Harlem, New York

09 December 2014

Deputy Secretary-General's remarks at Human Rights Day Event at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture [As delivered]

Wonderful to be with you here at the Schomburg Center.  This centre has been a great partner with us in the UN for a long time, organizing exhibits on ending racial discrimination and remembering also the shame of the transatlantic slave trade. And some of you in this room I know are deeply connected to that initiative. 

We all know that Harlem occupies a unique position in American culture and in the history of peoples of African descent.  The poet and playwright that Dr. Muhammad mentioned, Langston Hughes – whose life, indeed his ashes, are commemorated in this beautiful room and space – he wrote about Harlem as a “powerful magnet” for African-American intellectuals.  And the lights and energy of Harlem made the jazz legend Duke Ellington feel, as he said, “as though he were in the Arabian Nights”. So this is truly the right atmosphere to talk about the issues that are so much on our minds and hearts today.

From Colin Powell to Maya Angelou, Harlem has been home to some of the greatest African-American leaders, writers, musicians, academics and artists.  

And Harlem of course also has a central place in the human rights narrative both of the United States and of the world. Harlem provided the cultural backdrop, if I may say so, to the civil rights movement and to the struggle for better schools, for jobs, for equal access to housing and fair treatment in the courts of law.

The Center has been a repository of history in the centre of Harlem for more than 100 years, through good times and bad times.  It’s a towering presence, filled with art and information about African Americans, the African diaspora and African experiences. I thank you for your efforts.

The Center is of course also a very appropriate place to now mark two very important occasions. Two dates dedicated to the core principles of human rights: and I would dare to mention these as also my own core principles, namely equality and non-discrimination. Absolutely basic to all human rights, whether political, civil, economic or social.

The first occasion is of course Human Rights Day coming up tomorrow.  Every year, on the 10th of December, we come together to celebrate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on this day in 1948.

The Declaration, which the General Assembly proclaimed as – and I quote – the “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”, lies at the very core of the United Nations’ mission. And I am proud to have a copy of the text, signed by Eleanor Roosevelt, in my pocket. I was on a television show in Sweden many years ago and a lady wrote a letter to me afterwards and said, “In 1950 I was at a conference in New York, and I bought this brochure for 25 cents. I went up to the lady who was leading the seminar; she was so strong and so determined. So I asked her, ‘could I have your autograph please?’” And the lady wrote the words ‘With good wishes, Eleanor Roosevelt’. And the lady in Sweden donated this to me, having had it in her library for 45 years or something like that. So I am very proud of it.

Protecting and promoting human rights is at the heart of what the UN does, every day, all over the world.  And violations of human rights are strong early warning signals of a society in trouble, and heading for even more trouble in my opinion.  Rights violations are “the canary in the coalmine”, if you see what I mean. Namely, the warnings that we are running out of oxygen – or, the spirit of freedom that we need to always have around us. Rights violations should be seen as the signal for deeper action, more than they have been in the past. We have waited far too long, waited often for mass atrocities to occur, instead of acting at the early stages. So we have a huge chance now of really putting “human rights up front” – which is the name of the initiative the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and I launched last year  – and by that of course raising the level of awareness of human rights, but also using human rights violations as early warning signals of crises to come.

Now I come to the second date, that is to say it’s the same date but it marks the second important occasion – namely the beginning of the Decade of People of African Descent.  This decade will be an opportunity to shine a light upon the inequality experienced by Africans and the African diaspora in the world and to raise awareness of the historic burden of slavery and colonialism.

Here, I would like to mention the important initiative to soon install at the United Nations headquarters a Permanent Memorial in Honour of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. This effort has been spearheaded by the Permanent Memorial Committee under the chairmanship of Jamaica – and I see the Permanent Representative of Jamaica here present today – with the involvement I note of the Schomburg Center, and generously supported by a number of Member States, foundations and individuals. But we still need some more assistance, if I don’t misunderstand the situation right now.

People of African descent are some of the poorest and most marginalized groups around the world. They often have limited access to quality education, health services, decent housing and social security.  They may experience discrimination in access to justice and they face alarmingly high rates of incarceration.  I need not remind anyone in this room of the anguished, but vitally important, public debate we are witnessing these days, in this country, on violent police action and racial profiling, which was alluded to by Dr. Muhammad.

And it is evident to all of us, including us from the outside, that this is a deeply painful and a deeply troubling time for communities.  In view of the recent violent and tragic events, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stressed that authorities should do everything possible to respond to the demands for greater accountability.  He has called for peaceful demonstrations and for authorities to respect such non-violent expressions of opinion.  The civil rights movement in this country is a striking reminder of the power of peaceful protest.

In a wider sense, these tragedies expose the need to do more everywhere around the world to ensure fairness in justice and law enforcement and to promote and uphold human rights for all.

The United Nations will use the Decade of People of African Descent to focus on initiatives that promote greater awareness of the human rights of people of African descent, in particular equal access to justice.

Here, Harlem and the Schomburg Center have an important role to play in these efforts, as a catalyst for knowledge about the experience of people of African descent.

The theme of Human Rights Day this year is “Human Rights 365”.  It highlights the fundamental observation and truth that rights are important every day, every night and every minute of the year.

We are here today to share some of the highlights of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – our first and historic global statement of the rights that are inherent to all human beings.

Thirty of us will today read a sentence or two from this inspiring document.

I hope it will resonate with you, as it did on its first reading in December 1948.

Let us recall that human rights are for everyone, without distinction of any kind – wherever we live, whoever we are, irrespective of opinions, ethnic origin, skin colour, sexual orientation, or any other status. 

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, and I quote, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.  I keep a photograph in my office to remind me of this truth – it is a picture of Dr. King taken during the march in Selma, Alabama.  Behind him are two flags:  that of the United States and that of the United Nations.  Human rights are universal and common to all humanity.  That is why the United Nations works against injustices wherever they appear.

So it is a privilege, and has a special meaning for me, to be in Harlem today to celebrate and stand up for human rights together with all of you.

Thank you very much.