9 December 2008


9 December 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York





Everyday citizens across the world were highly supportive of the Human Rights Declaration, with a majority of people supporting the idea of greater involvement by the United Nations to promote those rights, according to a report on world public opinion and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, launched today at a Headquarters press conference.

“[The report] presents in incredible detail ... findings that are cross-cultural, across regions and across cultures, [which are] generally very supportive”, said Craig Mokhiber, a senior official at the New York Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, describing the report as a form of “vindication” for activists often at loggerheads with Governments over State interpretation of human rights.

Steven Kull, Director of, which conducted the study, explained that, although there were some variations in opinion around the world -- whether people in the Muslim world who supported amputation or Americans who supported capital punishment -- the idea that the modern world was purely relativistic was simply not true.

“On most issues, there’s a tremendous amount of consensus”, he said, adding that a majority of people around the world also believed that the United Nations should have the power to investigate human rights abuses.  However, there were variations in opinion with regard to how some rights might be applied, particularly if the issue evoked concerns of stability.  When asked whether Governments should have the right to ban peaceful but potentially destabilizing protests, public opinion tended to be more divided, especially in countries that had previously experienced political instability or in societies containing radical elements.

Similarly, he said, public opinion in five predominantly Muslim countries said Governments should be able to prevent the publication of news and ideas if publishing them would be politically destabilizing, although, in every case save Iran, a majority of people thought it was important to enjoy media freedom, in general.  While findings in predominantly Muslims countries tended to deviate from the norm, in some of them support for certain human rights principles was higher than average, indicating that being Islamic did not automatically translate into less support of the Declaration.

Also present at the launching was Peggy Hicks, Global Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, who said that repeated clashes with Governments often left activists wondering what average citizens truly thought about human rights.  “What is really compelling is that ... the overwhelming weight of authority is broadly in favour of not only supporting these rights, but that Government should take further steps to implement them and that the United Nations should play a more active role, as well.”

Current challenges facing the human rights movement came in the way that some Governments had responded to the war on terror, she said.  Human Rights Watch had long criticized the United States Government for taking steps that were counter-productive to the preservation of those rights.  Broad public support within key States in favour of prohibiting torture was, therefore, encouraging.

She said the report was helpful in figuring out why key countries in the global South, such as India and South Africa, had not taken up the human rights mantle as effectively as they could within the Human Rights Council, where a common perception among nations of the South was that the human rights agenda was being pushed by the North.  The report’s findings could prove helpful in mobilizing popular support to buck up those Governments, or identifying areas where human rights activists needed to play a more active role.

For instance, public opinion in India, “the world’s largest democracy” and a potential human rights leader, had revealed mixed views on issues such as freedom of expression and women’s rights.  The same could be said of Nigeria, where the public had been least supportive of an absolute prohibition on torture.

Responding to questions, Mr. Mokhiber stressed the practical value of the Declaration as an arbiter of justice in sensitive situations, including the recent stoning to death of a 13-year-old Somali girl who had been raped but ruled to have committed adultery.

Added Ms. Hicks:  “The important thing about the Universal Declaration and the body of law which it spawned ... provides the foundation that allows us to directly answer that question.”

Questioned about the public’s overwhelmingly glowing review of the Declaration, Mr. Kull said it had been “no surprise” to him that public attitudes towards human rights were opposed to those of many Governments, which had an interest in limiting rights and using various means to persuade the public that rights had negative consequences.  “There does tend to be a pattern of the public showing a greater reluctance to give States that extra power, and to insist on the will of people having more influence.”

Asked about the absence of a survey of public opinion in Myanmar or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Ms. Hicks admitted that it would have been interesting to hear those opinions, but their absence did not detract from the universality of the findings, since “the further you get away from a society in which there is free expression ... the less reliable some of the answers are”.

Ms. Hicks added that several States were not meeting their legal obligations under humanitarian law and human rights law, stressing that entities such as the Security Council and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had a responsibility to act in such circumstances.  The vast majority of those cases were clear violations of fundamental human rights, and not in grey areas still under debate -- such as religious defamation or hate speech.

“The Declaration was a hard-fought document originally”, Mr. Kull stressed.  “And one of the really interesting questions is how has it held up over these six decades.  The answer from our study is quite well.  If anything, it has probably gotten stronger.”

Mr. Kull said funding for the study had come from the Oak Foundation and the Calvert Foundation, with some support from the Rockefeller Foundation. had designed the survey with a variety of research partners from around the world.  It had examined the views of more than 47,000 people from across 25 countries, on areas covered by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such as religious freedom, freedom of expression, media freedom, torture, women’s rights, racial and ethnic equality, social and economic rights, and governance and the will of the people.

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