Worldwide UN family celebrates enduring universal values of human rights

UN Photo A group of Japanese women look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights during a visit to the UN’s interim headquarters in Lake Success in February 1950

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.

Across the world, the UN family has been making sure that this year’s Human Rights Day – which falls on Monday, and marks 70 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – succeeds in raising awareness of the principles enshrined in the document, which are as important and relevant today, as they were in 1948.

Speaking in Marrakesh, where over 160 Governments signed up to the first-ever global migration pact on Monday, UN chief António Guterres said that the Compact is an important step towards safety and dignity for millions of people which “sets out in practical terms how Member States and other stakeholders can respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all migrants, in line with the Universal Declaration.”

The UN Chief was followed by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, reinforced Mr. Guterres’s comments, reminding the audience that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was forged in the crisis of the post-war period as a guide to leading societies away from “conflict, inequality and turmoil,” which is a “a living document, just as powerful and valid today as it was in the ashes and rubble of global destruction.”

President of the General Assembly, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, also speaking at the conference, referred to the context in which the Declaration was drawn up, mentioning that she had, just a few weeks earlier, placed a wreath before the “Wall of Death” in Auschwitz, a moment that, she said, she is unlikely to ever forget:

“This sentiment, I imagine, was shared by the original architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Having borne witness to the atrocities of the Second World War, they, like those who crafted the Charter of the United Nations, understood that human life and human dignity had to be protected, everywhere and at all costs.”

Nevertheless, the fight for human rights is far from over: the Secretary-General said it “saddened” him that the global human rights agenda seemed to be losing ground, noting a rise in authoritarianism, xenophobia and intolerance. “Egregious human rights violations” such as torture, extrajudicial killings, and detention without trial, still persist, he added.

New risks to human rights

Threats to human rights were also being highlighted at UN headquarters in New York on Monday, where charities, non-governmental organizations and members of civil society were joined by Andrew Gilmour, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, for a discussion about the ways that modern challenges, unforeseen 70 years ago, are impacting rights.

The talk covered digital technologies, which have led to many benefits, but also brought about new risks which could replicate, and even exacerbate existing threats to human rights; and climate change, which risks making much of the planet uninhabitable.

Defending human rights in conflict zones

Upholding human rights in challenging situations is one of the key roles of the United Nations peacekeeping missions, which share a 70th birthday with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN peacekeepers and staff working in these challenging environments have been celebrating the occasion in a number of ways.

In Afghanistan, the UN Assistance Mission (UNAMA) renewed its call for human rights and fundamental freedoms to be respected in the country, welcoming breakthroughs such as the work of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, new laws empowering the media, a new Penal Code reflecting the country’s commitment to promote fundamental freedoms, and the presence of women in civil service positions and in the private sector.

Meanwhile, in South Sudan, commuters in the capital, Juba, got the chance to see their military in a different light on Monday: as athletes.

Hundreds of military personnel – as well as police and prison officers, fire-fighters and members of the wildlife services – took part in a 10-kilometre race around the streets of the capital, organized by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), to promote awareness of human rights and the need for peace in the conflict-affected country.

Speaking on Monday, David Shearer, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNMISS, said that “the only way that South Sudan is going to recover is by having peace and respect for human rights. If respect for human rights is there, then there is peace. If there is peace, it involves respect for human rights and people’s ethnicity and political persuasion. The two things go hand in hand.”

You can read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and find stories, videos, and archive audio about the document, here.

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