Skip to main content


8 December 1997

Press Release


19971208 UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Says Universal Declaration Of Human Rights Is 'a Living Document', Calls for Rededication to Its Tenets

"Human rights are foreign to no culture and native to all nations", said Secretary-General Kofi Annan today in a video message to an international journalists round table on human rights, which is being held at Headquarters as part of the observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on 10 December 1948.

Opening the two-day journalists' round table, the Secretary-General said it was the universality of human rights that gave them their strength. "It endows them with the power to cross any border, climb any wall, defy any force", he said. The struggle for universal human rights had always been the struggle against all forms of tyranny and injustice such as slavery, colonialism and apartheid. Human rights were universal, indivisible and interdependent and they were "what makes us human".

An essential ingredient of human rights was tolerance, he added. The promotion and protection of tolerance would ensure fundamental freedoms for all peoples, but without tolerance there could be no freedom. Tolerance was the ideal of government rule and human behaviour.

"Young friends all over the world", Mr. Annan said, "you are the ones who must realize these rights now and for all time. Their fate and future is in your hands. Human rights are your rights -- seize them, defend them, promote them, understand them, and insist on them, nourish them and enrich them. They are the best in us, give them life."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, speaking in a taped interview, said the message of the Universal Declaration was as powerful today as it was when it was signed. It covered the rights that really mattered to people, helping to link them as much now as in 1948. "The Universal Declaration is a living document", she said. The anniversary would provide an opportunity for a rededication to its tenets. Approximately

- 2 - Press Release HR/4344 PI/1045 8 December 1997

1 billion people lived in poverty that denied them access to basic rights. The question of human rights needed to be taken up in schools, and children could become aware of human rights by reading the Universal Declaration.

Assistant Secretary-General for Public Information, Samir Sanbar, said that the question of human rights had been one of the fundamental concerns of the United Nations since its inception. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was one of the United Nations first great achievements and it continued to exert an influence on people's lives. The fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration was an opportunity for people worldwide to recommit to that important document.

Fareed Zakaria, Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs, said in his keynote address that there was an unhappy tension between two virtues that had long been thought to be indivisible -- democracy and human rights. Democracy and elections were flourishing throughout the world, but constitutional protections and liberalism were being denied. Elections were viewed as positive steps of democracy, but they tended to concentrate power in governments, and leaders often abused that power. Constitutionalism diffused power, giving much of it to the people. Nineteenth century proponents of constitutional liberalism had recognized that democracy might not guarantee basic human rights. Good governance required a mixed regime.

"The engendering of constitutional liberalism is a long slow process", he said. Elections could be televised while the growth of the force of unbiased bureaucracy could not. A government should be given credit for liberalization measures even if it was lacking in democratic institutions such as elections. There had been a tendency in the last 25 years in the West to view constitutions as mere paperwork. Constitutionalism meant empowerment of groups to check majority power. In the United States, for example, the concept of checks and balances had allowed for the growth of human rights within the framework of democracy. The "tempering of democracy" was required.

In addition to the round table, the observance of Human Rights Day will include a special event to launch the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration and a Human Rights Day exhibit.

The two-day round table on human rights, open to media representatives only, consists of four panel discussions. This morning participants considered the role of the media in human rights. The afternoon session will consider the topic "human rights in action". On Tuesday, 9 December, the morning session will consider the right to development, and the afternoon will consider children's and women's rights. The panels are being held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. in Conference Room 6.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.