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Statements Commission on Human Rights

Fifty-fourth session of the Commission on Human Rights

16 March 1998

Fifty-fourth session of the Commission on Human Rights,
Geneva, 16 March - 24 April 1998

The speech given by
H.E. Mr. Václav Havel, President of the Czech Republic
at the event commemorating the 50th Anniversary of
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Geneva, 16 March 1998

Mr. Secretary General, Madam High Commissioner, Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, I want to thank you for honouring me with the invitation to offer a few introductory remarks to this assembly on the Fiftieth Anniversary of a momentous occasion - the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A number of diverse texts have played fundamental roles in human history. The Declaration of Human Rights differs from all the others primarily in one respect: its impact has not been meant to remain confined within one culture or one civilization. From the very outset, it has been envisaged as a universal, so to speak planetary, set of principles to govern human coexistence, and it has gradually become the point of departure for countless successive guidelines defining the rules of a worthy life together for the people and nations on this Earth. Texts of such fundamental nature are not easily born. The Declaration of Human Rights was obviously the fruit of a very special climate right after World War II, when all humanity realized that if the world wanted to prevent repetitions of such apocalyptic horrors it had to rise above the various particular interests or concerns of prestige, and to agree on a certain fundamental code.

The life of the Declaration of Human Rights has been marked by contradictions.

On one hand, the Declaration has notably predetermined the direction of the United Nations in the fifty years that have followed. Its imprint is borne by many ensuing UN documents, as well as by hundreds of international treaties and constitutional instruments of individual nations. It was also present in the background of the well-known Final Act of the 1975 Helsinki conference. The emphasis placed in that document on human rights helped to put an end to the bipolar division of the world. It added momentum to the opposition movements in the communist countries who took the accords signed by their governments seriously, and intensified their struggle for the observance of human rights, thus challenging the very essence of totalitarian systems.

On the other hand, it is also true that human rights have been violated, ignored or suppressed in many countries of the world - in some of them in milder forms, in others very brutally - throughout the fifty years since the Declaration was adopted. This is not surprising: the immensely complex world that we live in can hardly be changed overnight simply by passing a declaration.

Nevertheless, I believe that the frequent breaches of its principles have been by far outweighed by the historic importance of this global commitment. For the first time in history, there has been a valid, and globally respected, instrument holding up a mirror to the misery of this world: a universal standard with which we can constantly compare the actual state of affairs, to which we can point, and in whose name we can act, to combat injustices if need be. Since everyone has subscribed to this standard, few would venture to criticize it as such. This means that all those who commit substantial violations of its principles must face this historical novelty.

To put it simply: the life of all those who scorn human rights is much more difficult with the Declaration in place, than it was before.

For this reason we must not allow the subject of human rights and their consistent enforcement to be quietly relegated to a second-class or third-class status as an inconvenient and politically inexpedient issue. Massive violations of fundamental human rights, which clearly include the right to life, is, in fact, often invoked to explain or defend national or state interests, and is, unfortunately, becoming an everyday reality which, in the past decade, we could watch in almost a live transmission. The genocide in Rwanda, the killing in Chechnya, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the situation in Tibet, North Korea, Burma, Cuba and Kosovo - this is but a part of the list of events we have to bear in mind. Backed by the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we should be able to confront these threats to human life, freedom and dignity, or at least to always clearly identify them.

Why have human beings the prerogative to enjoy any human rights? I often ask myself this question, and I have dealt with it many times in my speeches. Time and again, I come to the conclusion that this is something essentially different, and much more profound, than a mere contract among people who have found it practical to have their rights articulated and guaranteed in some way or other, and to have an instrument restricting, automatically, the rights of those who could, or who would wish to, deny them their rights or jeopardize their exercise. In formal terms, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, indeed, takes the form of a contract or covenant, like the hundreds of thousands of laws or regulations governing human coexistence. This covenant, however, derives from certain paradigms, established notions or preconditions that need no further explanation. Let us take, for example, the concept of human dignity. In one way or another, it permeates all the fundamental human rights and human rights documents. We find this so natural that we see no point in asking what human dignity actually means, or why should humanity possess it; nor do we inquire why it is practical for us all to recognize it for one another.

I am convinced that the deepest roots of that which we now call human rights lie somewhere beyond us, and above us; somewhere deeper than the world of human covenants - in a realm that I would, for simplicity's sake, describe as metaphysical. Although they may fail to realize this, human beings - the only creatures who are fully aware of their own being and of their mortality, and who perceive their surroundings as a world and have an inner relationship to that world - derive their dignity, as well as their responsibility, from the world as a whole; that is, from that in which they see the world's central theme, its backbone, its order, its direction, its essence, its soul - name it as you will. Christians put this quite simply: man is here in the image of God.

The world has markedly changed in the past fifty years. There are many more of us on this planet now; the colonial system has fallen apart; the bipolar division is gone; globalization is advancing at a dizzying pace. The Euro-American culture that largely moulded the character of our present civilization is no longer the predominant. We are entering an era of multi-culturalism. While the world is now enveloped by one single global civilization, this civilization is based on coexistence of many cultures, religions or spheres of civilization that are equal, and equally powerful.

These different worlds naturally have their different historical, spiritual, political and moral traditions. More and more often, we have witnessed clashes between these traditions and the human rights notion embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many times, an alleged contradiction has simply served as an ignoble pretext for various autocrats who have sought to legitimate their evil actions by pointing out the "otherness" of their cultures. On other occasions, however, the incongruity is real, and the various standards developed by the Euro-American world are truly perceived in all sincerity as an alien creation that can perhaps be respected, but not inwardly embraced. Moreover, some find this creation much too secular, much too mundane, much too material, claiming that it fails to pay regard to the higher authority that is the only source of all moral imperatives and all the rights that are derived from these imperatives, or safeguarded by them. This is not quite correct: the Western human rights standards are, in fact, a modern application of the Christian principles. Seen from the outside, however, this does not appear to be so - and things might be even worse if it was seen that way, because then it might well be regarded as a religious imperialism under a civil cloak.

What can be done in this situation?

Certainly there are a thousand avenues. In the sphere we are dealing with today, I see one viable course in placing emphasis on the spiritual source of human rights. This is something that will not make these rights an alien phenomenon for the non-European or non-American worlds, on the contrary: it may bring them closer to these realms. First and foremost, however, it may bring them closer to us who come from the Euro-American environment, for we seem to be the ones who are most inclined to lose sight of the spiritual dimension of the values we believe in, and of the metaphysical origin of the rights we claim; and to regard documents like the Declaration of Human Rights simply as some kind of a good business.

Most importantly, the primeval foundations of all the main religious systems of the world contain, in different forms, the same basic principles, and the same moral imperatives. The various religions differ tremendously in accentuation, in spirit, in character and in liturgy, but somewhere deep down we always find the same fundament - the same call for humility before that which is around us and above us, for decency and for solidarity; the same reference to the memory of the universe where all our actions are proven for their true worth; the same emphasis on our responsibility for the whole world. I do not think that the United Nations, today, could ratify a document whose significance would match that of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I could see that for myself during the preparations of the Anniversary Summit, when attempts were made behind the scenes with a view to adopting a concise document of a declaratory nature that would respond, in a fundamental way, to the changes in the world in the past fifty years. Taking part in the preparations, I soon realized how difficult it was to reach agreement on anything. Not that nobody agreed to the proposed texts, but many were concerned about who wrote them, and whether the authors were not people whom they should oppose; while others wanted to have something added or deleted for reasons of sheer prestige. As a result of this - not surprisingly - no document was produced in the end. Nevertheless, I still believe that those of us who want to could make an effort to highlight the spiritual dimension and spiritual origin of the values guarded by the United Nations, and to translate this also into the Organization's practical activities. If a better future for this world lies in the realm of spirit, of moral order, and of a renewed sense of responsibility for this world, who but the United Nations should be the one to restate this again and again?

Much has been said about reform of the Organization. With your permission, I shall conclude with a few general remarks. They may sound rather unrealistic at present, but I still feel that I should share them with you, because I am deeply convinced that they could enrich the endeavours of this unique and tremendously important institution in the future. I have already mentioned the first point: I would deem it advisable if the United Nations became the scene of a quest for a common denominator of spiritual values uniting the different cultures of our present world. The UN should look for ways in which the entire system that is aimed to foster human rights, and all the other rights and responsibilities shared by humanity today, could be more deeply implanted in this spiritual foundation.

Second: I think that the United Nations and the various UN agencies, committees and commissions should, in an increasing measure, instill their efforts with a systematic concern for human rights. All their actions should be rooted in, related to, or derived from, the concept of human rights. This might, perhaps, create a climate in which there would not be so much particularism, so much indifference, so much tolerance for obvious evil, motivated by egoism or by economic or geopolitical interests. To my mind, the biggest problem of today's multipolar world - a world which has witnessed a reawakening of hundreds of atavistic national interests - does not lie in evil as such, but in tolerance for evil. To give just one example: let us remember how long it took before Europe was able to stop the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina! And who knows whether that war would not have continued to this day had the United States not intervened! The third remark that I shall make is certainly not new: it is necessary to debureaucratize and deformalize all of the UN bodies, institutions and procedures and achieve, thus, substantial cuts in the Organization's budget. Fourth: the United Nations should give thought to the structure of the Security Council, difficult as it may be. In many respects, the present Council is but a relic of post-war circumstances. I envision a Security Council with a permanent presence of states that have the largest populations, wield the greatest influence and are best equipped to represent the various continents of this world and spheres of its civilization. Integrated regions, such as Europe, might well be represented by one common representative. And I also envision much more flexible decision-making if, for example, the right of veto would be applicable only when exercised by at least two permanent members. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I think that the United Nations should do everything in its power in order that people should perceive it as their very own organization, not just as a club of their governments. Undoubtedly, this perception could be enhanced in a number of different ways. For example, people could pay the United Nations directly, with the government authorities of their countries just transferring the funds to their destination. Contributions to the UN would then be contributions of all the inhabitants of this planet, not of governments. It would be marvelous if every man and woman knew that the United Nations is their organization, even if they paid no more than one millionth of their annual incomes.

Mr. Secretary General,

I know of the broad-minded reform concept which you have prepared for the United Nations, and I fully support it. Nevertheless, I have also wanted to offer, on this occasion, a few suggestions - perhaps somewhat utopian - of my own.

Madam High Commissioner, My dear friend Mary Robinson,

I thank you for your invitation to beautiful Geneva - a city that has been traditionally associated with attempts to build a peaceful order for this continent and for our world. Some of these attempts were more successful, others less so. It is my wish for you, and for us all, that the post-war attempt, called the United Nations, succeeds and thrives. It is my hope that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose birth we are commemorating today, will not be just a dream about what humanity's position should be like in this world. May it gradually turn, in all countries, into a living reality.

Thank you.