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27 January 1998

27 January 1998

High Commissioner Argues That The Declaration Speaks To Modern Needs And Warns Against Tampering

Following is a keynote address by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, delivered at a Symposium on Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region held today at the University, Tokyo:

I am honoured to give the keynote address at this symposium on human rights in the Asia Pacific region, and to have the privilege of listening to participants who will contribute from the perspectives of the peoples of the region.

On 10 December 1998 we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in the shadows of Auschwitz and Nagasaki and on the doorstep of the Cold War. Like all major anniversaries it provides an opportunity to take stock, to examine what has been achieved and to reflect on what needs to be accomplished in the future. It is fitting that this should take place in the same year as the five-year review of the World Conference which was convened in Vienna in 1993 and as we approach the new millennium.

The celebrations, however, cannot take place amidst the fanfare of self-congratulation. Too much remains to be done in the field of human rights protection to rest on our laurels. The present-day victims of destitution and persecution are uppermost in our minds as is the yawning gap between aspiration and genuine achievement.

I have just come from Cambodia, where last week I visited the museum Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh. It had been a school, but became a place of torture and inevitable death for over 16,000 people during the Khmer Rouge period from 1975-79. As I looked at the iron beds with torture implements, saw the graphic photographs of how they had been used, and walked past row upon row of photographs of young girls and boys, of old people, of people from every walk of life: civil servants, peasants, intellectuals, soldiers, students; as I saw the piled up clothes and shoes it brought back so vividly my visit to Auschwitz, and when I came to Hiroshima in 1995, and the terrible aftermath of the genocidal killing in Rwanda which I saw on my first visit there in 1994. How often have we said ‘never again'? This, surely, is the strongest argument for the universality and indivisibility of human rights. It also reminds us of the need for eternal vigilance in safeguarding those rights.

The commemoration has another purpose. It is to remind the peoples of the world of the tenets of the Universal Declaration and, in so doing, to reaffirm and to renew our attachment to these fundamental principles and to this vision. For it is also, and perhaps primarily, through education that the aims of this great document can be fulfilled. That is why it is so important that countries include in their national plans of marking the anniversary a further commitment to integrating human rights education not only into school curricula but into youth groups and continuing education projects. The commemoration compels us to reflect on the continuing relevance of the Universal Declaration to the political, social, economic and cultural environment we live in and how we can transform its promise into a living reality for more people. Our achievements so far in this domain, when we remember the genocides, the continuing conditions of 'absolute poverty' in the world around us are a cause of shame. We must match our rhetoric with action.

When the Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly on 10 December 1948 it distinguished itself from other great constitutional' documents - such as the Code of Hammurabi, Magna Carta, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man or the American Declaration of independence - in two fundamental respects. It was the first international articulation of the rights and freedoms of all members of the human family. For the first time in the history of mankind nations had come together to agree on the content of the human rights of all human beings. They did so in the aftermath of the barbarities of the second World War out of respect for the dignity of each human being and because they perceived the close connection between violation of human rights and national and international peace. The emphasis throughout the Declaration was on rights and freedoms applicable to every person everywhere.

Secondly, the Declaration - the 'common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations' - treated human rights as not only universal but indivisible, i.e. that civil and political rights, on the one hand, and social, economic and cultural rights, on the other, are both demanding of protection on the same plane and are interdependent and interrelated. In doing so, it laid the essential conceptual foundations of the international law of human rights, it charted the human rights agenda of the United Nations for this century and beyond and awakened the great forces in civil society to the cause of human rights.

Thus the Declaration proclaims in its Preamble that 'recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and unalterable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world'. Economic, social and cultural rights are set out with the same degree of affirmation and conviction as civil and political rights. Freedom of speech and belief are enshrined but also freedom from fear and want. Fair trial and the right of participatory and representative government sit shoulder to shoulder with the right to work, to equal pay for equal work, and the right to education. Both sets of rights are proclaimed as 'the highest aspiration of the common people'. All the people.

We must be honest, however, and recognize that there has been an imbalance in the promotion at the international level of economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development. Extreme poverty, illiteracy, homelessness and the vulnerability of children to exploitation through trafficking and prostitution are telling indictments of leadership in our world as we end this millennium. I have committed myself as High Commissioner for Human Rights to work, together, I hope, with a global alliance for human rights to redress that imbalance. 1998 is a good year to begin to forge this alliance.

Today the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands as a monument to the convictions and determination of its framers who were leaders in their time. It is one of the great documents in world history. The travaux préparatoires are there to remind us that the authors sought to reflect in their work the differing cultural traditions in the world. The result is a distillation of many of the values inherent in the world's major legal systems and religious beliefs including the Bhuddist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic and Jewish traditions.

The Declaration has exerted a moral, political and legal influence throughout the world, far beyond the aspirations of its drafters. It has been the primary source of inspiration of all post-war international legislation in the field of human rights. All of the United Nations human rights treaties and resolutions as well as the regional human rights conventions - the European and American conventions and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' rights - have been directly inspired by the Declaration. Virtually every international instrument concerned with human rights contains at least one preambular reference to the Universal Declaration as do many subsequent declarations adopted unanimously or by consensus by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Its detailed provisions have served as a model for many domestic constitutions and laws, regulations and policies that protect human rights. National courts throughout the world have had recourse to the provisions of the Declaration in the interpretation of provisions of national law or directly applicable international law. Parliaments, Governments, lawyers and non-governmental organizations throughout the world invoke the Declaration when human rights are discussed.

Many of the provisions of the Declaration have become part of customary international law, which is binding on all states whether or not they are signatories to one or more multilateral conventions concerning human rights. Thus what started its existence as a solemn but non-binding proclamation of rights and freedoms has, at least in some respects, if not all, acquired through state practice the status of universal law.

Twenty years after its adoption, its tenets were authoritatively endorsed by the 1968 Proclamation of Teheran and transformed into the provisions of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which entered into force in 1976. Most recently 171 countries participating in the 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights reaffirmed their commitment in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action to the purposes and principles mentioned in the Declaration emphasising and endorsing its inspirational role as the basis for United Nations standard-setting. It also inspired other world conferences including the Beijing Platform of Action re-emphasising that women's rights are human rights. Indeed one of the functions of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights established by the General Assembly in 1993 is to promote and protect the rights and freedoms contained inter alia in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In short, the Declaration has, since its adoption, assumed the mantle of a constitutional instrument, giving specificity to the concept of human rights in the United Nations Charter and radiating its benign influence throughout the planet.

My vision of the Universal Declaration, however, strays beyond its legal and political influence. Nelson Mandela has recently reminded us that the Declaration was adopted only a few months after the formation of the first apartheid Government. He said - and I quote:

'For all the opponents of this pernicious system, the simple and noble words of he Universal Declaration were a sudden ray of hope at one of our darkest moments. During the many years that followed, this document ... served as a shining beacon and an inspiration to many millions of South Africans. It was proof that they were not alone, but rather part of a global movement against racism and colonialism, for human rights, peace and justice.'

It is often said that rights which exist on paper are of no value. But paper, vision, commitment and action are the powerful tools of peace. The pages of the Universal Declaration, as Nelson Mandela observed, have been a source of courage to the downtrodden by showing them that they are not alone! They also interrogate our sense of solidarity. Notwithstanding the cruel fact of the persistence of human rights violations throughout the world this document has served and will continue to serve as a reminder that the world community cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of the oppressed and the destitute and that it has a mandate to concern itself and, where possible, offer succour - beyond all frontiers.

One need look no further than the Preamble of the Declaration to realise that, while the world around us is evolving at a pace more rapid than at any other time in human history, the premises on which the Declaration is founded will remain valid and immutable forever. Test their relevance against the bitter realities of today's world events. The Preamble continues to articulate our response. It speaks of 'barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind'. It points out that 'it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law'. It reminds us of the connection between human rights observance and 'friendly relations between nations'. It ends,
with a phrase that goes to the heart of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary, that a 'common
understanding of the rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realisation of this pledge'.

No one reading these phrases today can fail to be struck by their insight into the connection between denial of human rights and peace - domestic and international - and their enduring actuality.

But today's world is more complex than it was fifty years ago. There are now many more participating states than there were in 1948 and more strident and concerned voices from civil society. The agenda set by the Declaration is surprisingly apt for these new complexities - whether they are linked to the rights of indigenous peoples or the right to development or discrimination on grounds of gender or on the basis of sexual orientation - but who could have imagined in 1948 that we would use the 50th anniversary of the Declaration as an opportunity to reposition these fresh concerns and others in our order of priorities?

It is in this context that the search for global ethical standards and the work of the Inter Action Council and others in focussing on human responsibilities brings fresh insights into the interpretation of the Preamble and Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a living document. It is right that we should focus more on duties and obligations but, I believe, it would be wiser to avoid the distraction of seeking a new declaration. Instead we need to recognize and recommit ourselves to the extent to which these values are implied in creating through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 'a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations' which can be reinforced by greater emphasis on them as valued for individuals and communities in all our civil societies.

It is thanks to the Universal Declaration that human rights have established themselves everywhere as a legitimate political and moral concern, that the world community has pledged itself to promote and protect human rights, that the ordinary citizen has been given a vocabulary of complaint and inspiration, and that a corpus of enforceable human rights law is developing in different regions of the world through effective regional mechanisms.

I would venture to suggest that it has become an elevating force on the events of our world because it can be seen to embody the legal, moral and philosophical beliefs held true by all peoples and because it applies to all. It is precisely this notion of 'universality' - in the widest sense - that gives it its force. Its universal vocation to protect the dignity of every human being has captured the imagination of humanity. It is this vision which explains the enduring mission of the Declaration and its unsurpassable dominance as a statement of legal principles. We tamper with it at our peril.

A famous British historian of the last century (Lord Acton) said of the two pages of the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man that they weighed more than whole libraries and than all of Napoleon's armies. The remark is also fitting for the Universal Declaration.

But I have a preference for a more poetic image inspired by Vaclav Havel. It is that of the tree which was planted for mankind as a symbol of justice in fertile soil following the end of a great cataclysm. It has gradually taken root and grown into a unique and enduring specimen. Much care has been taken to water the ground around it and to nurture its growth. Cuttings have been taken and planted throughout the world. We have watched it grow every day. Patiently. Slowly it has acquired impressive stature.

But like all living things it has a certain fragility. It is part of our heritage that we have been asked to teach others its history and purpose and to hand down the skills and commitment needed to sustain it. Its message will have to be understood and acted upon. Most of all, and in Havel's words, 'it will need to be looked after with understanding and humility but also with love.