‘REAFFIRMING HUMAN RIGHTS FOR ALL: THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION AT 60’ THEME, AS ANNUAL DPI/NGO CONFERENCE OPENS

3 September 2008
NGO/648/Rev.1-PI/1848/Rev.1

‘REAFFIRMING HUMAN RIGHTS FOR ALL: THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION AT 60’ THEME, AS ANNUAL DPI/NGO CONFERENCE OPENS

3 September 2008
Press Release
NGO/648/Rev.1* PI/1848/Rev.1*
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

‘Reaffirming Human Rights for all:  the universal declaration at 60’

 

THEME, AS ANNUAL DPI/NGO CONFERENCE OPENS

 

(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

PARIS, 3 September -- Opening the sixty-first DPI/NGO Conference, which began its annual session in Paris today, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director General Koïchiro Matsuura noted that it was “highly symbolic” that the Conference was being held in the city where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been adopted in 1948, and also at UNESCO headquarters, because UNESCO had played a central role in its adoption.

Entitled “Reaffirming Human Rights for All:  The Universal Declaration at 60”, the three-day Conference brings together a great number of NGO representatives and civil society partners from around the world to address human rights and the implementation of the Universal Declaration, the first international charter of human rights.

Universal human rights values and fundamental freedoms were at the heart of UNESCO’s mandate, Mr. Matsuura observed.  Following the adoption of the Universal Declaration, UNESCO had worked tirelessly for progress on rights within its competence.  Among events that had allowed UNESCO to intensify its efforts to ensure that the principles of the Universal Declaration became a reality for the millions of women, men and children still deprived of their rights was the upcoming regional conference in Cartagena, Colombia, which would focus on the role of media and education in the promotion of human rights on 9 September.

Kiyo Akasaka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, noting that this year’s DPI/NGO Conference was the first to be held outside of United Nations Headquarters in New York, said the aim was to reach out to a larger range of non-governmental organizations from more countries this year.  Certainly, the European participation was higher, but there were also many more participants from Africa and Asia.

They were gathered to commemorate one of humankind’s greatest achievements, said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a video message, as they gathered today in the city where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been signed.  In this way, they were reaffirming the human rights enshrined in the Declaration.  Human rights and freedoms continued to be a distant reality for all too many people.

Focusing on France’s role in promoting human rights, Rama Yade, French Deputy Minister in charge of Foreign Affairs and Human Rights, said it was France’s ambition to elaborate and to promote ever more just international human rights norms within the framework of the United Nations.  Of particular concern was the situation of human rights defenders, who were often targets of violence.  Their protection was a priority for France, and for Europe.

Given that it was in Paris, at the Palais de Chaillot, that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been signed in 1948, France considered that it had a special duty to uphold human rights norms.  But that did not mean that France felt morally superior.  Human rights were never ensured absolutely or irreversible.  Ms. Yade drew particular attention to a situation that had occurred within the Human Rights Council, when an NGO representative had been censured for talking about the execution of someone under sharia law.  France took a strong stand rejecting relativism.  For that reason, the President of France had launched the policy of equality among men and women, to combat violence against women, among others.  Another initiative of the French presidency was a draft law to combat discrimination against homosexuals.

Simone Veil, former French Minister of State, in a keynote address, recalled that all decisions were based on the history that had preceded them.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been a reaction against the crimes of the Second World War.  Still, today, many States were responsible for such crimes, and flouted the most basic rights of their citizens.  Facing those States, and claims of State sovereignty, non-governmental organizations had an important role to play.  Because of their diversity, because of their independence, it was often easier for non-governmental organizations to defend the rights of peoples.

Ms. Veil also raised some concerns.  There was, notably, a regrettable lack of non-governmental organizations from developing countries associated with international organizations.  Also highlighted were the difficulties that non-governmental organizations had encountered in working in a number of countries.

Srgjan Kerim, President of the General Assembly, also in a video message, recalled that, while the Universal Declaration had become a ubiquitous norm today, enjoyment of all human rights remained far from being achieved.  In the era of globalization, the controversies involving human rights and so-called sovereignty issues had to be overcome.  Strengthening the United Nations Human Rights Council was imperative for it to be able to live up to the expectations placed on that body as the main global organ for the promotion and protection of human rights.

Bacre Ndiaye of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted that the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanathem Pillay, as previous ones, had stressed that the role of civil society in human rights remained essential.  Free societies had to protest and claim their rights and combat Government efforts to quell them.  Freedom of association had come under attack throughout the world by means of so-called “non-governmental organization laws”, which often carried restrictions that effectively rendered the right to freedom of association moot.  Also highlighted was the need to defend the Declaration against the attacks from several quarters against it, for example, calling into question the indivisibility of human rights.  Attacks had also been launched against the universal character of human rights in the name of cultural specificities.  In seeking to advance, States and all stakeholders had to concentrate on how to remove the obstacles that hampered the implementation of all human rights standards.

Shamina de Gonzaga, Chair of the sixty-first Annual NGO/DPI Conference, said that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, like the United Nations Charter, had been created to be an entity that was more than the sum of its parts, something that could provide guidance on the way forward rather than a protector of the status quo.  It was important to remember that those who came to the United Nations and other international human rights institutions should not try to control them, but rather help support them.

The Conference will reconvene at 3 p.m. this afternoon, when it will hold its first round table on the theme, “Upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, to be moderated by Luis Alfonso de Alba, Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations at Geneva, and the first President of the Human Rights Council.

Background

The sixty-first annual DPI/NGO Conference, entitled “Reaffirming Human Rights for All:  The Universal Declaration at 60”, organized by the Department of Public Information (DPI) in cooperation with associated non-governmental organizations (NGOs), brings together more than 2,000 NGO representatives and other civil society partners from around the world to address human rights, in particular how to promote the implementation of the Universal Declaration, the first universal statement setting out the basic principles of the human rights and fundamental freedoms to which all peoples in every nation are entitled.  Moreover, as identified by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his inaugural speech, human rights, along with indissoluble links uniting security, development and human rights as the three pillars of the United Nations, without any one of which world peace would not be achieved.

Statements

KOICHIRO MATSUURA, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), opened the meeting, drawing attention to the tragic plane crash that had occurred yesterday in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, taking the lives of the 17 passengers who had been on a humanitarian mission.  Aboard that flight were several representatives from non-governmental organizations, including Médecins sans frontières and Handicap International, and representatives of the United Nations system, including from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations Development Programme.  The victims had lost their lives in the service of the ideals they all shared.  He called for a minute of silence.

A minute of silence for the victims of the crash in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was observed.

Mr. Matsuura recalled that this DPI/NGO Conference was being held for the first time in 60 years outside of Headquarters in New York, and that it was part of the celebrations commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which would lead up to a special meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December.  It was highly symbolic that the Conference was being held in the city where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been adopted in 1948, and also that it was being held at the headquarters of UNESCO, which had played a central role in its adoption.

As everyone knew, non-governmental organizations had played a major role in the elaboration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and they were today, although their number had considerably grown, an essential framework for action and reflection on human rights and freedoms.  It was therefore only natural that they were close partners in translating into reality the goal of “dignity and justice for all” fixed by the United Nations as the theme for this commemoration.  This Conference would be a unique opportunity for multilateral partners, governmental and non-governmental, to interact, to discuss their experience and the hopes, values and objectives which they shared, Mr. Matsuura pointed out.

Universal human rights values and fundamental freedoms were at the heart of UNESCO's mandate, Mr. Matsuura observed.  UNESCO was borne of the conviction that lasting peace could only be brought about on the basis of universal moral and intellectual solidarity and in respect for human rights and justice.  Following the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UNESCO General Conference reaffirmed the pertinence of those values for all the activities of the Organization and committed to disseminating that text as widely before.  UNESCO had remained faithful to that commitment, and had since worked tirelessly for the progress of rights in its competence:  that is the right to education, right to freedom of opinion and expression, right to receive and disseminate information, right to participate in cultural life and the right to benefit from scientific progress and its benefits.

UNESCO also possessed a special confidential procedure for the protection of the rights of teachers, students, writers, artists and journalists, which had demonstrated its efficaciousness by the settlement of many cases, the Director-General said, adding that its confidentiality prevented him from citing specific cases, but he could say that it had been able to intervene with positive results in many high profile cases, including that of Vaclav Havel, who had later become the President of the Czech Republic, the violinist Rostropovitch and others.  They would celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of that procedure on 30 September, and Mr. Matsuura was delighted that one of the round tables at this Conference was devoted to making that mechanism better known.

Mr. Matsuura said that numerous events had been organized that had allowed UNESCO to intensify its efforts to ensure that the principles of the Universal Declaration became a reality for the millions of women, men and children still deprived of their rights.  On 3 May, in Mozambique, UNESCO had celebrated World Press Freedom Day, and UNESCO would be supporting a regional conference in Cartagena, co-sponsored by the Government of Colombia, focusing on the role of media and education in the promotion of human rights on 9 September.

Non-governmental organizations and civil society were playing in promoting human rights both to testify and galvanize support, Mr. Matsuura underscored.  Without their expertise and in-depth knowledge of the situation and close work and support for the populations affected, UNESCO would be deprived of a key support.  Non-governmental organizations were playing an essential role within UNESCO.

KIYO AKASAKA, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said this year's Conference was important not only because it focused on human rights, but because it was the first time it was being held outside of United Nations Headquarters.  The aim was quite clear:  to reach out to a larger range of non-governmental organizations from more countries this year.  The organizers had invited over 2,000 representatives of non-governmental organizations from 90 countries.  While they would only know later how many of those invited had come to Paris, one thing was clear, the geographic representation at the Conference was much better than in past years.  Certainly, the European participation was higher, but there were also many more participants from Africa and Asia.

In Paris 60 years ago, the General Assembly had adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Mr. Akasaka recalled.  There was something less known.  Following its adoption in 1948, the General Assembly had adopted another resolution, requesting Member States to use all means available to publicize the text of the resolution.  The Universal Declaration represented an enormous effort on the part of individuals, groups and States.  Non-governmental organization involvement indeed dated back to 1945, when some 40 non-governmental organization groups were invited to San Francisco during the founding of the United Nations.  It was those groups who had argued for inclusion in the United Nations Charter for specific provisions on the promotion and protection of human rights.

Clearly non-governmental organizations and civil society bringing their expertise and passion was as crucial a mission today as it was 60 years ago, Mr. Akasaka observed.  The world was counting on their continued good work in this never-ending job.  It was a job that required energy and tenacity, in a world where new threats were emerging to human rights.  Over the next three days, the Conference would look at a number of those issues including human rights and human security; peace and justice; the responsibility to protect; overcoming discrimination; and upholding human rights today, including through education and learning.

RAMA YADE, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Human Rights of France, joined in expressing her profound distress at the air disaster that had occurred yesterday.  The promotion and protection of human rights remained as important an issue as ever.  The attendance at the Conference was a symbol of the vitality and significance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  She saw an increased interest in the Declaration and in the protection and promotion of human rights.  UNESCO had played an undeniable role, in league with other organizations of the United Nations system, in ensuring and promoting human rights.  It was France's ambition, within the framework of the United Nations, to the promotion and the elaboration of ever more just international human rights norms.

Of particular concern was the situation of human rights defenders, who were often targets of violence, Ms. Yade continued.  Their protection was a priority for France, and for Europe.  The fact that France was hosting this Conference at the same time that it held the Presidency of the European Union only further strengthened the responsibility of France in promoting human rights.  It had been in Paris, at the Palais de Chaillot, that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been signed in 1948.  France considered that it had a special duty to uphold human rights norms.  But acknowledging that special responsibility regarding human rights did not mean that France felt morally superior, rather that it had to constantly fight to ensure human rights.  Indeed, it was ever more important to move ahead in human rights, to ensure that they would never retreat.  Human rights were never ensured absolutely or irreversibly.  In that connection, France and the European Union took action some 25 times a month to come to the defence of those who fought to defend others' human rights.  The annual Human Rights Award, accorded by France, served to draw attention to the work of non-governmental organizations working in this field.  But France wished to become even more of a capital of rights than it had been before.

Within the Human Rights Council, a representative for a non-governmental organization had been censured because he was talking about the execution of someone under Sharia law.  Ms. Yade said France took a strong stand rejecting relativism.  For that reason, the President of France had launched the policy of equality among men and women, to combat violence against women, among others.  France also wished to add to the European guidelines on violence against women, and would submit a draft text on this before the end of the French European Presidency.  Another initiative of the French Presidency was a draft law to combat discrimination against homosexuals.  There were actually six countries in the world which, today, applied the death penalty for homosexuals.  Non-governmental organizations had played an important role in elaborating both of those texts.  Many non-governmental organizations were in the front line defending human rights, and they were often the first to sound the alarm and the first to move the cause of law forward.

All civil society associations, in their daily practice, whether they were associations that involved sports or education, had to integrate a human rights approach in their daily practice.  There was also a need to raise awareness among populations, in particular among the poor and the most vulnerable, of their rights, Ms. Yade concluded.

BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General, in a video message, said that they were gathered to commemorate one of humankind's greatest achievements, as they gathered today in the city where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been signed.  In this way, they were reaffirming the human rights enshrined in the Declaration.  Human rights and freedoms continued to be a distant reality for all too many people.  It was their duty to ensure that those rights were a living reality and that they were known and understood so that they could be enjoyed by everyone everywhere.

In this sixtieth anniversary year and beyond, the Secretary-General said he was committed to making the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a reality.  He had assured the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanthem Pillay of South Africa, of his full support in this endeavour, including by providing the necessary resources via the General Assembly.

SRGJAN KERIM, President of the General Assembly, also in a video message, said that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was nearly as old as the United Nations itself.  Non-governmental organizations had participated in the work of the United Nations almost from the beginning, from its third session, when, in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly had drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The Declaration reaffirmed human dignity.  Over the years, it had been used in the defence and protection of human rights all over the world.  It had moved from being a public relations event 60 years ago to being a ubiquitous norm today.  Nevertheless, enjoyment of all human rights remained far from being achieved.  In the era of globalization, the controversies involving human rights and so-called sovereignty issues had to be overcome.  They had to ensure the effective promotion and protection of human rights.  Therefore, strengthening the United Nations Human Rights Council had to be an imperative for it to be able to live up to the expectations placed on that body as the main global organ for the promotion and protection of human rights.  Working hand in hand they could ensure human rights for all.

BACRE N’DIAYE, Director, Division of Human Rights Council and Treaties, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, on behalf of the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanathem Pillay, he welcomed participants to this Conference.  Choosing to hold this Conference in Paris was particularly appropriate because it was a study initiated by UNESCO, with the contribution of non-governmental organizations and civil society, which had contributed to the basis of the Declaration.  The expertise and viewpoints of non-governmental organizations were as valid today, if not more so, than they were 60 years ago.  The present High Commissioner, as previous ones had, stressed that the role of civil society in human rights remained essential. 

Mr. N’Diaye said the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was seeking engagement with United Nations country teams, police, Governments and a broad range of civil society actors to promote and protect human rights in a number of ways.  For example, the week of 6 to 12 October would be designated “Dignity and Justice for Detainees Week”, during which activities and events had been schedule to sensitize the public to the rights of detainees, to improve respect for detainees' rights, and to raise the international profile of the issue of detainees' rights, among others.  A special focus would be the situation of the disabled, women and girls in detention.

Freedom of assembly and association underpinned the freedom of civil society everywhere, Mr. N’Diaye underscored.  The attendance at the Conference testified to that fact, as well as to the gradual but unstoppable influence of civil society and its power and importance.  As civil society developed over time, so did the international machinery for the protection of human rights, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Human Rights Defenders.  However, free societies had to protest and claim their rights and combat Government efforts to quell them.  Freedom of association had come under attack throughout the world by means of so-called “non-governmental organization laws”, restricting civil society groups that were deemed to threaten the State.  That legislation often carried restrictions that effectively rendered the right to freedom of association moot.  Among others, such laws impacted negatively on international campaigns carried out by such groups, and disabled solidarity networks, crucial to human rights work.  Civil society had to be quite vigilant and had to constantly defend its prerequisites and rights.  In doing so, he called on civil society to make use of all the tools at its disposal.  He referred in particular to the United Nations special procedures including in emergencies and for chronic human rights abuses.

Mr. N’Diaye further highlighted the need to defend the Declaration against the attacks from several quarters launched against it, for example, calling into question the indivisibility of human rights.  However, as was well known, economic marginalization was often compounded by stigmatization.  Attacks had also been launched against the universal character of human rights in the name of cultural specificities.  In seeking to advance, States and all stakeholders had to concentrate on how to remove the obstacles that hampered the implementation of all human rights standards.

Keynote Address

SIMONE VEIL, former French Minister of State, began by recalling that all decisions were based on the history that had preceded them.  Europe twice over in the first half of the twentieth century dragged a significant part of the world with it into world war before focusing on the crimes committed in the Second World War.  Then, because they had been born Jewish, 6 million men, women and children had been annihilated.  She was a witness to some of those crimes.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been a reaction against those crimes.  It was part of the fight of compassion against indifference.  History was made up of a chain of individual and collective responsibilities in which they all had a role to play. 

Still, today, many States were responsible for such crimes, and flouted the most basic rights of their citizens, Ms. Veil noted with regret.  Facing those States, and claims of State sovereignty, non-governmental organizations had an important role to play.  Because of their diversity, because of their independence, it was often easier for non-governmental organizations to defend the rights of peoples.  But they had to remain vigilant to ensure that independence.  There was, notably, a regrettable lack of non-governmental organizations from developing countries associated with international organizations.  Also highlighted were the difficulties that non-governmental organizations had encountered in working in a number of countries, for example, in China. 

Turning to her experience as President of the Steering Committee of the Trust Fund for Victims designated by the International Criminal Court (awarded to victims of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity), Ms. Veil said that it was the non-governmental organizations who best knew the situations on the ground and who were very closely involved in implementing the decisions of that Fund.  They were the only ones in many regions to be able to do so, putting their own lives at risk. 

On the issue of the upcoming Durban Review Conference, Ms. Veil appealed that there not be the same overflow of sideline events as there had been at the original conference.  International opinion would condemn that.  Having survived Auschwitz, she had learned that working for the public good was one of the most fulfilling jobs one could have.

Statements

SHAMINA DE GONZAGA, Chair, sixty-first annual NGO/DPI Conference, said that it was clear that they had come to reaffirm an existing Declaration.  Here today were those who had worked to support it, as well as the visionaries who had given them this treasure, having participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Those visionaries were not pretending to have realized their vision:  they were offering a blueprint.  The Declaration, like the United Nations Charter, had been created to be an entity that was more than the sum of its parts, something that could provide guidance on the way forward rather than a protector of the status quo.

It was important to remember that those who came to the United Nations and other international human rights institutions who were the custodians of these tasks should not try to control them, but should rather help support them.  Ms. de Gonzaga noted that non-governmental organizations often came to international conferences to speak and to express their own opinions and concerns, but not to listen.  That should change.

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*     Earlier press release was incomplete.

For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.