It is indeed a pleasure for me to take part in this ceremony. The Secretary-General had planned to be here but he is now on his way back from Johannesburg, having participated in the memorial for Nelson Mandela – one of the great human rights champions of all time. The Secretary-General conveys his best wishes to all of you and sends his congratulations to today’s winners of the United Nations Human Rights Prize.
I want to add my voice to his and pay tribute to the activists, to the lawyers and to the human rights defenders who are here today or are with us in spirit in different parts of the world. Each in his or her own way is bringing to life the freedom and protection that are every person’s birthright.
Human rights defenders are challenging governments to uphold their obligations. They are strengthening the rule of law. They are empowering women and girls. They are staking out new ground for our global human rights efforts by focusing on neglected problems and marginalized people. They richly deserve this recognition today at the United Nations.
Human rights is a core part of this Organization’s identity and mission. It is one of the three pillars on which the United Nations is built: peace and security, development and human rights – all three closely connected and interdependent.
In the United Nations Charter “we the peoples” reaffirm our faith “in fundamental human rights” and in the “dignity and worth of the human person”.
All of our work stems from this essential premise. The United Nations has committed itself to “promote and encourage respect for human rights”, “for all”, “without distinction”. When our work falls short of our commitment to the dignity and worth of every person, we are all diminished, distancing ourselves from the Charter.
Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly, 65 years ago today, there has been tremendous progress. We now have a broad corpus of human rights laws and standards, a wide range of mechanisms for monitoring adherence, and a growing presence of experts on the ground across the world.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Vienna Plan of Action, with its bold vision of human rights – economic, social, political and civil - and, crucially, the creation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – the realization of long-held dreams by so many. In 2006, the new Human Rights Council was established. Awareness of human rights has never been higher.
At the same time, let us admit, as is all-too-painfully clear, countless people across the world still do not enjoy their human rights.
Poverty, inequality and economic crises continue to keep people hungry, keep people homeless and keep people jobless.
Repression and misrule have kept people out of decisions that affect their lives.
Terrorism, extremism and waves of brutality have created fear and vicious cycles of hatred and violence.
And in armed conflict we continue to see large-scale violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.
It is UN Member States, in the first instance, which have the responsibility to protect human rights and prevent violations at a national level. And it is States that should take appropriate action when the failure of other States to meet their commitments leads to large scale violations and atrocities. We must all do more, not least through the Universal Periodic Reviews, to ensure that States uphold their responsibilities.
This means that we must ensure freedom from intimidation and harassment of individuals, who cooperate with the United Nations. The “peoples of the world” must enjoy their inherent freedom to engage with this Organization, which was established for them. The Secretary-General and I are convinced that peoples’ freedom and ability to freely communicate with us are vital for the Organization’s strength and relevance. We have a collective responsibility to uphold and protect this freedom and ability.
The UN system, for its part, is committed to doing better. We have begun to implement a “Rights Up Front” Action Plan to ensure that we respond preventively to the risks of large-scale human rights violations.
As a first step, the Secretary-General recently wrote to all UN staff renewing the commitment of the UN system to identify emerging risks and support national authorities to take essential early action when human rights violations take place. We also commit to bring violations to the attention of the UN organs and regional organizations that are appropriate, when national authorities are unable or unwilling to respond. Human rights are our best early warning signal of calamities and crises to come. If you analyze every conflict in the last fifty years then you will see that there are very often – in many cases – even the majority – start with human rights violations. Why should we then not act more energetically at that stage, rather than wait for the house to be fully on fire?
In this respect, our thoughts today turn in particular to the victims of atrocities unfolding in the Central African Republic. Our rather dramatic appeal, as you may recall, for collective assistance to a State in danger of collapse must sound loud on this Human Rights Day.
Looking ahead, we must also do our best to ensure that the rights perspective is taken into account as Member States set the post-2015 development agenda. We have the formula. There is no peace without development; there is no development without peace and none of the above without respect for human rights and the rule of law. The rule of law and human rights are outcomes as well as enablers of development. Through close attention to governance, institutions and the rule of law, we can take great strides towards lasting peace and sustainable development.
The walk on the road of respect for human rights should be our way of life, enabled by human rights learning and human rights education. Nelson Mandela, whose life personified all this, said: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion.” If hatred is learned, so love can be taught because “love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Words of wisdom to recall Nelson Mandela’s memory to all of us.
In closing, let me state that our success in this endeavour, central to the purposes and principles of the United Nations, can be made possible through the commitment of Member States, through the work of civil society and human rights defenders, and by continuing to strengthen the United Nations system. We are in this together, and we can only succeed together – if we are united in the pursuit of a life of dignity for all.