Human Rights Day is one of the most important commemorations on the global calendar.
It is an honour for me to represent the Secretary-General and to be joined by so many dignitaries and friends in this inspiring setting on Roosevelt Island.
Every day, from my window on the 38th floor at the United Nations, I look out at this glorious Four Freedoms Park.
I point it out to many of my visitors, and in doing so I am reminding them of your work.
Today we pay tribute to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his unforgettable speech about the Four Freedoms in 1941, reflected in the inscription behind us.
We also pay tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt. In her day she was the “First Lady of the World” who helped create the UN human rights system.
Many of you have heard my story of Eleanor Roosevelt. If not, I will repeat it now.
In 1950, a young Swedish woman I knew attended a seminar about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with Eleanor Roosevelt in the chair.
This woman was deeply impressed and asked for Mrs. Roosevelt’s autograph in a booklet with the declaration. Much later in life, she gave it to me. I was extremely touched. There it is: It says, “With good wishes, Eleanor Roosevelt.” Needless to say, I treasure this in a very special way.
When we look back at the time when President Roosevelt set out the Four Freedoms, we understand his extraordinary vision.
In 1941, the Second World War had started. Some 50 million people would die – more than in any war before or since in history.
President Roosevelt spoke to the U.S. Congress with a message for the world.
He declared that all people must be able to speak freely, worship freely, and be free from want and fear.
Eleanor Roosevelt took this vision and helped to enshrine it in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Today we cannot just look back. We must also look around the world and recognize what is happening in front of our eyes.
The obvious failure – we have to admit this – to secure the four freedoms has caused millions and millions of people around the world to leave their homes and countries.
Desperate families are crossing oceans and continents to escape war and violence. Far too many die on these dangerous journeys and far too many survivors face discrimination, xenophobia and violence where they survive.
Refugees must have full protection. And migrants must have their human rights respected.
They have needs, yes. But they also have great possibilities to enrich their new societies. They must not, wherever they come from, be seen as a peril but rather a potential for our societies.
No city demonstrates this better than New York, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty almost within sight for us today.
Let us remember the inscription of the Statute of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”. When I was 17 years old, arriving in the United States, I passed by the Statute of Liberty, thinking about my great-grandfather leaving Sweden to Minnesota and Wisconsin like millions of other people. This message should be a guide for all of us.
We at the United Nations feel very much at home in this environment. We draw on New York’s never-ending creative power and cosmopolitan energy. We are proud to continue the work that President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt set in motion in the 1940s.
The best way, dear friends, to honour the legacy of the Roosevelts is to help create a world where the Four Freedoms are more than a monument. In fact, they must become a way of life everywhere. This is our vision and our roadmap to reach this goal.