Human Rights Day was observed at the United Nations today with a special programme to launch a year of events to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption by the General Assembly on 10 December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
At a meeting at Headquarters in New York, the First Lady of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was among the speakers. She stressed the extent to which women were the victims of violence and human rights abuses. In opening remarks, the President of the General Assembly, Hennadiy Udovenko, said the task of the United Nations was to provide a forum for diverse cultures. He said United Nations conferences had broadened the international consensus on priorities for human rights as universal values.
In a videotaped message, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the universality of human rights gave them their strength, and endowed them with the power to cross borders and defy all forces. Nafis Sadik, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), noted that over the years the vision of human rights had extended to social and political rights, alongside civil and political rights.
In a message read on her behalf, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, said human rights commitments were dynamic and based on new understanding and awareness. The year of debate about to begin should open up a better understanding on how to implement human rights in international and national programmes.
At the end of the statements, Samir Sanbar, Assistant Secretary-General for Public Information, presented to Mrs. Clinton a photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt holding the original Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The statements were followed by a panel discussion on aspects of human rights. Taking part were Philip Alston, Chairman of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature; Kamalesh Sharma, Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations; and Olara Otunnu, Special Representative of the Secretary- General on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.
An exhibit for Human Rights Day was opened today in the public lobby of the General Assembly building. Earlier this week, a two-day journalists' round table on human rights was held at Headquarters.
At today's special meeting, SAMIR SANBAR, Assistant Secretary-General for Public Information, said by its first words, "We the peoples", the Universal Declaration called on all peoples to respect human rights. The Universal Declaration was the first achievement of the United Nations. Its eight-person drafting group had been headed by Eleanor Roosevelt. By now, it had been translated into more than 200 languages and it was the most cited document anywhere.
The President of the General Assembly, HENNADY UDOVENKO (Ukraine), said the launch of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights was being made by a group for whom human rights was not an abstract notion but a cause for active involvement. He said the First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Clinton, was well known for her dedication to promoting human rights. She had recently spoken eloquently in his own country, Ukraine, about the need to strengthen democratic institutions and build a civil society.
He said the promotion of human rights had always been an integral part of United Nations activities. The Universal Declaration was adopted just three years after the founding of the Organization. Its proclamation of the inherent freedom and equality of every human being on the planet protected the basic elements of a meaningful existence. The right to such basics as life, food, shelter, access to medical care and freedom from torture or arbitrary imprisonment were found right along with the rights to education, freedom of religious belief, information, expression, association and the right to take part in the cultural life of the community.
The Declaration was the foundation for the impressive standard-setting work done by the United Nations to uphold protection of the human being and the right to dignity. However, taking stock also showed the gap between aspirations and achievements. Millions of people were still being uprooted from their homes and untold numbers were arrested arbitrarily or imprisoned without trial. Torture was still practised and more than a billion people
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lived in poverty. Children were still exploited, the elderly neglected and women denied their fundamental equal rights. Such a world was not a place where human rights were universally respected.
The task of the United Nations was to provide a forum for diverse cultures and at the same time to seek the common denominators of a common humanity. United Nations Conferences had fortified and broadened international consensus on priorities for the promotion and protection of human rights as universal values. The Vienna conference had reconfirmed the principles of universality, indivisibility and interdependence in human rights among the international community. It was now a responsibility to translate those remarkable principles and norms into reality, as an intrinsic component of the progress sought in the social, political and economic spheres. (For full text of statement, see Press Release GA/SM/24-HR/4349-OBV/35 issued today.)
In a videotaped message to the meeting Secretary-General KOFI ANNAN, who was today giving a speech on human rights in Tehran, said that on this anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, people of every colour and creed would gather to embrace common human rights, the principles that created a sacred home for human dignity. When speaking of the right to life, development, dissent or diversity, the real issue was tolerance. All freedoms were ensured by tolerance, and without it, no freedoms were certain.
He said human rights were the expression of those traditions for tolerance, existing in all religions and cultures, which provide the basis for peace and progress. Human rights were foreign to no culture and they were native to all nations. That universality of human rights gave them their strength; it endowed them with the power to cross borders and defy all forces. Human rights had to be realized, seized, defended, promoted, nourished, enriched, understood and insisted upon. Human rights were the best in people; they had to be given life.
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, First Lady of the United States, said that too often the world ignored the injustices of legal systems around the world that continued to treat women as less than complete citizens. In too many places, female heirs received less inheritance than male heirs; inequitable divorce laws compelled women to remain in cruel marriages; and courts of law required the testimony of two women to equal that of a solitary man. Women also lived disproportionately in poverty, making up 70 per cent of the world's poor.
She said that even in the drafting of the Universal Declaration, there was a debate about women's voices. The initial version of the first article stated, "All men are created equal". It took women members of the commission on the Declaration to point out that the statement could be interpreted to
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exclude women. After a long debate, the language was changed to say "All human beings are born free and equal".
She said women's voices were still not heard around the world. Just nine days ago in Sudan, 36 women were arrested while attempting to deliver a petition to a United Nations office in protest of human rights violations in their country. At least one woman received 40 lashes for the act. Two thirds of the world's 130 million children out of school were girls, and two thirds of the 96 million people worldwide who could neither read nor write were women. Rights of freedom of speech and press, as well as to petition government and assemble, were much weaker in a nation where the majority of young women were illiterate.
Women also suffered greatly from domestic and sexual violence, which remained one of the most under-reported and widespread human rights violations in the world, Mrs. Clinton added. In almost every country in the world, domestic violence was one of the leading causes of injury to women. She supported the view that violence against women should never be dismissed as part of a country's norms.
She said human rights were not a "Western luxury". They were as essential to life as air or water, and they were felt beyond culture and tradition. To the women she had met, human rights were God-given rights that people were born with as surely as they were born into the human family. The beliefs inscribed in the Declaration were not invented 50 years ago; they had been with people from the beginning of civilization. The principles inscribed in it were not constructed but revealed. Every great religion exposed and taught their truths. If the Declaration was torn up or destroyed, its values would still abide and its words would ring as loud as ever in the hearts of men and women everywhere.
NAFIS SADIK, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, said the anniversary of the Universal Declaration marked the 50 years since the value and dignity of the individual was formally recognized, and a half- century in which human well-being had been protected and promoted by international law and custom.
Since the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993, she said, there had been a new vision of human rights that extended to social and economic rights alongside civil and political rights. The right to freedom from oppression now stood with the positive right of all peoples to fulfil their potential as human beings.
In many ways, she went on, the right to education underpinned the structure of human rights. Education had particular importance for women
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because women who knew their rights had confidence to claim them. They knew the importance of health care and how to seek it for themselves and their children. The human right to health was also of particular significance for women. Denial of their reproductive rights caused the deaths of millions of women each year and avoidable illness and disability to many more. Sexual and reproductive rights were the key to a life free of disease, free of sexual coercion and free of economic domination.
She said the special health needs of women outside the area of reproduction were only now being given the importance they deserved. The Fourth World Conference on Women extended the understanding of women's health to include the elimination of such practices as female genital mutilation, protection from violence within and outside the home, and women's ability to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases.
She said she emphasized human rights as they affected women because women as a group had further to go towards full expression of their rights. But the vision of human rights empowered all people and one of the effects of recognizing women's rights would be to make men stronger also.
PURIFICACION QUISUMBING, Director of the New York Office of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, cited her own benefits from progress made in promotion of human rights and delivered a message from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, who is currently travelling in central and southern Africa. She said it was encouraging that, with the help of the international community, there were efforts throughout that region to address past wrongs, tackle current challenges and prepare for a better future.
The problems in the region were found in other parts of the world, she added. Murderous violence, ethnic tensions, inequality of economic opportunity, the legacies of abusive regimes, pervasive poverty and denial of basic rights to women were just some of them.
She said Human Rights Day was an occasion to reaffirm the commitment to work for change and demonstrate that the principles of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration were not theoretical or abstract. This particular Human Rights Day was the beginning of the year-long review of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, when the successes and shortcomings in living up to the solemn obligations made at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 were assessed.
Human rights commitments were dynamic and based on new understanding and awareness, she concluded. Therefore she especially encouraged purposeful debate on economic, social and cultural rights, and the right to development,
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in ways which would open up better understanding on how those human rights could be implemented in international and national programmes.
Mr. SANBAR, Assistant Secretary-General for Public Information, said it was necessary to transmit an awareness of the meaning of the Declaration by promoting it everywhere -- "one oyster makes a pearl and one word of love in a house of sadness makes joy". As the anniversary was launched, every day was an opportunity. Every day counted and everyone counted in bringing all human rights to all.
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