[page-number of print ed.: 1 ]

Undisplayed Graphic

The Secretary-General of the United Nations

Message to the High-Level Retreat on
„The Universal Declaration at 50: Progress and Challenges"

Delivered on his behalf by Mr. Bacre Waly Ndiaye, Director, New York Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Glen Cove (New York), 9 October 1998


Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure to join you for this retreat. The Secretary-General has asked me to convey to you his warmest greetings and, in particular, his sincere gratitude to the organizers for making possible this contribution to a year of celebration and commemoration. This includes the UN Studies Program of Columbia University and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, as well as the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, the Ford Foundation, the UN Association of the USA, and the UN’s own Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

On behalf of the Secretary-General, I would like now to make the following statement:

    Human rights belong to every individual. They are not a subsidy to be granted or taken away by governments or any other power. Human rights are also foreign to no culture and native to all nations; they are universal. And as this century’s bloody history has taught us, the absence of human rights and tolerance is more than a denial of human dignity; it is also the root of the suffering and hatred that breed political violence and inhibit economic development.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has sent this message far and wide, helping to foster a global awareness about the centrality of human rights in people’s lives. Fifty years after its adoption, the Declaration’s lasting value and relevance are clear.

The Declaration has the great merit of being the first international legal instrument to gather together a set of principles embodying the fundamental rights and freedoms of the human being, recognized by the international community and based on the dignity and equality of all members of the human family.

It has served as the founding document for all subsequent UN human rights instruments, many of them establishing legally binding obligations for States Parties. It has served as a model for constitutions, laws, regulations, policies and practices of

[page-number of print ed.: 2 ]

governance that protect human rights. Its provisions have supplied countless reference points for courts, parliaments, lawyers and other professional groups. Many have become part of customary international law, binding on all states whether or not they have ratified any of the multilateral human rights conventions.

Thus, what started as a non-binding proclamation of rights and freedoms has, at least in some respects, acquired through state practice the status of universal law. Indeed, the universal success of the Declaration — the text has been translated into more than 250 languages — is testimony to the universality of human rights.

The 50th anniversary motto — „all human rights for all" — expresses the challenge we face today. one cannot pick and choose among human rights, ignoring some while insisting on others. Whether civil, cultural, economic, political or social, human rights are indivisible, interdependent and inter-related. But for too many people around the world, the Declaration’s tenets have yet to take on real meaning in their daily lives.

We must insist on greater respect for civil and political rights and on the building of democratic societies, so that grievances and disputes can be resolved peacefully; so that a free press and an active civil society can be a check on the corrupt or unlawful exercise of state power; and so that judicial systems operate fairly, and police or security personnel who abuse their power can be brought to justice.

But equally, we must insist that due attention be given to economic, social and cultural rights. Mass illiteracy and poverty are human rights issues no less than freedom of expression, and the willful disregard of the former is as likely to sow the seeds of conflict as the denial of the latter.

The Declaration’s drafters also recognized the close connection between human rights and peace. Unfortunately, we have often lost sight of that connection, which is all the more tragic when we consider that acting on such a recognition could have been pivotal in preventing some of the massive violations we have witnessed around the world in recent years, the likes of which we had pledged would never happen again.

So we must do more in terms of early warning and preventive action at deterring such violations and defusing situations which may lead to humanitarian disasters. We should also look at „structural prevention", namely, the need to address the economic, social, ethnic and other root causes of conflict. This means focusing not only on tense ethnic or political disputes but also on chronic underdevelopment, grinding poverty, mass unemployment, widespread illiteracy, and systematic inequalities of income or opportunities.

[page-number of print ed.: 3 ]

The end of the cold war, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 and the creation of the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights later that year have opened up new avenues for the United Nations to make its work in human rights more meaningful.

This anniversary year is also the time when we assess the progress that has been achieved in the five years since the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. This is a multifaceted undertaking. We are looking at obstacles encountered in implementation of the Vienna commitments. We are exploring ways to improve human rights education, strengthen national capacity and institution-building and address special concerns such as the human rights of women and of groups rendered vulnerable such as indigenous peoples, minorities and people with disabilities.

We are also studying ways to enhance the effectiveness and integrity of the UN human rights machinery. One focus is the need to eliminate reservations to conventions. These can sometimes undermine the very treaties to which they are attached, allowing States to appear to be supporting it when in practice they do not. The delegates who negotiated the establishment of the International Criminal Court took this lesson to heart: the Rome Stature states explicitly that no reservations may be made.

Another focus is on our presence in the field. UN experts or rapporteurs examining the world-wide implementation of specific human rights standards and norms have undertaken more field missions than ever before. The number of UN rights field offices has also reached unprecedented numbers. Indeed, today we have more staff working on human rights issues in the field than at Headquarters. This is a healthy trend.

Technical cooperation programmes have grown in both number and scope. Just ten years ago, the demand for such services by Member States was nearly non-existent. Today, we have more requests than we can handle. Our main objectives here are to widen respect for basic freedoms, democratic principles and the rule of law and to cooperate in creating or strengthening human rights institutions, State and non-State alike.

As we look to the future, one of the most encouraging signs has been the extraordinary growth in civil society. Non-governmental organizations — thousands of dedicated individuals and citizens’ groups — have become indispensable partners in the quest for human rights. NGOs are often on the ground, often in perilous situations, before the international community gives the United Nations a mandate to act.

[page-number of print ed.: 4 ]

Their recent efforts against landmines and for a strong International Criminal Court illustrate their growing influence in the policy arena as well. They are key partners in our work for development and environmental protection, and strong proponents of honest, transparent, accountable government — the good governance that is essential for effective Government, not to mention popular support for that Government.

I have made enhanced cooperation with civil society a crucial theme in my „quiet revolution" of UN reform and renewal. The Nobel committee has recognized the crucial role of NGOs, awarding several groups its prize for peace. But NGOs and others have also come in for a less welcome sort of recognition; they have been censored and denied access to meeting and information; they have been harassed, jailed and exiled; they have been tortured and murdered.

At long last, 14 years after the idea was first taken up by a UN working group, the General Assembly will consider at its current session a draft declaration on the protection of human rights defenders.

The declaration rests on a basic premise: that when the rights of human rights defenders are violated, all our rights are put in jeopardy. The draft states that everyone has the right to meet or assemble peacefully; to form, join and participate in NGOs; to seek and obtain information about human rights; to complain about the policies and actions of officials and government bodies; and to enjoy unhindered communication with international bodies. It obligates States to protect those who exercise these rights from violence, threats, retaliation, discrimination or any other arbitrary action. This official recognition is long overdue, and I am pleased that this process is reaching its culmination during this anniversary year.

If the growth of civil society constitutes a revolution within the overall revolution of human rights, another is our evolving understanding of what we mean by non-intervention.

The establishment and growth of an international human rights system, based on the principles of the Universal Declaration and the international human rights instruments, has resulted in greater acceptance of intervention in what used to be regarded as a State’s „internal affairs". This effort to create State accountability with respect to its citizens and the international community, thereby limiting arbitrary actions by States, should be given due importance. These are, in effect, self-imposed limits to sovereignty, since a State not only commits itself to refrain from human rights violations, but also concedes to undertake measures to protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms and adhere to internationally accepted human rights norms.

[page-number of print ed.: 5 ]

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our work to guarantee human rights, in practice and in law, is growing increasingly complex. The world is changing rapidly. States face greater demands. Rights are being defined more comprehensively, and global awareness of those rights is spreading.

Over the course of half a century, many UN mechanisms were created as the needs arose, rather than as part of an overall plan. Efforts were made towards the resolution of human rights crises resulting from war, poverty and oppression, but few are geared towards dealing with the complexities of today’s world order.

That is why is must be remembered that the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights continue to provide a solid foundation on the basis of which the human rights machinery can be improved in order to address the challenges of a new era.

The High Commissioner has made integration of human rights into all aspects of the work of the UN system one of the main tasks of her office. We are working steadily towards the day when the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration are also the unifying principles that inform every strategic action of the United Nations, from humanitarian assistance to democratization and governance. The designation of human rights as a cross-cutting issue in each of the four Executive Committees is a concrete expression of our commitment to this effort.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Universal Declaration is a living document that has stood the test of time and takes on greater force — both ethically and juridically — with every passing year. It is thanks to the Declaration that human rights have established themselves everywhere as a legitimate political and moral concern that the international 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. It is my sincere hope that this anniversary year will see you and like-minded people around the world join us ever more closely as we seek to do better where we have fallen short. There is no turning back from the revolution in human rights. In that spirit, please accept my best wishes for a constructive and memorable retreat.

Thank you.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | März 2001

Previous Page TOC Next Page