Universal Declaration of Human Rights Illuminates Global Pluralism and Diversity
Following is the text of Secretary-General Kofi Annan's statement on the fiftieth anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, delivered on 10 December 1997, at the University of Tehran.
It is a special pleasure for me to address you today, at this distinguished university, in the heart of your great and ancient land. I have long looked forward to visiting Iran, and I am grateful for the generous welcome I have received. Iran is living through a time of great promise and change. The eyes of the world are upon you. With vision, pride and compassion, you are renewing your nation. I congratulate you on your success.
I speak to you on a worldwide day of celebration. December 10th marks the beginning of the fiftieth anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It gives me a special pleasure, therefore, to speak to you and through you to the rest of the world today.
You, the students and leaders of tomorrow -- here in Iran and in every nation -- are the guardians of these human rights. Their fate and future is in your hands.
Today, in every part of the world, men, women and children of all faiths and tongues, of every colour and creed, will gather to embrace our common human rights.
They will do so in the knowledge that human rights are the foundation of human existence and coexistence; that human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent; and that human rights lie at the heart of all that the United Nations aspires to achieve in peace and development.
Human rights are what make us human. They are the principles by which we create the sacred home for human dignity.
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and shall act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."
Human rights are what reason requires and conscience commands. They are us and we are them. Human rights are rights that any person has as a human being. We are all human beings; we are all deserving of human rights. One cannot be true without the other.
Who can deny that we all share the same horror of violence?
Who can deny that we all seek lives free of fear, torture and discrimination? Who can deny that we all seek to express ourselves freely and pursue our aims in life?
When have you heard a free voice demand an end to freedom? Where have you heard a slave argue for slavery? When have you heard a victim of torture endorse the ways of the torturer? Where have you heard the tolerant cry out for intolerance?
The absence of tolerance and human rights is not only a denial of human dignity. It is also the root of the suffering and hatred that breeds political violence and inhibits economic development.
If this century's bloody history has taught us one lesson, it is this.
When we speak of the right to life, or development, or to dissent and diversity, we are speaking of tolerance. Tolerance promoted, protected and enshrined will ensure all freedoms. Without it, we can be certain of none. In the words of one wise man: "Faith elicits respect, and fanaticism provokes hate."
Human rights are the expression of those traditions of tolerance in all cultures that are the basis of peace and progress. Human rights, properly understood and justly interpreted, are foreign to no culture and native to all nations.
It is the universality of human rights that gives them their strength and endows them with the power to cross any border, climb any wall, defy any force.
Human rights are universal not only because their roots exist in all cultures and traditions. Their modern universality is founded on their endorsement by all 185 Members of the United Nations. The Declaration itself was the product of debates between a uniquely representative group of scholars, a majority of whom came from the non-Western world.
They brought to this historic assignment the recent memories of world war and the ancient teachings of universal peace. The principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are deeply rooted in the history of humankind. They can be found in the teachings of all the world's great cultural and religious traditions.
Imam Ali, the fourth Khalifa after Prophet Muhammed, instructed the governor of Egypt to rule with mercy and tolerance towards all his subjects: "Let the dearest of your treasuries be the treasury of righteous action... Infuse your heart with mercy, love and kindness for your subjects. Be not in the face of them a voracious animal, counting them as easy prey, for they are of two kinds: either they are your brothers in religion or your equals in creation."
Sa'adi, the great thirteenth-century Persian poet, also offered a moving tribute to the values of tolerance and equality among all peoples and nations: "The children of Adam are limbs of one another and in their creation come from one substance. When the world gives pain to one member, the other members find no rest. Thou who are indifferent to the sufferings of others do not deserve to be called a man."
Almost 2,000 years earlier, Confucius spoke of the dignity of the individual and the tolerance of the State towards the freedom of expression of all its citizens: "When the good way prevails in the State, speak boldly and act boldly. When the State has lost the way, act boldly and speak softly."
Finally, and much closer to our time, Thomas Jefferson framed human rights as universal rights to freedom and dignity in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. He wrote: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
I have recounted these examples from all times and far-flung lands because they testify to a lasting and deeply inspiring truth about the human condition.
Tolerance and mercy have always and in all cultures been ideals of government rule and human behaviour. Today, we call these values human rights.
The growth in support for the Declaration of Human Rights over the past fifty years has given it new life and reaffirmed its universality. The basic principles of the Declaration have been incorporated into national laws of countries from all cultural traditions.
There is no single model of democracy or of human rights or of cultural expression for all the world. But for all the world, there must be democracy, human rights and free cultural expression.
Human ingenuity will ensure that each society, within its own traditions and history, will enshrine and promote these values. I am convinced of that.
That is why I speak in Africa of human rights as "African rights", as rights that must find expression in the language of the people they protect. That is what gives me confidence that one day, these rights will prevail.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, far from insisting on uniformity, is the basic condition for global diversity. That is its great power. That is its lasting value.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines and illuminates global pluralism and diversity. It is the standard for an emerging era in which communication and collaboration between States and peoples will determine their success and survival.
The struggle for universal human rights has always and everywhere been the struggle against all forms of tyranny and injustice: against slavery, against colonialism, against apartheid. It is nothing less and nothing different today.
In every part of the world, the United Nations is engaged in securing the basic conditions for human existence: peace, development, a safe environment, food, adequate shelter, enhanced opportunities.
We seek to provide these goods not because we believe all humans are the same, but because we know that all humans need food, need freedom, need a sustainable future. They are human rights.
The history of human rights is the history of the United Nations. The principles and precepts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guide and inform every act of the United Nations.
They inspire us to do more for greater numbers. They embolden us to believe that our cause is just and its fate the measure of man.
The very first United Nations World Conference on Human Rights took place 30 years ago right here in Tehran. That Conference endorsed the basic principles of the Universal Declaration and set the agenda that we seek to meet today.
It called for the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. It emphasized the indivisibility of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. It insisted that the full realization of civil and political rights was not possible without the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights.
The United Nations' work in peace and development has increasingly placed human rights at the forefront.
That includes all human rights, from civil and political rights to social and economic rights. The right to development is a universal and inalienable right, and it is inseparable from all other rights. Indeed, it remains the measure of the respect of all other human rights.
One cannot pick and choose among human rights, ignoring some while insisting on others. Only as rights equally applied can they be rights universally accepted. Nor can they be applied selectively or relatively, or as a weapon with which to punish others.
Their purity is their eternal strength.
If, as some suggest, this has been the most terrible century in human history, it has also been the most hopeful. The essential dignity of every human being is not in doubt as we enter a new millennium.
We celebrate today the anniversary of a testament to that dignity.
We celebrate a victory for tolerance, diversity and pluralism. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a global bulwark against all systems and all ideologies that would suppress our distinctness and our humanity. Diversity no less than dignity is essential to the human condition.
My dear young friends, here in this hall and all over the world, the ideals of human rights are the ideals of hope and humanity. Your idealism inspires your faith in our common future, and your determination to make it more just and more merciful than the past.
It is for you to realize these rights, now and for all time.
Human rights are your rights. Seize them. Defend them. Promote them. Understand them and insist on them. Nourish and enrich them.
They are the true reflection of humanity's highest aspirations. They are the best in us. Give them life.