19 December 2008

UN Secretary General on Human Rights

Written by Ban Ki-Moon
December 19, 2008

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the world’s most translated document. It is available in 360 languages. Its tenets have been absorbed into the constitutions of many newly independent States and new democracies. Its words ring in every corner of the planet. The Universal Declaration embodies ground-breaking principles: the universality of human rights, and their indivisibility. It enshrines the interdependence of security, development and respect for human rights. And it places a moral obligation on States not to pick and choose among rights and freedoms, but to uphold them all.

The Declaration’s framers proclaimed the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings. They unequivocally linked destitution and exclusion with discrimination. They understood that social and cultural stigma makes it impossible for people to obtain justice or participate fully in public life. The Universal Declaration was born following the utter devastation of the Second World War. The international community drew ideals, principles and achievements from diverse cultures to form this foundation on which we have built a great tower of human rights law. We pay tribute to all the activists who refused to be silenced by their tormentors.

Who knew that right must triumph over might. Who were inspired by the Declaration into elaborating specific laws that now protect countless people around the world. The world did not adopt such an impressive list of human rights instruments just to put them on a shelf somewhere at the United Nations. These should be living documents that can be wielded by experts who scrutinise country reports or assess individual complaints. Many delegates meet at the United Nations, but among the most passionate are the human rights experts. Non-governmental organisations carry the banner as well. Whether working with States or in opposition to them, these groups are crucial in pressing for the rule of law and holding governments to their promises. They may be outspoken, but they are not out of line. Today is also their day.

The press likewise deserves credit for bringing human rights abuses to light. Courageous journalists have risked and lost their lives to report on threats against others. This 60th anniversary is a milestone for them, too —a day on which to stress again the need for media to be free to do their job, and free of harassment, intimidation and worse. We have come a long way since the Declaration’s adoption. But the reality is that we have not lived up to its vision - at least not yet.