8 December 1998


8 December 1998

Press Release


19981208 Kofi Annan, Marking Fiftieth Anniversary of Universal Declaration, Stresses Human Rights as Development Priority, Not Just Political One

Following is the text of the address by Secretary-General Kofi Annan marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters, in Paris today:

Let me begin by saying how pleased I am to join you at this important commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This conference marks the conclusion of a series of meetings dedicated to exploring human rights in all their variety.

Over the past few months, you have discussed themes ranging from the rights of women to the International Criminal Court to racism to refugees. By doing so, you have recognized that human rights are at the core of every major challenge facing humanity, and that human rights are at the core of every solution we devise. I salute your commitment to human rights, and wish to pay particular tribute to the Government of France and to UNESCO for hosting these meetings.

The fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a milestone in the history of human rights.

On 10 December, we mark the signing of a unique and universal declaration intended to proclaim for all time those human rights without which humanity cannot thrive. Make no mistake. The Declaration did not invent these rights. It does not bestow them and it cannot deliver them. It simply expressed in words mankind's eternal yearning for the full enjoyment of those rights we know to be inherent, inalienable and common to all humanity.

Why are these rights -- the right to liberty, protection from torture, freedom of movement, of owning property and freedom of opinion and speech -- regarded as inherent or inalienable? In a phrase, because they provide human

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beings with the ability to pursue their lives according to their own choices. Without that choice, without the freedom to think and act as individuals, human agency is denied, and human progress imperilled. That is what makes the struggle for human rights an essential and universal struggle -- essential to who we are and what we can achieve.

Ours is a universal struggle because human rights are as universal as they are essential. I began this anniversary year by addressing this very question at the University of Tehran. In arguing the universality of human rights, I drew on many cultures and many traditions to show that tolerance and respect for individual dignity are foreign to no people and native to all nations.

I have been heartened throughout this past year to see that this claim had been made manifest in every part of the world where citizens have stood up to tyranny and spoken out for human rights.

Let there be no doubt: it is these brave and nameless citizens who are the real heroes of human rights. Day in and day out, against great adversity and in the face of deep dangers -- they prove that human rights are indeed as universal as they are essential to human dignity. Tragically, in far too many cases, they prove this enduring truth at the cost of their lives.

The essential and universal nature of human rights is the foundation for our efforts to make them reality in the lives of those who enjoy them least -- the oppressed, the persecuted, the tortured and the silenced. This is where the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration gives the United Nations its inspiration and its guidance.

It is a mirror that reflects how far we have come and how long we have yet to go. It is a mirror that at once flatters us and shames us, that bears witness to a record of progress for parts of humanity, while revealing a history of horrors for others. Above all, it teaches the United Nations that without human rights, no peace and no prosperity will last.

It is this belief that has made human rights increasingly central to our activities, and which guided my decision to place human rights as a cross- cutting priority in every aspect of our work, as part of my reform plan. The United Nations protects and promotes human rights, first because they are essential to our humanity; second, because they are a vital pillar of every peace and every prosperity.

Human rights are now included in a growing number of peacekeeping and peacemaking operations, because we know that in post-conflict societies, reconstruction begins with human rights. Wherever we seek peace, reconciliation or political dialogue, we begin with human rights. Why? Because human rights are the first casualty of conflict.

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In the aftermath of war, of hatred, of ethnic and communal violence, restoring the rights of the individual is the first step toward restoring civility itself. Once the rights to life, liberty, security of person, equality before the law, and freedom of speech and opinion have been restored, peaceful discourse and dialogue becomes possible. Then, but only then, can disputes be resolved by political and not military means; then, but only then, can the virtues of the rule of law and responsive, legitimate government take lasting root.

Human rights are also increasingly emphasized in our development activities -- not only because there is a right to development -- but because lasting and genuine development cannot take root in the absence of human rights. Why? Because the abuse of human rights -- the denial of rights to property, to freedom of assembly, to free choice to work, and to freedom of movement -- retard and obstruct the ability of people everywhere to make the most of their abilities.

A society that violates the rights of its citizens cannot expect them to cultivate their talents at home, or to contribute to their nation's prosperity, or to develop their own communities. Without the rule of law, without protection of the individual, and without an end to corrupt practices, societies cannot sustain their development in the long run.

That is what makes human rights so central to development. That is why the United Nations will continue to make human rights a development priority, and not just a political one.

I have argued today that the United Nations commitment to human rights is based on their essential value to our humanity, and on their role in securing peace and promoting prosperity. As we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the end of humanity's darkest century, we reaffirm this commitment, not only out of hope, but also out of fear.

We know -- perhaps unlike any other generation -- the full extent of man's inhumanity to man. Looking back to the war that prompted this Declaration, we know what racism, anti-Semitism and a plague of intolerance can do to our fragile community.

Many thought, no doubt, that the horrors of the Second World War -- the camps, the cruelty, the exterminations, the Holocaust -- could never happen again. And yet they have. In Cambodia, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Rwanda. Our time -- this decade even -- has shown us that man's capacity for evil knows no limits. Genocide -- the destruction of an entire people on the basis of ethnic or national origins -- is now a word of our time, too, a stark and haunting reminder of why our vigilance must be eternal.

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Let me therefore recall with you that tomorrow marks another signal anniversary: namely the fiftieth anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It reminds us all that we have committed ourselves to preventing genocide and punishing those responsible for that crime. I am pleased to say that in this past year the first ever conviction for genocide was handed down in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. We are beginning to honour our words against genocide with deeds.

Our belief in the centrality of human rights to the work and life of the United Nations stems from a simple proposition: that States which respect human rights respect the rules of international society.

States which respect human rights are more likely to seek cooperation and not confrontation, tolerance and not violence, moderation and not might, peace and not war. States which treat their own people with fundamental respect are more likely to treat their neighbours with the same respect. From this proposition, it is clear that human rights -- in practice, as in principle -- can have no walls and no boundaries.

By securing pluralism within States, we ensure peace between States. By protecting the human rights of one individual, we promote the peace of all humanity.

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For information media. Not an official record.