9 December 1998

Press Release



Following is the message by the President of the fifty-third session of the General Assembly, Didier Opertti (Uruguay), on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

There are moments in history when mankind rises above itself to project a vision of the future that guides and inspires succeeding generations in their search for the meaning of life. Fifty years ago, the United Nations took a step of this kind when it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 50-year period situates us in the time perspective that enables us to appreciate the significance of that event.

Despite the fact that it merely proclaims a "common standard", in the words of its operative paragraph, devoid of legal effect, the Declaration nevertheless initiated a new phase in the recognition of the dignity of the human being. The common "standards" were transformed into positive and effective rights capable of being invoked and equipped with mechanisms for ensuring their respect and protection and for calling to account those who may disregard them. In this way, the Declaration changed the relations between States and individuals, placing the latter above the powers of institutions and assigning to the former responsibilities and obligations with respect to the protection of human rights.

But perhaps the most profound and lasting consequence of the Universal Declaration lies in the fact that its adoption and subsequent universal acceptance led to a change in the collective awareness, which began to see human rights as an issue of general interest. The Declaration removed the issue of human rights once and for all from the sphere of the domestic jurisdiction of States. It has ceased to be of concern only to the individual holding those rights, or to the society or State to which that individual belongs, and has become, by means of the Declaration, a value that transcends borders, cultures, societies and ideologies. The human rights of every individual member of the human race are a matter that is of concern to all its other members.

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Accordingly, the Universal Declaration is more than a catalogue of rights. It is a vision of life based on affirmation of the human person as being in charge of his or her own destiny, individually or as a member of a community. It covers all the aspects of human dignity in the context of a democratic society, and proceeds from the basis that respect for human rights is a fundamental factor in the prevention of conflicts.

For all of these reasons, the adoption of the Declaration constituted not only a giant step forward in the development of the system for protection of human rights, but above all a milestone in the history of the advance of civilization.

This advance, nevertheless, cannot obscure the fact that we are still very far from attaining the goal of full enjoyment of his or her rights by each individual on the planet. We still have a vast amount of work to do. As in almost all areas of human relations, the building of the system for protection of human rights is, by its very nature, destined to be indefinitely extended, not only because the instruments required to ensure enjoyment of the rights and freedoms that are already recognized and accepted need to be perfected, but because new rights need to be established, as a result of social change, new ways of life and new sensibilities.

The system for protection of human rights instituted following the adoption of the Universal Declaration has brought with it an improvement in the living conditions of thousands, perhaps millions, of people. But many regions of the world are still faced with the brutal reality of populations, groups and individuals who are victims of intolerance, discrimination and prejudice.

I believe that we need to make this act of celebration also an act of reflection, and to think that perhaps we are, not only as members of communities or institutions, but as individuals -- professionals, politicians, intellectuals, civil servants -- not doing everything that is within our power to contribute to improving the situation of those suffering today, in so many regions of the world, from loss of their rights and freedoms.

May this occasion be one for us all to renew, in ideas and action, our constant commitment to the cause of human rights.

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