Skip to main content

Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

For solutions, look to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Fit for Purpose

04 October 2023

Delivered by

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


Madrid, Spain

Minister Albares Bueno,
Vice President of the European Commission,
My dear Michelle Bachelet,
Navi Pillay and Mary Robinson,
Excellencies and dear friends,

It is especially joyful for me to be in your company today for this discussion.

In a year that is rich in anniversaries, and shot through with challenges, this conference asks a pointed question. Is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights fit for purpose?

Well, what is that purpose?

Why did States and peoples set up international institutions, treaties and laws at the end of World War II? And decades later, in a world that is changing at breakneck speed, do those institutions, treaties and laws remain relevant?

Let’s go back to the beginning – at a time whose turbulence and uncertainty resonates with our own.

Two World Wars had been fought in the space of just 20 years, at the cost of millions of lives. The Holocaust had deployed the most abominable system of horror and death ever conceived, to murder millions of people. The atomic bomb brought death of a new kind and massive scale into the world. And countries from every region of the world came together to put an end to these churning cycles of horror and destruction and poverty. In that place of rubble and tombstones, 75 years ago, they crafted a map.

The Universal Declaration set out the steps that would lead away from the scourge of war. Steps that would enable reconciliation of disputes, and societies that would be more fair, more equal, and therefore more resilient to confrontations and to shocks. At the centre of this construction of a more peaceful, more just world, was human equality; human dignity; and human rights.

The right to live free from any form of discrimination, arbitrary detention and torture. The rights to education and to adequate food; healthcare; clean water; sanitation; social protections, life-long; and housing. Freedom of expression, opinion, and the right to privacy. Freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Freedom of religion or belief.

The right to fair and just conditions of work. To fair trial and to equal protection of the law. To participate, freely and meaningfully, in public affairs.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most translated document the world has ever seen. If we could measure the number of people who have read and been inspired by it over the past 75 years, its relevance to them – to their lives and minds – would be made very clear.

It has also been a very practical compass, guiding tremendous progress in countries across the world.

Many structures that maintained severe racial and gender discrimination were dismantled, notably the apartheid regime in South Africa. Massive advances were made in education and health. The need for governments and institutions that listen to, inform and fully and meaningfully include people in decision-making also became clearer.

Many countries took back their independence.

And people took back their rights. Perhaps most important of all, the Universal Declaration inspired vibrant, creative, powerful activism and solidarity, empowering people to claim their rights, and to engage actively in their communities and societies.

Is it different now? Has the Universal Declaration of Human Rights become less relevant to societies and individuals?

Today, once again, we face towering challenges that compound each other, potentially creating disastrous outcomes for all humanity.

Conflicts are rising – and they are pitiless, with a shocking lack of respect for the most basic rights of civilians. According to Geneva Call, an estimated 175 million civilians lived in places controlled by armed groups.

Our development agenda, which promised to end extreme poverty by the end of this decade, is faltering – in part due to Russia’s war against Ukraine, with its massive impact on food and fuel prices.

Racism and discrimination – notably against women and girls – are again rising, with concerted pushbacks against the significant important progress made in recent decades. Deliberate provocations, such as recent and despicable incidents of burning the Quran, are intended to drive wedges between countries and communities. Digital platforms are becoming delivery systems for vicious hate speech against women and girls; people of African descent; Jews; Muslims; LGBTIQ+ people; refugees and migrants; and many people from minority groups.

In more and more countries, harsh restrictions of the civic space undercut impartial justice; independent media; and the space for everyone’s fundamental freedoms.

Ungoverned digital advances, including in artificial intelligence, autonomous weaponry and surveillance techniques, could profoundly threaten the rights of every individual.

And all these trends compound and fuel the accelerating, comprehensive menace of the triple planetary crisis, the defining human rights threat of our generation.

These are unnatural disasters. They are man-made, predictable, unbelievably dangerous and at the same time, they can be managed and resolved – if peoples and States can overcome disputes and share the work of building the path to solutions.

But what would those solutions look like?

First, it must be clear that any solutions to global problems have to overcome geopolitical divisions, and surmount the wedges that are deliberately driven through societies, to harvest narrow political gains. We need a common language, and a sense of common goals, to seek solutions together. In other words, an approach that is ideologically neutral, but which engages the deep, shared values of humanity.

Second, solutions to the world’s current challenges must also be consistent with each other. Measures to advance sustainable development must also mitigate climate change and address systemic 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, it needs to be clear that the countries and businesses that have generated climate change must contribute to righting those wrongs.

Fourth, effective solutions will also need the full contributions of every member of every society. Free, meaningful and active participation by all is essential, to bring about real change. We need to draw on the creativity, the skills and the critical observations of everyone, and especially those who are silenced and harmed by today’s malfunctions. 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.

In short, we need guidance that stems from values rooted in every culture of humanity. We need core goals – human equality, human dignity, human rights – that span every domain of policy and challenge. We need to dismantle discrimination and other oppressive barriers to people’s participation.

We need the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Human rights are the connecting thread that runs through every area of the UN’s work and the full spectrum of national governance. In all those areas of action, human rights analysis clarifies priorities and helps to set out sound goals that advance social and economic stability, inclusion, well-being and fairness.

Human rights measures are the only way to make development inclusive, participatory – and therefore sustainable. The only way to shape laws that are just, and which will be trusted to resolve disputes. They are the only way to ensure that societies are equitable, and that they benefit fully from the contributions of every individual, without discrimination or repression.

The only way to forge enduring peace.

To create more secure, more stable, more respectful and more prosperous nations that are able to cooperate within a fair international order, regardless of their differing political systems.

To anchor resilience, nationally, regionally and globally.

To ward off despair and ensure that young people have a stake and a voice in shaping the future of their societies.

Every Member State has an interest in promoting a strong core of human rights at the centre of policy and governance.

And every individual can choose to shape their life in alignment with these values – chief among them the simple, resonant truth that every one of us is born equal in dignity and rights.

Regardless of sex, race, belief, sexual orientation, disability, migrant status or any other characteristic, we all have equal value. That is the core of the compass that 75 years ago guided the world away from cycles of war – and it is the deep truth that can guide us out of danger today.

I hope that 2023 will be remembered as the turning point that renewed our commitment to solving challenges through human rights. This 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration is an opportunity to recapture the spirit that led to its adoption, and to project it into the future, as a navigational compass and a time-tested, coherent set of solutions.

The Human Rights 75 Initiative that my Office is leading calls for pledges from States, businesses, civil society and other individuals and groups to take action for human rights. These commitments will be made public at the Human Rights 75 High-Level Event we will be organising in Geneva on 11 and 12 December – and which, in a spirit of universality, will be connected to hubs in Bangkok, Nairobi and Panama.

I look forward to seeing important, catalytic pledges from Spain, and other EU Member States.

Spain's feminist foreign policy is leading to increased advocacy and humanitarian action to promote the rights of women and girls around the world – including in peace and security initiatives; climate change; and the protection of women human rights defenders.

Many people around the world have also been inspired by the determined and principled positions recently adopted by the Spanish women’s football team.

There should be no place anywhere for discrimination, humiliation and oppressive, patriarchal domination of women – neither on nor off the football pitch. Not in schools, on the street, at work or in the home.

Indeed, there should be no place for any kind of discrimination. We count on Spain to take all necessary steps to eradicate racism, and to stand up for human rights-based border governance and the human rights of migrants and refugees.

The legacy of dictatorship hangs heavy over this country's modern history. Many victims continue to struggle to fulfill their right to justice, reparations and the truth. While I regret the terms of the 1977 Amnesty Law, I commend the strong focus of last year's comprehensive Law on Democratic Memory on the rights of victims, and the specific experiences and rights of women and girls.

I also encourage Spain and every other country to empower young people to participate meaningfully in nationwide decision-making that will shape their future. I am confident that the young people of this country will have the creativity and determination to overcome our global challenges.

This work is not easy, and I know that. Locally, nationally, and globally, the task of standing up for human rights is hard. The world is more complicated and more dangerous today than it has been for decades.

But that is exactly the right time to seek and find solutions that acknowledge our shared interests and bind us together.

Upholding people's rights and sustaining their well-being is what governance is for.

Yes, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written in an era before climate change. An era that may seem long ago. But it has been tried, tested and proven. Its principles are especially vital in times of crisis – when the future is anxious, and it seems that options are narrowing. It is then that core values, the lessons of history, can deeply guide us to the right course.

Thank you, and I look forward to hearing from my distinguished predecessors.