12 December 1996

Press Release


19961212 Addresses Panel Discussion Programme Organized by DPI and Centre for Human Rights

Following is the statement made today by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to the panel discussion programme for Human Rights Day, organized by the Department of Public Information (DPI) in cooperation with the Centre for Human Rights:

I am delighted to welcome you all to the United Nations for this important event.

Human rights is a truly universal issue. As human beings, we share a desire to live in peace, to enjoy basic freedoms, and to live our lives with dignity and free from government coercion and interference. These are noble goals, but for too many of the world's citizens they remain remote and unattainable. In too many parts of the world, human rights are threatened by war, civil strife and repression. And abuse of government authority is not simply a problem confined to countries in the least developed world. Even established democracies must be permanently on their guard against the loss of liberties and the erosion of individual rights.

Throughout human history, war has always been the greatest enemy of human rights. It was with memories of world war fresh in their minds that the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirmed that "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". These words are as relevant today as they were in the 1940s.

* Reissued to provide English translation of French portion of text.

Unspeakable acts of barbarism continue to be committed in the name of war. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi and Rwanda, the world has watched in horror as the grim reality of modern civil conflict unfolds daily on our television screens. And the victims are too often the innocent, the old, the sick and the children.

Graça Machel's report on the impact of armed conflict on children brought to the world's attention the growing plight of the youngest victims of war. The report emphasized what we at the United Nations have known for many years: war robs children of all human rights -- the right to life, the right to be with family and community, the right to health, and the right to proper physical and psychological development. In short, the right to a childhood. The challenge facing the international community today is to do more to raise the profile of human rights issues around the world, and to meet the concerns raised in the Machel report.

This goal will not be easy. There will always be those who seek to sacrifice individual freedoms in the name of collective advance and progress. There will always be those who ride roughshod over human rights in the pursuit or exercise of power. There will always be those for whom racial, tribal or religious enmity provides justification for gross human rights abuses, war and even genocide. Despite our best intentions and our best efforts, rights and freedoms will continue to be threatened by war and armed conflict. Today, our task is to ensure that these challenges are addressed swiftly and effectively.

For our part, the United Nations has worked hard over the past 50 years to develop a comprehensive framework for the protection of human rights. We have established precise international human rights standards. We have created ways and means of improving respect for human rights within Member States. And, where necessary and possible, we have intervened to protect victims of human rights abuses and violations.

One principle remains of overriding importance: every human being, regardless of race, sex, language, religion or class, is entitled to enjoy their human rights to the full. These rights extend beyond political and legal rights. The United Nations commitment to lasting development requires that the international community uphold and promote fundamental economic and social rights. These include the right to food, shelter, employment, education and health care. We must do more to ensure that the fight against poverty is an integral part of international development, democratization and human rights efforts.

Human rights are at the very centre of the concerns of the world Organization. But success does not depend on the United Nations alone. Other international and national actors, such as the media, parliamentarians and

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non-governmental organizations (NGOs), have a vital role to play. The media can promote the free flow of ideas within and between nations. Parliaments can give effective voice to legitimate concerns. The NGOs can provide vital information and exert real influence in defence of human rights at the local, national and international levels.

Today, the High Commissioner for Human Rights is developing ever-closer links between the United Nations and the NGOs. Our partnership with civil society, and in particular the NGOs, is essential to the success of the United Nations human rights programme. In the field, the NGOs are working hard to implement vital human rights promotion and education programmes. These programmes form an important part of global efforts to promote peaceful and democratic change in countries around the world. The NGOs information and expertise have a vital role to play in the effective implementation of the United Nations human rights technical co-operation programme.

I should also like to emphasize today, on this anniversary, the universal nature of this struggle that we must wage on behalf of human rights. Human rights and respect for the human person constitute the ultimate goal of all policies. And this prime goal is shared by all peoples and by all nations. The principle of universality is expressed in the Charter itself, which stresses that the purpose of the United Nations is to promote universal and effective respect for human rights.

The very title of the 1948 Declaration -- which contains the word "universal", not "international" -- accentuates this tendency yet more. The General Assembly of the United Nations, owing to its very nature and its composition, is most suited to expressing this universality. And I should like to pay tribute here to the action taken by the Assembly in the field of human rights over more than half a century.

The various areas of human rights protection have become increasingly specific, ranging from the prevention of genocide to the abolition of slavery, and from the struggle against torture to the elimination of all forms of discrimination based on race and on religion. Similarly, the beneficiaries of rights have also progressively been identified more clearly: rights of peoples, and protection of refugees, stateless persons, women, children, and disabled persons.

This regulatory action by the General Assembly of the United Nations now constitutes a sphere that belongs to all of us. It has something to offer to all States, all peoples and all cultures. For the universality affirmed by means of this action is a faithful reflection of the universality of the international community as a whole. Over the years, the General Assembly has refined its thinking on universality by elaborating, in addition to individual

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rights and collective rights, what I have called "rights of solidarity", which call for concerted action by all actors in society. And here I should like to stress the importance that the General Assembly has rightly accorded to the "right to development". The United Nations is thus calling on us to see human rights as the common heritage of mankind. It also urges us to bring together all actors in international life in this fundamental struggle.

At the current stage, I believe it is less urgent to define new rights than to prevail on States to adopt existing instruments and implement them effectively. The public at large and associations have an essential role to play in achieving that goal. Through their efforts, they have become a key factor in promoting awareness around the world of the need for States and governments to scrupulously fulfil their role of protecting the human person. This shows how important it is that the struggle to safeguard human rights be waged on a parallel with the endeavour to democratize international life. The two are inseparable. They both have a universal dimension. They must both be our constant concern.

On this anniversary, I, therefore, wish to stress that each and every one of us has a duty to be vigilant. For it will be thanks to our efforts and to our concern that human rights will finally become a reality for all peoples and all nations.

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For information media. Not an official record.