or global recessions.
Because societies anchored in human rights are far better equipped to resist these shocks.
Their opportunities, resources and services are shared, equally.
Their governance is defined by accountability and justice.
And every member of society – no matter their gender, ethnicity, religion or any other defining characteristic – is free and empowered to actively contribute their voice to the greater good.
As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration this year, we must acknowledge the progress made on many fronts since 1948 – even as we know that the scale and gravity of the multiple challenges we are facing means it cannot be business as usual. We must reflect both on successes but also on the failures since the adoption of the Universal Declaration, as we seek to reinvigorate its spirit and to draw wisdom from those who came before us.
By fostering unity, constructive dialogue and understanding.
Through substantial political and financial investments in the global human rights architecture.
And by going back to basics, the guiding principle of the Universal Declaration that we are all born equal in dignity and rights.
I’d like to touch for a moment on the human rights situation here in the Czech Republic. Many of you here today have grown up in a post-communist Czech Republic, a country conceived in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution. A nation defined by a desire for freedom, social change and progress. Most of you benefit today from quality university education, universal healthcare and an open and vibrant civic space – critical rights and freedoms essential for a healthy, functioning democracy.
Yet, as you know, not everyone enjoys these same rights. I have just come from a meeting with representatives of the Roma community amongst other members of civil society. They have told me about their experiences of stereotyping and discrimination in so many areas of their lives, from housing, to education, and when seeking employment. According to data from the European Network against Racism, 78% of Roma individuals in the Czech Republic experience discrimination when looking for a job.
In many countries throughout Europe, the Roma are one of the most marginalised minority groups.
In the Czech Republic, over three quarters of Roma people live in situations of poverty.
I’m sure many of you will remember some of the reported cases of police brutality targeting Roma people.
Or the widely reported cases of unlawful sterilisations, primarily targeting Roma, dating back to the communist era.
Or the many Ukrainian Roma refugee families being left for long periods at train stations as other Ukrainian refugees were quickly moved on to registration and accommodation.
These are stories of discrimination and differential, exclusionary treatment we all must make sure to overcome.
Also troubling are the issues raised by other civil society organisations, particularly on the status of women in the Czech Republic. It is key to make progress towards ratifying the Istanbul Convention, the landmark European treaty to put an end to violence against women. Data indicate that in the workplace women are still underrepresented in senior roles, and a significant pay gap exists.
Dismantling these barriers to women’s free and equal participation, not just here in the Czech Republic, but everywhere around the world, demands the dismantling of the patriarchy. I hope we can all agree to work towards this.
Amid these complex and overlapping challenges, humanity stands at a crossroads.
So how do we move forward?
Transcending the world’s deep geopolitical divisions requires a common language, drawing on our shared values. This common language is human rights, a language grounded in equality, justice and dignity. A value system that spans every generation, culture and continent.
Solutions for the host of challenges we face must be complementary. For example, measures to address discrimination must address this in all its forms – not just gender discrimination, not just racial discrimination, not just religious discrimination. Efforts to combat climate change must also tackle inequalities, because it is the world’s most vulnerable who are most impacted by this crisis. Solutions for peace must be anchored in sustainable development.
And all of these efforts must be grounded in solidarity and compassion. Not just between countries and communities, but between individuals. Human beings possess an extraordinary resilience in their capacity to overcome crisis. But it is essential that we do so together.
Finally, the most effective solutions depend on the insights of everyone – free and meaningful participation by all. Most especially, we need to hear from those who have long been silenced, those who have been sidelined by our societies, and those who are most affected by the multitude of crises with which we are confronted.
What we need, in other words, is the roadmap laid out for us by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
My Office’s Human Rights 75 Initiative seeks to recapture the spirit of the Declaration and repurpose it for today’s challenges, and what lies ahead. Our high-level event on 11 and 12 December in Geneva will lay out our vision of human rights for the decades to come, taking into account the grave challenges we currently face.
Central to this is the vision and activism of young people everywhere.
I strongly believe that you, as the leaders and thinkers of tomorrow, can activate and implement the change we all need, by restoring faith in human rights and steering us back onto the right course.
In this era of intense division, we must remember that we all belong to the same human family.
Because every one of us, no matter where we live or what we believe in, just wants safety and peace for ourselves and the people we love.
The common language of human rights can help reunite us.
Franz Kafka wrote “Start with what is right, rather than what is acceptable.”
My deep thanks to all of you for playing your part in upholding what is right – whether through your studies, your activism, or in your communities. Your actions are indispensable in shaping the future we all want and need.