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The Declaration of Human Rights:
A Living Document

Mary Robinson
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Symposium on Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region

UNU Headquarters, Tokyo, 27 January 1998


The Declaration of Human Rights: A Living Document
Needed: Human rights education
Inclusive - but unbalanced
From proclamation to customary law
"A sudden ray of hope"
Future dilemmas
Words surpass armies
Universal Declaration of Human Rights


I am very pleased to introduce this lecture by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.

As the fiftieth anniversary of the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approaches, the contrasts and paradoxes Mrs. Robinson identifies are constantly restated in global news media, scholarship and political discourse. We see victories over victimization in some areas, yet we also hear of continuing abuses, of violations of rights that the entire world accepts as universal.

It is to this sobering side of human rights that we must turn again and again. The immense scale of the problems requires both dedication and humility. We must not congratulate ourselves for our human rights triumphs as long as children remain hungry, and as long as political oppression and communal brutality persist.

Mrs. Robinson's work has shown this dedication, along with a remarkable effectiveness in the global political realm. Since her appointment to her present post by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in June 1997, she has addressed the issues of streamlining the world's human rights machinery and supervising the United Nations programmes from Geneva.

But the career that led her to this dynamic position is also instructive. As President of Ireland since 1990, she used her exceptional expertise in European and constitutional law to advance human rights issues far beyond the borders of the nation she was chosen to lead.

Mrs. Robinson has been a member of the International Commission of Jurists and the Advisory Commission of Inter-Rights. She served as Special Rapporteur to the Interregional Meeting organized by the Council of Europe on the theme of "Human Rights at the Dawn of the 21st Century" in preparation for the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights.

More dramatically, she was the first head of state to visit Rwanda after the genocide, and Mrs. Robinson has since returned there twice. She was also the first head of state to visit post-crisis Somalia in 1992 and to visit the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Educated at Dublin University's Trinity College, King's Inns and Harvard University, Mrs. Robinson served Ireland as a Senator from 1969 through 1989. Her volunteer commitments during this demanding career included eighteen years of service as President of CHERISH, the Irish association of single parents, and support for community self-help projects such as the GOAL/Children in Need Institute in India. This is only part of why Mrs. Robinson's lecture at the United Nations University was a great honour and privilege. Certainly her words demand an ever-expanding concept of human rights, and an ever-increasing dedication to pursue these rights in reality. And what greater mandate can our scholarship have than this?

Hans van Ginkel
The United Nations University



The Declaration of Human Rights: A Living Document
Mary Robinson

I am honoured to give the keynote address at this symposium on human rights in the Asia-Pacific region, and to have the privilege of listening to participants who will contribute from the perspectives of the peoples of the region.

On 10 December 1998 we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in the shadows of Auschwitz and Nagasaki and on the doorstep of the Cold War. Like all major anniversaries it provides an opportunity to take stock, to examine what has been achieved, and to reflect on what needs to be accomplished in the future. It is fitting that this should take place in the same year as the five-year review of the World Conference, which was convened in Vienna in 1993, and as we approach the new millennium.

The celebrations, however, cannot take place amidst the fanfare of self-congratulation. Too much remains to be done in the field of human rights protection to rest on our laurels. The present-day victims of destitution and persecution are uppermost in our minds, as is the yawning gap between aspiration and genuine achievement.

I have just come from Cambodia, where last week I visited the museum Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh. It had been a school, but became a place of torture and inevitable death for over 16,000 people during the Khmer Rouge period from 1975-79. As I looked at the iron beds with torture implements, saw the graphic photographs of how they had been used, and walked past row upon row of photographs of young girls and boys, of old people, of people from every walk of life (civil servants, peasants, intellectuals, soldiers, students), as I saw the piled-up clothes and shoes, it brought back so vividly my visit to Auschwitz, and when I came to Hiroshima in 1995, and the terrible aftermath of the genocidal killing in Rwanda which I saw on my first visit there in 1994. How often have we said "never again?" This, surely, is the strongest argument for the universality and indivisibility of human rights. It also reminds us of the need for eternal vigilance and safeguarding those rights.


Needed: Human rights education

The commemoration has another purpose. It is to remind the peoples of the world of the tenets of the Universal Declaration and, in so doing, to reaffirm and to renew our attachment to these fundamental principles and to this vision. For it is also, and perhaps primarily, through education that the aims of this great document can be fulfilled. That is why it is so important that countries include in their national plans of marking the anniversary a further commitment to integrating human rights education not only into school curricula, but into youth groups and continuing education projects. The commemoration compels us to reflect on the continuing relevance of the Universal Declaration to the political, social, economic, and cultural environment we live in and how we can transform its promise into a living reality for more people. Our achievements so far in this domain, when we remember the genocides, the continuing conditions of "absolute poverty" in the world around us, are a cause of shame. We must match rhetoric with action.

When the Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly on 10 December 1948 it distinguished itself from other great "constitutional" documents - such as the Code of Hammurabi, the Magna Carta, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, or the American Declaration of Independence - in two fundamental respects. It was the first international articulation of the rights and freedoms of all members of the human family. For the first time in the history of mankind, nations had come together to agree on the content of the human rights of all human beings. They did so in the aftermath of the barbarities of the Second World War out of respect for the dignity of each human being and because they perceived the incompatibility between violation of human rights and national and international peace. The emphasis throughout the Declaration was on rights and freedoms applicable to every person everywhere.

Secondly, the Declaration - the "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations" - treated human rights as not only universal but indivisible; i.e., that civil and political rights, on the one hand, and social, economic and cultural rights; on the other, are both demanding of protection on the same plane and are interdependent and interrelated. In doing so, it laid the essential conceptual foundations of the international law of human rights; it charted the human rights agenda of the United Nations for this century and beyond, and awakened the great forces in civil society to the cause of human rights.


Inclusive - but unbalanced

Thus the Declaration proclaims in its Preamble that "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalterable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." Economic, social, and cultural rights are set out with the same degree of affirmation and conviction as civil and political rights. Freedom of speech and belief are enshrined, but also freedom from fear and want. Fair trial and the right of participatory and representative government sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the right to work, to equal pay for equal work, and the right to education. Both sets of rights are proclaimed as "the highest aspiration of the common people." All the people.

We must be honest, however, and recognise that there has been an imbalance in the promotion at the international level of economic, social, and cultural rights and the right to development. Extreme poverty, illiteracy, homelessness, and the vulnerability of children to exploitation through trafficking and prostitution are telling indictments of leadership in our world as we end this millenium. I have committed myself as High Commissioner for Human Rights to work, together, I hope, with a global alliance for human rights, to redress that imbalance. Nineteen ninety-eight is a good year to begin to forge this alliance.

Today the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands as a monument to the convictions and determination of its framers, who were leaders in their time. It is one of the great documents in world history. The travaux preparatoires are there to remind us that the authors sought to reflect in their work the differing cultural traditions in the world. The result is a distillation of many of the values inherent in the world's major legal systems and religious beliefs, including the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, and Jewish traditions.

The Declaration has exerted a moral, political and legal influence throughout the world, far beyond the aspirations of its drafters. It has been the primary source of inspiration of all post-war international legislation in the field of human rights. All of the United Nations human rights treaties and resolutions as well as the regional human rights conventions - the European and American conventions and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights - have been directly inspired by the Declaration. Virtually every international instrument concerned with human rights contains at least one preambular reference to the Universal Declaration, as do many subsequent declarations adopted unanimously or by consensus by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Its detailed provisions have served as a model for many domestic constitutions and laws, regulations, and policies that protect human rights. National courts throughout the world have had recourse to the provisions of the Declaration in the interpretation of provisions of national law or directly applicable international law. Parliaments, governments, lawyers, and non-governmental organizations throughout the world invoke the Declaration when human rights issues are discussed.


From proclamation to customary law

Many of the provisions of the Declaration have become part of customary international law, which is binding on all states whether or not they are signatories to one or more multilateral conventions concerning human rights. Thus what started its existence as a solemn but non-binding proclamation of rights and freedoms has, at least in some respects if not all, acquired through state practice the status of universal law.

Twenty years after its adoption, its tenets were authoritatively endorsed by the 1968 Proclamation of Teheran and transformed into the provisions of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which entered into force in 1976. Most recently, 171 countries participating in the 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights reaffirmed their commitment in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action to the purposes and principles mentioned in the Declaration emphasising and endorsing its inspirational role as the basis for United Nations standard-setting. It also inspired other world conferences, including the Beijing Platform of Action re-emphasising that women's rights are human rights. Indeed, one of the functions of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights established by the General Assembly is to promote and protect the rights and freedoms contained inter alia in the Vienna Declaration.

In short, the Declaration has, since its adoption, assumed the mantle of a constitutional instrument, giving specificity to the concept of human rights in the United Nations Charter and radiating its benign influence throughout the planet.


"A sudden ray of hope"

My vision of the Universal Declaration, however, strays beyond its legal and political influence. Nelson Mandela has recently reminded us that the Declaration was adopted only a few months after the formation of the first apartheid government. He said - and I quote:

For all the opponents of this pernicious system, the simple and noble words of the Universal Declaration were a sudden ray of hope at one of our darkest moments. During the many years that followed, this document served as a shining beacon and an inspiration to many millions of South Africans. It was proof that they were not alone, but rather part of a great global movement against racism and colonialism, for human rights, peace and justice.

It is often said that rights which exist on paper are of no value. But paper, vision, commitment, and action are the powerful tools of peace. The pages of the Universal Declaration, as Nelson Mandela observed, have been a source of courage to the downtrodden by showing them that they are not alone! They also interrogate our sense of solidarity. Notwithstanding the cruel fact of the persistence of human rights violations throughout the world, this document has served and will continue to serve as a reminder that the world community cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of the oppressed and the destitute, and that it has a mandate to concern itself and, where possible, offer succour beyond all frontiers.

One need look no further than the Preamble of the Declaration to realize that, while the world around us is evolving at a pace more rapid than at any other time in human history, the premises on which the Declaration is founded will remain valid and immutable forever.

Test their relevance against the bitter realities of today's world events. The Preamble continues to articulate our response. It speaks of "barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind." It points out that "it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law." It reminds us of the close connection between human rights observance and "friendly relations between nations." It ends, with a phrase that goes to the heart of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary, that a "common understanding of the rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge."

No one reading these phrases today can fail to be struck by their insight into the connection between denial of human rights and peace - domestic and international - and their enduring actuality.


Future dilemmas

But today's world is more complex than 50 years ago. There are now many more participating states than there were in 1948, and more strident and concerned voices from the civil society. The agenda set by the Declaration is surprisingly apt for these new complexities - whether they are linked to the rights of indigenous peoples, or the right to development, or discrimination on grounds of gender or on the basis of sexual orientation - but who could have imagined in 1948 that we would use the 50th anniversary of the Declaration as an opportunity to reposition these fresh concerns and others in our order of priorities?

It is in this context that the search for global ethical standards and the work of the Inter Action Council and others in focusing on human responsibilities brings fresh insights into the interpretation of the Preamble and Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a living document. It is right that we should focus more on duties and obligations, but I believe it would be wiser to avoid the distraction of seeking a new declaration. Instead we need to recognise and recommit ourselves to the extent to which these values are implied in creating through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights "a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations" which can be reinforced by greater emphasis on them as values for individuals and communities in all our civil societies.

It is thanks to the Universal Declaration that human rights have established themselves everywhere as a legitimate political and moral concern, that the world community has pledged itself to promote and protect human rights, that the ordinary citizen has been given a vocabulary of complaint and inspiration, and that a corpus of enforceable human rights law is developing in different regions of the world through effective regional mechanisms.

I would venture to suggest that it has become an elevating force on the events of our world because it can be seen to embody the legal, moral, and philosophical beliefs held true by all peoples and because it applies to all. It is precisely this notion of "universality" - in the widest sense - that gives it its force. Its universal vocation to protect the dignity of every human being has captured the imagination of humanity. It is this vision which explains the enduring mission of the Declaration and its unsurpassable dominance as a statement of legal principles. We tamper with it at our peril.


Words surpass armies

A famous British historian of the last century, Lord Acton, said of the two pages of the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man that they weighed more than whole libraries and than all of Napoleon's armies. The remark is so fitting for the Universal Declaration.

But I have a preference for a more poetic image partly inspired by Vaclav Havel. It is that of a tree which was planted for mankind as a symbol of justice in fertile soil following the end of a great cataclysm. It has gradually taken root and grown into a unique and enduring specimen. Much care has been taken to water the ground around it and to nurture its growth. Cuttings have been taken and planted throughout the world. We have watched it grow every day, patiently. Slowly it has acquired impressive stature.

But like all living things, it has a certain fragility. It is part of our heritage that we have been asked to teach others its history and purpose, and to hand down the skills and commitment needed to sustain it. Its message will have to be understood and acted upon. Most of all, and in Havel's words, "it will need to be looked after with understanding and humility but also with love."



Universal Declaration of Human Rights
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Adopted and proclaimed by
General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948

On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the full text of which appears in the following pages. Following this historic act the Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and "to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories."


Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.

(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.

(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.

(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28.

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.


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