Following are opening remarks of the President of the General Assembly, Hennadiy Udovenko (Ukraine), at a special meeting at United Nations Headquarters today in observance of Human Rights Day:
Whenever a question arises about the main goal of the United Nations, one is bound to hear the famous quotation from the opening paragraph of the United Nations Charter: "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war". And rightfully so, because the maintenance of international peace and security is one of the prime tasks of the United Nations.
But as we begin today the countdown to the fiftieth anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I think it will be only proper to recall that in the very next paragraph of the Charter the founders of this Organization reaffirmed their faith "in fundamental human rights" and in the "dignity and worth of the human person". Since then, promoting human rights has been an integral part of United Nations activities.
And it did not take long for this work to bear fruit. Just a little over three years after the founding of the United Nations, on 10 December 1948, the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an act that has had a profound impact on human history.
Let me recall the words of my predecessor, the President of the third session of the General Assembly, as he welcomed the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the night of 10 December 1948:
"It is the first occasion on which the organized community of nations has made a Declaration on Human Rights and fundamental freedoms, and it has
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the authority of the body of the United Nations as a whole. Millions of people, men, women and children, all over the world will turn for help, guidance and inspiration to this document."
Proclaiming the inherent freedom and equality of every human being on this planet, the Universal Declaration protects the basic elements of a meaningful human existence. The rights to life, food, shelter, access to medical care, freedom from torture or arbitrary imprisonment are found there along with the rights to education, to freedom of religious belief, to information, expression, association and peaceful assembly, and the right to take part in the cultural life of the community.
The road travelled over the past 50 years to broaden and strengthen the protection and promotion of the basic rights of the individual is there for all to see. The merit goes above all to the Declaration itself, for its ethical, political and educational value has been of enormous importance. It has also been the source of inspiration and the foundation for the impressive standard-setting work done by the United Nations to uphold the protection of the human being and his or her rights and dignity.
But as we take stock of what has been accomplished, we cannot pretend that the gap has been bridged between aspirations and achievements. We still live in a world where millions are uprooted from their homes and untold numbers arrested arbitrarily or imprisoned without trial. Sadly, it remains a world in which torture is still practised, in which more than a billion people are living in poverty, where children are still exploited, the elderly neglected and women denied their fundamental equal rights. Obviously, such a world is not a place where human rights are being universally respected.
It has always been the task of the United Nations to provide a forum for diverse cultures and, at the same time, to seek the common denominators that bespeak a common humanity. It is in this sense that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenants and the different international human rights treaties were elaborated by the people of different cultures and for the people of different cultures. The United Nations sponsored a number of the Human Rights conferences, which fortified and broadened international consensus on priorities for the promotion and protection of human rights as universal values. Four years ago, the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights reconfirmed once again the adherence of the international community to the principles of universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights. It is now our responsibility to reach all people with this message in order to translate these remarkable principles and norms into tomorrow's reality.
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In so doing, we are aware that advances in human rights are an intrinsic component of the progress we seek in the social, political and economic spheres. And our legacy to future generations would be a poor one if all our thinkable and unthinkable achievements were not matched by compliance with established human rights standards.
The ignorance of human rights provides for denial of the very possibility for any developed community to live in harmony with itself and others. That is why, today, the challenge to all of us, as well as our common responsibility is to translate these high principles into concrete actions. In any of our endeavours, respect for human rights and freedoms should be both our essential point of departure and our ultimate goal.
Today, on this Human Rights Day, we are launching a year devoted to Human Rights. I wish 1998 to become a milestone in the long struggle for the achievements of one of the worthiest purposes of the United Nations Charter. We must renew our commitment to the cause of human rights, and our determination that the coming year should see not only a firm acceptance of the principles enshrined in the Declaration but also genuine progress in securing the universal and effective enjoyment of these rights and freedoms.
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