European Parliament Event on 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Remarks

 EUSR Remarks

European Parliament Event on 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

What makes human rights universal?

29 November 2023


Thank you Chair. Members of the European Parliament; distinguished guests and fellow speakers. It is a privilege to be with you today to mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And I want to thank the European Parliament for organising this important event.

Let us recall for a moment what the world was like 75 years ago when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born. The destruction and death of the Second World War had a devastating impact on the lives of millions.  But out of all of the pain and the suffering and the loss, also came a determination and a prevailing will to prevent such devastation from ever happening again.  That opportunity was embodied in the Universal Declaration.

When the Universal Declaration was adopted, the then President of the General Assembly called it “the first step in a great evolutionary process.” It not only sought to prevent future atrocities and to affirm our belief in the dignity of every single person, but it also set forth a common vision for all humanity on a common standard of achievement. And as the Declaration itself states, that achievement means “better standards of life in larger freedom”. Millions of people have turned to this document for help, guidance and inspiration and it has generated action in every country in the world.

Here in Europe, it led to the European Convention on Human Rights, which was the first instrument to give effect to rights stated in the Universal Declaration and to make them binding, and later, the European Union’s own Charter of Fundamental Rights. The European Union itself is a peace and human rights project, because we learned the hard way that conflict is often born from the denial of human rights.

The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.  Adherence to these values is a condition for membership of the Union.

History has taught us that we can only protect our own freedom, if we protect the freedom of others. And so, our treaties make clear that the Union’s external action shall be guided by the principles which have inspired its own creation, development and enlargement, and which it seeks to advance in the wider world, including democracy, the rule of law and the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

That is why we have an EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, which is our blueprint or roadmap for action on human rights and democracy. It is brought to life in each region and country through our 140 EU Delegations throughout the word and the embassies of our Member States. We reinforce this with financial muscle through the NDICI Global Europe Human Rights and Democracy Programme, which amounts to €1.5 billion.

We also have human rights clauses in our trade agreements and the Global Human Rights Sanctions regime which allows us to target perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses, wherever they choose to hide.

Sometimes when we talk about human rights though, we do it as if they belong to other people and usually other people in places far away.  People being tortured under repressive regimes, or locked up for opposing their own governments.  These are of course fundamental human rights issues. But we also need to think of human rights as belonging to ourselves. Human rights are also about having a place to live, being able to work, about social security, access to water, access to education and being able to rest. The things most of us do every day without thinking. But when we cannot do those things or they are taken away from us, then human rights become very real indeed.

You cannot realise one right in isolation; nor is one right more important than another. Human dignity should never be enslaved or undermined by the political values or the culture of a State.  Protecting and promoting human rights is a battle that we must fight every day and we need to work harder to protect and defend the universality of human rights and their indivisibility and interdependence.

As we mark this anniversary, the world is undergoing a major transition, perhaps one which will fundamentally change many aspects of all our lives. The rapid developments in technology, climate change, geopolitical shifts, multiplication of conflicts and increasing multipolarity are challenging multilateral cooperation and confrontation is growing. Inequality is increasing and civil society space is diminishing. We seem to live in an age of rancour where disinformation and hate speech often drown out dialogue and reason.

Economic power is also shifting to countries were human rights are less respected. And where economic power goes, political power goes with it. Democracy and authoritarianism are brutally clashing in many countries, including Belarus, Myanmar and Afghanistan. And the world is convulsing with one human rights crisis after another.

In recent times and especially over the last number of weeks, we have seen a dehumanising, disgraceful cycle of death and a horrific disregard for the protection of civilians. The pain of others, the killing of civilians and children, is no different, whether it occurs in Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, Ethiopia, Sudan or the many other places in the world where armed conflict is ongoing. It should resonate with us because of our shared humanity, not because of our history, our culture, our traditions or our faith. There is no hierarchy of victims. The same standards of human rights apply everywhere. The same international humanitarian law applies everywhere, without exception and without deviation.

All of these challenges have enormous implications for human rights; but I believe there is also cause for hope.

The digital transformation holds much potential and promise for the promotion of human rights, democracy, peace and development. But this can only happen if the same rights that apply offline also apply online and we catch up with developments. The EU continues to spearhead action in this area through the Digital Services Action and the upcoming Artificial Intelligence legislation.

Business and human rights is an area too where there is considerable scope for optimism. There is much work to be done, but the new EU due diligence legislation that is being finalised and the increasing commitment of companies are encouraging steps in the right direction.

There is growing momentum and mobilisation on accountability, which I believe we can harness to address impunity and achieve justice for many people around the world. And of course the International Criminal Court is central in that endeavour. We call again on the 45 States that have yet to ratify the Rome Statute to do so.

Ensuring human rights are at the heart of our work, including in challenging areas such as development, migration, business and many others, will enhance our efforts to promote and protect human rights and prevent new problems from growing. Strong, independent monitoring can help ensure an effective and sustainable human rights based approach.

This 75th anniversary must mark a new turning point; a moment when the international community not only celebrates the Declaration but renews its commitment to it, reinvigorates its focus and re-energises it as a roadmap for the next 25 years.

We need to think today not only about what has been achieved in the last 75 years, but to think forward to the future. We need to think of where this world will be and what the state of human rights will be when the Universal Declaration turns 100, which is only 25 years away. Today we should commit ourselves, and encourage others to do likewise to make the centenary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the target date, the landmark by which everyone on this earth; every individual no matter where they live will enjoy the full benefits and protection of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That means taking a more strategic approach to the work that we do; being less short term, relying less on short terms plans, like indeed our own 5 year plan or the tactics for the next session of the Human Rights Council. But to understand that making progress on human rights, making gains on human rights, is sometimes painfully slow and often times is incremental. One concrete idea, which has been promoted by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, is the idea of the human rights economy.

Whatever way we do it, I think that it is clear that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is still our best guide for solving our problems and building a better, fairer, more peaceful, and more sustainable world. The beauty of the Declaration is not only in its content; it is also that every country has signed up to it. It seeks to amplify our shared humanity, so that we can turn to each other and not on each other. Our strength over the next 25 years must be our unity of purpose.   

Thank you.