A Culture of Human Rights

Article excerpt

The United Nations, as is the case with so many organizations today, is preparing itself for the challenges and promises of the twenty-first century. Its founders recognized over 50 years ago that, in order for the United Nations to reach its goals of peace and security, development and human rights for all people, each goal would need to be pursued with equal vigour and understood as inextricably linked with the others. The year of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - now less than 12 months away - offers the ideal opportunity to further link human rights to the overall work of the United Nations. It allows us to prove, through the example of the current experience of the United Nations human rights programme, that the understanding of the founders of the United Nations is more important than ever: only by pursuing peace, development and human rights equally will any ultimately be achieved.

The promise which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights symbolized at the time of its adoption today seems more possible than ever. The international community has made substantial progress over the past 50 years in the implementation of human rights concepts through the passage of nearly 50 human rights treaties and the establishment of an international human rights machinery. Yet, the Universal Declaration still serves as the example by which we measure not only our successes and shortcomings, but also the foundation upon which we continue our efforts to make all human rights a reality. As this century quickly passes away, we should not only be proud of the advances made in the protection of human rights in the past 50 years, but also be increasingly aware of what still must be done to ensure that the rights many of us now take for granted are enjoyed by all people.

Human rights are an ever-present, ongoing challenge which must be met again and again. No one can be absolutely sure of their protection from one generation to the next. Even in those places where human rights may seem most secure, the message must continue to be heard. It must not be forgotten, however, that the primary responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights remains with Governments. United Nations agencies or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), important as they are, could never replace Governments in the difficult task of ensuring the enjoyment of human rights for all the people of a given State or territory. Support should be offered to Governments to assist in efforts such as developing national programmes related to ratification of treaties, adopting human rights legislation and strengthening capacities for addressing the rights of vulnerable groups.

I am convinced that the development of a culture of human rights throughout the world is one of the most important contributions that can be made to future generations. The foundation for this culture is enshrined in the principles of the Universal Declaration. A culture of human rights would result in a profound change in how individuals, communities, States and the international community view relationships in all matters. Such a culture would make human rights as much a part of the lives of individuals as are language, customs, the arts, faith and ties to place. In this culture, human rights would not be seen as the job of "someone else", but the obligation and duty of all.

For wherever one turns, there are opportunities to serve. Local elections require assistance to insure fairness and accessibility, children and adults need teachers to learn what human rights are all about, and those whose rights are not respected count on the voices of others to speak on their behalf. This is the individual commitment required of a human rights culture. Finally, a culture of human rights would provide protection through the rule of law, holding those who have violated the rights of others fully accountable for their actions.

But where do we actually begin the work of building such a culture? …