The Universal Declaration of Human rights, which should be our common blueprint, is too often misused and abused, it is exploited for political gain; and it is ignored – often by the very same people. Some governments chip away at it. Others use a wrecking ball, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said while addressing the 52nd Session of the Human Rights Council, in Geneva.
And today’s public disregard and private disdain for human rights are a wake-up call. This is a moment to stand on the right side of history.
“A moment to stand up for the human rights of everyone, everywhere,” Guterres said.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted 75 years ago. The Declaration described, for the first time, entitlements that apply to everyone, everywhere, always. The most translated document in the world, its English version is just 1300 words long, he said.
The Universal Declaration sets out the rights to life, liberty and security; to equality before the law; to freedom of expression; to seek asylum; to work, to healthcare and education, and more.
But as we mark its 75th anniversary, the Universal Declaration is under assault from all sides, he said while adding that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered the most massive violations of human rights we are living today.
It has unleashed widespread death, destruction and displacement. Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure have caused many casualties and terrible suffering.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented dozens of cases of conflict-related sexual violence against men, women and girls.
And serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law against prisoners of war – and hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions of civilians – were also documented, he said.
“We must revitalize the Universal Declaration and ensure its full implementation to face the new challenges of today and tomorrow,” the UN Secretary-General said.
Human rights are not a luxury that can be left until we find a solution to the world’s other problems. They are the solution to many of the world’s other problems.
From the climate emergency to the misuse of technology, the answers to today’s crises are found in human rights. Human rights are innate to being human.
The Hindu Vedas, the Ancient Chinese Analects of Confucius, the Bible and the Koran all set out very similar duties and rights, he said.
“The Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen, a cornerstone of the French Revolution in 1789, set out rights to liberty, property, to freedom of speech, the press and religion.”
But these rights extended exclusively to men who were citizens – not to women, slaves, or minorities. When a French women’s rights activist published a parody of the men-only revolution, she was tried and executed for treason.
The carnage of two world wars and the appalling crimes of the Holocaust, a transformative moment saw the birth of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Universal Declaration sets out the rights inherent to all people for all time – an unparalleled achievement.
And thanks to the efforts of the Indian women’s rights activist, Hansa Mehta, the equal rights of women and men were explicit from the start: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
While criminal gangs control migration routes, people will continue to perish. We need safe, orderly, legal routes for migrants and refugees, he said and added, “we must do everything possible to prevent the loss of life by providing search and rescue and medical care – as a humanitarian imperative, and as a moral and legal obligation”.
We must protect and promote the global consensus around the Universal Declaration and move forward into a new era of human rights for all. This requires both a laser focus on the rights we have already recognized – and a quantum leap towards a new generation of rights, he said.
The report on Our Common Agenda sets out a vision for the future with people and their rights at the centre.
The Call to Action for Human Rights sets out seven areas for urgent attention: rights at the core of sustainable development; rights in times of crisis; gender equality; civic space; future generations; collective action; and new frontiers.
“We at the United Nations are changing the way we work, recognizing that human rights are central to everything we do. We are prioritizing the connections between human rights and the prevention of conflicts and crises of all kinds.”
“In July this year, the High Commissioner and I will launch a new Agenda for Protection. This important initiative will seek to strengthen support from across the United Nations system to Member States to protect people and their rights, both in times of peace and in times of crisis and conflict” Guterres said.