Ban leads chorus of UN voices calling for action to protect human rights of vulnerable

10 December 2008 – The international community has not lived up to the vision held in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today told a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the landmark document.

Drafted amid the “utter destruction and destitution following the Holocaust and World War II,” the Declaration is at the core of the United Nations’ identity, as “it reflects humanity’s aspirations for prosperity, dignity and peaceful coexistence,” Mr. Ban said in a video message.

The Declaration, which was adopted by the General Assembly 60 years ago on this day in 1948, states that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security and that all – regardless of race, gender, colour, sex, language, religion or political opinion – are equal before the law.

“Since I took office as Secretary-General, I have been very humbled and saddened by having seen so many people whose human rights are being abused and not properly protected,” the Secretary-General told attendees at a ceremony marking the day in New York.

“We see human trafficking, the exploitation of children, and a host of other ills plaguing millions of people,” he said, adding that despite “all the lessons we profess to have learned, shocking acts of brutality against innocent people often go unanswered.”

Mr. Ban also paid tribute to the individuals who risk their lives defending the rights of others around the world, including human rights experts, lawyers and journalists, as well as “ordinary people who find extraordinary courage and stand up for what is rightfully theirs, yours, mine and ours.”

Challenges threatening human rights around the world include the global financial crisis, the food emergency and “humankind’s assault on the natural environment,” he said in a separate message celebrating Human Rights Day, adding, that “there is political repression in too many countries, and, as ever, the most vulnerable continue to be on the frontlines of hardship and abuse.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, in her own statement commemorating the milestone, underscored the importance of the Declaration in shaping the principles laid down in the constitutions and laws of more than 90 countries.

She highlighted a range of specific provisions made in the Declaration, from the right not to be tortured, enslaved or arbitrarily detained, to the freedom of opinion, expression and religion, and the right to education, health and equal pay for equal work.

“For many people, the Universal Declaration remains an unfulfilled promise, as States’ political will to fulfil their obligations lags lamentably behind their pledges.”

The High Commissioner’s Representative in Nepal, Richard Bennett, echoed Ms. Pillay’s remarks at an event celebrating the Day in Kathmandu, adding that the Asian country’s progress towards peace faces its own formidable challenges, not least with problems related to discrimination.

Nepal faces many challenges, ranging from the extortion of money from businessmen by armed groups in the Terai to assuring employment for Dalit children, he said.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Nepal and its partners staged a number of activities commemorating the anniversary, including a photo exhibition highlighting prison conditions, launching a “Know Your Rights” campaign and a human rights marathon.

UN independent human rights experts marked the Day with a call to all States to intensify their efforts to realize the Declaration’s promise of dignity, justice and equality for all and to act together to guarantee human rights in today’s challenging times.

They stressed that the interests of individual States are inter-connected, emphasising that “new challenges include ensuring global access to food, and those presented by climate change and financial crisis have potentially massive human rights and development implications. If we are to confront them effectively, we must do so collectively.”

Opening two panel discussions commemorating the Declaration’s anniversary, the President of the General Assembly, Miguel D’Escoto, stressed that education, health, employment, housing, culture, food and recreation for all human beings are the document’s “essence.”

Sounding the alarm about the crisis of the lack of political will, Human Rights Council President Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi voiced regret at the current dismal picture of human rights.

“The problem of poverty is rampant and stands at the core of the denial of many basic human rights. Children are exploited, the elderly are neglected and women are still denied their fundamental rights,” he said in his message to the General Assembly.

Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance all pose huge challenges to establishing the pledges of equality, justice and freedom made at the signing of the Declaration, according to Mr. Uhomoibhi

Appealing to all Somalis to put an immediate stop to human rights violations and abuses, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative to the Horn of Africa nation, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, portrayed the grim reality on the ground for millions of the country’s impoverished people.

He said that the media coverage of piracy off the Somali coast has overshadowed the dire situation in much of the country, where many live in extreme poverty while atrocities such as killings, torture, rape and indiscriminate attacks on civilians continue unabated.

While welcoming a recent agreement to set up a working group to address the problem of impunity, Mr. Ould-Abdallah stressed that “leaders of all parties and groups involved since 1991 must take responsibility and be held accountable. Punishing the perpetrators of human rights abuses and protecting the vulnerable in their communities are universal obligations.”

Events commemorating the Day are planned to take place at UN Headquarters today, among them a plenary session of the General Assembly to present this year’s recipients of the UN Prize in the Field of Human Rights with their awards, panel discussions on human rights and a screening of a selection of the Stories on Human Rights films.

World-renowned pianist and UN Messenger of Peace, Daniel Barenboim, will also be performing with members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in the General Assembly on 15 December. The concert is meant to commemorate the 60th anniversary and wrap up a year-long UN system-wide campaign, with the theme “Dignity and Justice for All of Us,” aimed at raising awareness of the Declaration.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) honoured Stéphane Hessel, who helped draft the Declaration, with its prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights, at a presentation in Bilbao, Spain.

Mr. Hessel – one of the few survivors from the day of the adoption – was chief of staff for Deputy Secretary-General Henri Laugier at the time, and feels that the Declaration has aged somewhat.

“It is a monument to a certain era,” he told the UN News Centre, adding that “It didn't broach a number of problems like humankind's relationship with the environment and terrorism.”


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