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10 December: Human Rights Day
December 8, 2013, 3:11 pm

The world celebrates Human Rights Day each year on 10 December — the day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The formal establishment of Human Rights Day only occurred in 1950 when the UN General Assembly through a resolution invited all member states and any other interested organizations to celebrate the day in the manner they saw fit. Today, around the world, many educational institutions, governmental and non-governmental organizations, as well as civil and social organizations commemorate this day with special events, meetings, seminars, cultural events and exhibitions on human rights issues.

The annual Nobel Peace Prize is traditionally awarded on Human Rights Day and, every five years since 1968, the UN awards its United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights on this day. Individuals and organizations are selected for the prize in recognition of their outstanding work in human rights. The 9th UN prize distribution is scheduled to take place on 10 December, 2013.

The theme for the 2013 Human Rights Day is '20 Years Working for Your Rights'. The theme commemorates the creation in December 1993, of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). For two decades the OHCHR has been promoting and protecting the human rights guaranteed under International Law, and as stipulated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The UN General Assembly decided to establish the office on the basis of recommendation by the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in June 1993. The theme of this year’s Human Rights Day, while recalling the two decades of service to human rights by the OHCHR, emphasizes the future and identifies the challenges that lie ahead.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Promotion and protection of human rights have been at the very core of the United Nations since its inception. UN Charter Article 1 states that among the purposes of the United Nations are: Promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

On 10 December, 1948, at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, the 58 Member States of the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was hailed as a Magna Carta for all of Humanity. The vote was unanimous except for eight abstentions, by six Soviet Bloc countries, as well as by South Africa and Saudi Arabia. Honduras and Yemen were not present at the time of the voting.

The UDHR was one of the first major achievements of the United Nations and though sixty-five years have elapsed, it still remains a powerful instrument which continues to exert an enormous effect on people's lives all over the world. Translated into more than 200 languages, it is one of the best known and most often cited human rights documents in the world. 

On its adoption, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the Declaration as a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations", towards which individuals and societies should "strive by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance". Today, the basic human rights laid down in UDHR have been accepted by all United Nations Member States, making the Declaration even stronger and emphasizing the importance and relevance of Human Rights in our daily lives.

Although the Declaration is not a legally binding document, it has inspired more than 60 human rights instruments which together constitute an international standard of human rights. These instruments include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which are legally binding treaties. Together with the Universal Declaration, they constitute the International Bill of Rights.

The Declaration recognizes that the "inherent dignity of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world" and is linked to the recognition of fundamental rights towards which every human being aspires, namely the right to life, liberty and security of person; the right to an adequate standard of living; the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution; the right to own property; the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right to education, freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and the right to freedom from torture and degrading treatment, among others. These are inherent rights to be enjoyed by all human beings of the global village — men, women and children, as well as by any group of society, disadvantaged or not — and not ‘gifts’ to be withdrawn, withheld or granted at someone's whim or will.

United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in its early years, was among the first to recommend a ‘bottom-up’ approach in promoting human rights. Mrs. Roosevelt, who was personally involved in preparing and drafting the UDHR, espoused the promotion of human rights to reflect the first words of the Preamble to the United Nations Charter, which begins with, “We the Peoples of the United Nations”.

She asked, "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

However, more than six decades after the adoption of UDHR, ethnic animosity, religious and racist intolerance and acts of genocide still plague the world. Discrimination and exclusion based on religion, race or gender continue to afflict people in different corners of the globe. It is not surprising then that for millions of people around the world, who have their innate humanity and dignity trampled upon, their basic human rights denied, their want for proper food, shelter, healthcare, education and work unrealized, the lofty principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights might still ring hollow.

We need to realize that espousing human rights and ensuring its future is not the responsibility of only governments and outside organizations. It is incumbent on each of us as individuals to protect and promote the rights of others and to act when we see human rights violated. This not only affirms our humanity, it endorses our right to be called humans.

Human Rights: The Next 20 Years

Extracts from the opening remarks by Ms. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the Human Rights Day Event 2013 - Geneva, 5 December 2013
This year, as you know, marks 20 years since a historic document, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, was adopted, leading to the creation of my office – the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

During this event, we will take stock of where we are today in the implementation of its promises, but also try to look forward over the next 20 years. Hopefully what we have done so far will enable us to face the challenges we will face in the future.

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action crystallized the principle that human rights are universal. It committed States to the promotion and protection of all human rights for all people, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems. In the past two decades, much has been achieved, indeed more than people perhaps realize. The fundamentals for protecting and promoting human rights are largely in place – the firm foundation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is the basis for a strong and growing body of international human rights law and standards, as well as the institutions to interpret the laws, monitor compliance and apply these laws to new and emerging human rights issues.

Today, human rights are increasingly permeating all corners of the work of the United Nations, and that is fundamentally changing the way the UN works with national authorities and the international community.
The key now is to implement the laws and standards to make enjoyment of human rights a reality on the ground. Unfortunately, too often, the political will, and the human and financial resources, to achieve this are lacking.

The 20 years since Vienna have seen many setbacks and a number of tragic failures to prevent atrocities and safeguard human rights. In several instances where deplorable, large-scale violations of international human rights law were occurring, the international community was too slow, too divided, too short-sighted – or just plain inadequate in its response to the warnings of human rights defenders and the cries of victims.

We can and we must do better.

The Vienna Declaration should be viewed as a blueprint for a magnificent construction that is still only half built. It should be viewed as a living document that can and should continue to guide our actions and goals.

The vision and goals we formulated 20 years ago in Vienna are still valid – and still worth fighting for now, over the next 20 years, and beyond.


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