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Commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Current challenges and UNESCO’s contribution

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

11 December 2017

Distinguished President of the General Conference,
Director-General Azoulay,
Mr. Badinter,
Excellencies,
Colleagues, friends,

Thank you for organising this event, and for inviting me to speak. It is an honour and a joy to be here, among close colleagues, to address the many topics that are at the core of our mandates – both our mandates.

As you know, Human Rights Day marks the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a mighty document which has helped change the world.

It was drafted and adopted by representatives, and leaders, of countries from every continent, drawing on cultural and religious traditions from across the planet.

They determined the values that are common to all humanity, and which together add up to justice; equality; human dignity.
They determined that human rights are inalienable. No Government or other actor may legitimately violate the human rights of any individual.

And in a world shattered by war, destruction and genocide, they composed the Universal Declaration as a point-by-point response to the horrors they had so recently endured. The Universal Declaration embodies one overriding lesson: human rights are “the foundation of peace in the world”. Justice, and rights, build peace.

It is by this essential yardstick that history will judge both the leaders of nations, and of the United Nations. Have we, through our actions and our advocacy, advanced respect for human dignity, equality and rights? Have we ensured the creation of equitable and inclusive societies, based on justice and fair opportunities and services for all? Have we advanced freedom from want and fear? In other words, have we done everything possible to ensure peace – within nations, and between them?

Today, as we mark the 69th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration, the world is at a pivotal moment.

Firstly, we can take stock of what the Universal Declaration has helped to achieve. Millions of people have gained greater freedoms and equality. They have been empowered to fight discrimination and to gain greater access to justice, to essential services and to equality of opportunity. Conditions of profound economic misery and exploitation have been challenged. Oppressive dictatorships have been replaced by participative systems of governance that seek to serve their people. The perpetrators of horrific human rights violations – including genocide – have been prosecuted by international tribunals.

On women's rights, the rights of ethnic, religious, racial and caste minorities, the rights of persons with disabilities, of workers and employees, people who are LGBTI, the rights of the child, the rights to health, to education, to decent housing and social services – and many others – in all these areas, enormous progress has been made.

The contributions of civil society activists and human rights defenders have been essential to each of these advances. The great lawyer, political leader and indefatigable advocate for rights Robert Badinter honours us today with his presence: he stands among the many human rights activists to whom I gladly pay tribute. I think he might agree that the provision of a point of reference for the struggles of activism – the fact of a legal and ethical destination, in the form of a universal agreement, or an international human rights treaty – has brought these struggles focus, legitimacy and strength.

Yes, in many areas our efforts have failed – failed tragically. Conflicts have crushed the rights of millions of people, as State and non-State actors deliberately and wilfully violate the rules of basic human decency we term international humanitarian law. Millions of people, including many from minority groups, have suffered hideously from human rights violations – the humiliation and violence of discrimination and genocide; exploitation; deprivation; the crushing fist of tyranny. Recognition of the inherent dignity and equal rights of human beings has been far from universal. Still, I would argue the balance of impact is strongly positive. The power of the Universal Declaration stems from its deep roots in universal values; and it has helped to shape our world for the better.

But the principles which it incorporates are under growing pressure. An antagonistic nationalism is on the rise, with mounting levels of racism and xenophobia. Measures to end discrimination and promote greater justice and rights are being dismantled by those who profit from hatred and exploitation. The laws of war are deliberately violated, and civilians actively targeted for violence. In numerous countries, a backlash is actively eroding many human rights advances – on the rights of women; the rights of many minorities; and the fundamental principle that civil society, in every country, has a right to freely participate in decision-making.

In other words, the pillar of justice and respect which upholds peaceful relationships between individuals, peoples and nations is being undermined. Our world is lurching from crisis to crisis. The protective lessons brought to us by our forbears at the close of the Second World War are being unravelled. If we continue along this calamitous path, we will be making our way back to the beginning of our story – a planet devastated by suffering and destruction.

It is time to act.

We know how to build the opposite path – the one to security, prosperity and peace. It is a task we can achieve with very practical steps.

We build rule of law institutions, which offer the confidence of impartial justice.

We build equality: every individual must be clear in the knowledge that – regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, opinions, belief, caste, class, migrant status, sexual orientation, disability – her equal rights are fully acknowledged.

We build trust, through governance that is transparent, participative and accountable.

The effective enjoyment of fundamental economic and social rights must be ensured – such as the right to education, a paramount concern which we and UNESCO share.

Freedoms of expression, association and belief must prevail, together with strong and independent media, in order that people be fully informed, free to contribute in decision-making without fear.

There must be respect for the identity, traditions and rights of minorities.

We must safeguard societies against people who propagate hatred and incite violence – frequently for political benefit; and almost always against society’s most powerless members.

Step by step, these elements of justice, participation, conflict resolution and power-sharing flow into deeper confidence and mutual respect. Grievances and disputes can be resolved by impartial governing and rule of law institutions.

This is the most effective way of governing -- because human rights are not impractical philosophical ideals. They are sound policy choices, which build strong, economically healthy, secure and peaceful societies.

The work of helping States put together this architecture of human dignity and rights is the most urgent preoccupation of my Office. And, as with every member of the UN family, we share many of these tasks and concerns with you, the staff, the leadership and Member States of UNESCO.

This week my Office is launching a global celebration of the 70th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Because this anniversary is a magnificent opportunity to take a new, strong stand. To enrol in a campaign of defiance – defiance of the haters, the exploiters, the violators.

We need to globalise justice; globalise rights. We need to reach the broadest possible audiences – to stir their understanding of the vital principles at stake and the disaster that their loss could lead to. We need to mobilise energetic activism in every country where people are still free to raise their voices without fear. We need to seek out new partners, and act together to uphold fundamental rights and freedoms.


We need your help. Everyone in this room, and every audience you can reach. In your professional functions and in your daily lives, I ask you to act to promote peace, fight back against discrimination, and uphold justice. To stand up for human rights.

Thank you