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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Türk says EU has a key role to play in ‘reinvigorating global consensus’ on human rights

75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: what makes human rights universal?

29 November 2023

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk addresses the European Parliament © OHCHR

Delivered by

Volker Türk , United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights


European Parliament

Dear Chairpersons,
Distinguished Members of the European Parliament,
Dear participants,

It is an honour to be able to address you for the second time this year. I am grateful that you have dedicated this session to the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We last exchanged in July, and in the space of just four months, we have seen the emergence of even deeper turmoil, notably in the occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel.

The scale of human suffering in the region and the toll on civilians is unimaginable.

The current temporary ceasefire provides some relief for civilians, and for some families, long-awaited reunions with their loved ones. But access to humanitarian assistance must be ensured and sustained throughout Gaza. All hostages must be released. I call on all those with influence for an extended ceasefire on humanitarian and human rights grounds. I hope that this can open the way for a permanent end to the violence, and support concrete efforts to achieve a lasting peace for Palestinians and Israelis.

In the meantime, on European soil – on our continent - the Russian Federation’s full-scale armed attack on Ukraine has resulted in nearly two years of bloodshed and loss. Six million have been uprooted from their homes. And the people of Ukraine remain far from a solution to peace or a return to dignity and safety anytime soon.

In just over a week, we will be marking the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For some, it may seem untimely to talk about the promises set out in a document.

For others, in such a time of global turbulence and despair, those promises may seem empty.

I am firmly convinced this text has never been more crucial.

Because in times of profound crisis, history can teach us some of the most important lessons. This was a document conceived in the aftermath of horror. After two world wars, the Holocaust, the Great Depression and global nuclear threat, it helped pave the path out of the depths of human misery.

Towards a future of hope, dignity and equality.

There is good reason it is the most translated document in history.

Profound social change has taken place since 1948 in many countries, including in Europe. Great progress has been made for many around the world in health and education. Many countries broke free of colonialism’s shackles. Apartheid was overcome. And inspired by the change that was possible, people took to the streets the world over to reclaim and demand their rights.

The Universal Declaration reaffirmed the value of all human life.

It reaffirmed that no matter where we were born, or what we believe in, we are all equal in dignity and rights. This is a matter of law, not of discretion.

It is precisely those values and that vision that we urgently need to return to today. To help us rediscover the same path towards solutions to our greatest challenges that previous generations found seven and a half decades ago.

Distinguished participants,

You all know that the human rights reality of today is a fractious one, including here in Europe.

The situation for the thousands of migrants and refugees in Europe remains deeply divisive. It is painful to see discussions often riddled with populist, hateful rhetoric against people who have done nothing more but seek safety from distress or crisis, or who are moving in search of a better life.

The worrying trend of externalising asylum procedures and sending migrants and refugees to third countries is fuelling even further divisions and human rights concerns.

Human mobility is as old as time, not least as the world endures mounting conflicts, economic turmoil and the impacts of the triple planetary crisis.

It is time to go back to the basics of international cooperation, dialogue and solidarity. It is time to stop the unlawful pushbacks and collective expulsions. To ensure accountability for human rights violations at borders. And it is more than time to identify safer and more regular pathways for migration.

The EU Pact on Migration and Asylum is a chance to move beyond political stalemate. To this end, I urge that the current negotiations on the pact are firmly underpinned by respect for human rights and justice, for all.

The ugly spectre of racism and structural discrimination still permeates many societies, including in Europe, despite clear strides in policy development. Last month, a report by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights drew attention to persistent and growing racial discrimination, harassment and violence against people of African descent in Europe.

Two thirds of people surveyed had experienced some form of racial discrimination in more than one area of life.

The lack of progress is concerning. This report, and reports of racism, discrimination and hate against many other groups and individuals across Europe, underscore the need for States to redouble efforts in this area. Policies such as the EU’s Anti-Racism Action Plan or its framework on Roma inclusion are critical, and must be fully implemented.

Yet right now, a marked increase in disinformation and hate speech is further deepening polarisation within and between societies. Broadcast and digital media – as well as political rhetoric – are peppered with dehumanising language against many groups. In the context of the current war in the Middle East, disturbing and violent incidents of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hate are growing both within and outside the Middle East region.

At the same time, we have also seen clampdowns on peaceful activism and freedom of expression, including in Europe. Leaders must remember that a broad and vibrant civic space is crucial for social cohesion, justice and peace.

We need to recall our common humanity.

Distinguished Members of Parliament,

The European Union was founded on the values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.

In a number of areas, Europe is displaying true human rights leadership.

Today, with human rights as its guide, the European Union is playing a pioneer role in regulating the digital space. The new EU rules on digital services and markets can become a model for other regulatory efforts around the world to help create a free and open online space, while containing illegal and dangerous speech as well as harmful disinformation. It is important, however, that enforcement of any such rules be transparent, accountable and in full accordance with international human rights standards.

Yet another crucial opportunity for Europe to show leadership is in its next steps on the EU Artificial Intelligence (AI) Act. We know that AI has significant potential for humanity. We also know it may have profound impacts on human rights. My recent open letter to EU institutions on the act commends their ambition. This is a real chance to set the bar high and ensure that AI’s impact on human rights is taken into account and mitigated from the outsetnot before it is too late.

Tomorrow, leaders and environmental actors begin their yearly climate negotiations at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai. We know that the massive, ongoing human rights crisis caused by climate change affects most those who have contributed the least. And science tells us that without bold action – now – we have limited time left to prevent it from becoming exponentially worse.

Once again, Europe can lead by example: to take ambitious action on a just transition to renewable energy and a rapid and equitable phase out of fossil fuels. And by committing to accountability and remedy for climate harms, as well as rights-based climate action that benefits people in vulnerable situations. Two weeks ago, I issued an open letter to delegates ahead of COP28 outlining my Office’s priorities. I urge you to read it.

Distinguished participants,

Let me come back to the question I’ve been asked to address today: what makes human rights universal?

Simply put, and as members of this Committee know very well, they belong to us all.

The drafters of the Universal Declaration came from all around the world, reflecting the fact that human rights are rooted in fundamental values that span every culture, religion and continent.

And in 1993, at the Second World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action reaffirmed this universality, after two years of painstaking negotiations among all Member States of the United Nations. And it made it clear that all human rights are interdependent, indivisible, and interrelated.

In short, that no human right can be considered optional.

Solutions guided by human rights build equal societies, where everyone’s contribution is valued, free from discrimination.

Human rights are the linchpin to inclusive and sustainable development.

They shape laws that are just. They pave the path to lasting peace.

Because they are defined by the inherent dignity of each and every one of us, by our common humanity, by empathy, and with global consensus.

Ultimately, human rights are the quintessential human connector because the pursuit of peace, prosperity and justice is what unites us all.

In these profoundly fragmented times, with conflicts and crisis surging, rebuilding trust and standing up for these central values that underpin our shared humanity has never been more urgent.

The European Union has an important leadership role in reinvigorating this global consensus. Humanity’s future depends acutely on the steps we choose to take next.

Thank you.