Are Human Rights Universal?

Posted by Navanethem Pillay - United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights under Human Rights Education on 29 January 2009

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights envisaged a world in which every man, woman and child lives free from hunger and is protected from oppression, violence and discrimination, with benefits of housing, health care, education and opportunity. It enshrines the hope for a better world, where aspirations to freedom and well-being converge.

On 10 December 2008, the United Nations led worldwide celebrations to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Six decades ago, the international community affirmed that the strength of shared ideas and a common vision of respectful and peaceful coexistence could prevail over brutality, hatred and destruction.

Having risen from the sorrow and shame of atrocities perpetrated in the course of the Second World War, the Declaration represented, and continues to represent, one of humanity's most shining achievements. It enshrines the hope for a better world, where aspirations to freedom and well-being converge. The framers of the Declaration, who came from diverse countries and cultures, ultimately succeeded in delivering the first universal articulation of human rights and entitlements that make dignity, justice and equality possible for everyone everywhere.

The Universal Declaration envisaged a world in which every man, woman and child lives free from hunger and is protected from oppression, violence and discrimination, with benefits of housing, health care, education and opportunity. This encapsulates the global culture of human rights that we strive towards, and should therefore be a unifying rather than a divisive force within and among all cultures.

Stemming from the formidable intuition and early articulation of the Declaration's framers, the discourse and action on human rights has subsequently, and with increased sharpness, highlighted the fundamental elements that emanate from the universality of human rights. Thus, human rights law and advocacy emphasized our inherent human commonality, as well as the indivisible character of rights. They underscored the primary duty of States to give effect to the full spectrum of rights, including the responsibility of the international community and its institutions to foster a culture of solidarity and bolster implementation capacities, so as to give full effect to those rights.


The diverse group of the Declaration's framers insisted on our kinship in rights, our common claim to a life of dignity and our right to count and be counted, irrespective of ancestry, gender, colour, status and creed. The Declaration was crucial in envisaging freedom and entitlement as mutually reinforcing sides of the same coin of human aspirations. It unequivocally linked destitution and exclusion with discrimination and unequal access to resources and opportunities. The framers also understood that social and cultural stigmatization precluded full participation in public life, including the ability to influence policies and obtain justice. In other words, they made it clear that all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights were not only universal, but also indivisible and interrelated in their application—individually and globally. This means that one set of rights cannot be enjoyed fully without the other. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made clear, we cannot "pick and choose" among rights.

I bear witness to the interlocking characteristics of universal human rights and the perils of not recognizing their indivisibility. I grew up in Durban under a system of apartheid that institutionalized racial discrimination by denying equal rights and full citizenship to all those who were not white. But South Africa's experience shows that with political will, international engagement and a commitment to act, discrimination, inequality and intolerance can be overcome and that political and civil rights can be affirmed against great odds.

I also know first-hand the benefits of economic, social and cultural rights, including access to education, as well as the effects of obstacles to such access. I was 16 when I wrote an essay about the role of South African women to educate children on human rights. When the essay was published, members of my community raised funds to send a promising but impecunious young woman to university. Despite their efforts and goodwill, I almost did not make it as a lawyer, because during the apartheid regime everything and everyone was segregated. However, I persevered. After graduation I sought an internship, which was mandatory under the law, but as a black woman I had to fight against multilayered discrimination and barriers. Finally, a black lawyer agreed to take me on board, conditional on my promise not to become pregnant. I also started a law practice on my own, not out of choice but because nobody would employ a black woman lawyer.

In short, it is personal experience as much as conviction which prompts me to reaffirm that political and civil rights, as well as economic, cultural and social rights, depend closely on one another. Let me simply reflect on education, its value in securing work, its positive impact on political and social participation, including access to health care, and the decisive role it plays in achieving equality between women and men. It follows that violations of one right enfeeble all rights and engender cascading repercussions.

Currently, there is a growing understanding of how the components of human welfare and dignity, that is, human rights, development and security, are intrinsically interlinked. Today, a wide body of international laws—spanning from human rights law to humanitarian, refugee and criminal laws—enhances fundamental protection in times of war, peace and emergency. No vital set of rights has been overlooked. The recent International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol, and now the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights testify to the fact that the creation of norms is an ongoing process that remains open to refinement and new ideas, and innovative responses to current and emerging challenges.

The instrumental importance of human rights principles, such as equality, participation, accountability and the rule of law, is now widely accepted. Information and the freedom to organize and openly express views are vital for good policy-making and measurable implementation. Socio-economic rights are critical for the meaningful exercise of these freedoms, and gender equality has also been an indispensable precondition to maximizing and propagating education, development and the improvement of communities worldwide.

Yet, the universality of human rights is often questioned, more often by duty-bearers than rights-holders. Such skepticism does not often reflect frank conceptual objections to the challenge of universality, but is rather a means for some States to avoid giving effect to the whole set of human rights. However, I am persuaded that all people share the same basic ideas about what is needed to live a dignified life, free from want and fear. While the promotion and implementation of human rights standards demand an awareness of context, the universality of the essential values and aspirations embodied in these commitments is beyond doubt.

Attacks on the universality of rights often stand as barriers to human rights implementation. Some critics maintain that the Universal Declaration went too far in promoting the freedoms and values of liberal traditions. Others hold that its framers did not go far enough and that liberty occupies a higher plane than material welfare. The truth is that the Declaration is not merely congruent with some customs and foreign to other cultures; speaking to our common humanity, it drew its principles from many diverse traditions and made them more robust through a uniform codification.


However, for all the solemn commitments and normative advances, serious implementation gaps remain. Impunity, armed conflict, discrimination and authoritarian rule have not been defeated. Regrettably, human rights are at times sidestepped to promote short-sighted security agendas. And, lamentably, a trade-off between justice and peace is often erroneously invoked when societies emerge from conflict and combatants return to their communities. Poverty, discrimination based on various grounds, such as race, ethnicity, gender, disability, health conditions or sexual orientation, and human rights violations occurring in the context of mass movements of people, remain of the gravest concern. As we continue to progress in setting international standards, we should never lose sight of the fact that for individuals and communities around the world these standards matter the most at the national level. Renewed efforts are needed to give effect to human rights on the ground. An indispensable first step is for States that have not already done so to ratify and unreservedly commit to the implementation of all international human rights treaties. In addition to absorbing international standards into the domestic legal systems, other necessary elements conducive to the respect of human rights include an independent judicial and legislative branch and national human rights institutions. The impartial scrutiny undertaken by these institutions, as well as the media and other civil society organizations, is essential for ensuring accountability for actions taken or omitted.

Yet, interpretation of international human rights law is not always uniform, with different approaches emerging to enforce human rights norms. Authoritative interpretations and assessments by independent mechanisms, such as treaty bodies, special procedures or regional human rights courts, provide the best guidance. However, there is no escaping the fact that it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms. To this end, Governments should use all their available resources fairly and equitably. Particularly in countries transitioning from violent conflict to peace, the judicial protection of economic, social, and cultural rights is of great strategic significance. The rights of minorities, women and the vulnerable, disadvantaged and marginalized groups, including their rights to access justice, restitution and compensation, must be safeguarded.

I also wish to point out that any comprehensive strategy to promote the universal implementation of human rights should include a human rights education component. By nurturing values and reinforcing attitudes which uphold the Universal Declaration's goals, human rights education underpins the common responsibility of actualizing those rights in every community. Such education helps rights-holders identify and address their needs and seek solutions consistent with international standards.

Let me posit that, far from being a mere idealistic aspiration, the universal implementation of human rights is in the best interest of all States. And it is in the self-interest of States to ensure that their neighbours respect human rights as well. Repression and hardship often prompt those who have the means and the ability to abandon their country to seek better life elsewhere. This leads to depletion of talent and resources — both human and social capital — which invariably exact a heavy price, not only on the lives of those directly involved, but also on the development prospects of the country they are leaving. Refugees fleeing war and devastation can even destabilize neighbouring countries. Moreover, when persons are internally displaced, entire communities and livelihoods are destroyed. If good governance and respect for rights are lacking, the purpose and cohesion of a nation are undermined. The consequences of such failures often persist long after normalcy is restored. Correcting them often requires considerable investment and resources on the part of the country involved, as well as the international community.


Perhaps nothing exemplifies more vividly the need to pull together resources than new or resurgent challenges to human rights. These include the recent food emergencies, the ongoing financial crises, climate change, migration and terrorism. However, century-old scourges, such as racial and gender discrimination, also continue to demand more focused and incisive collective action.

Let us make no mistake: the luckiest among us, those who are spared the most negative effects of disaster, cannot turn a blind eye from the cascading effects of abuse and indifference on each occupant of our global village. Rights or their violations, as well as neglect of the obligations that rights engender, hold the whole world in solidarity and responsibility. Blatant examples of the global perils posed by long-neglected vulnerabilities have emerged in the course of the recent food and financial crises. A scarcity of affordable food and a lack of means of sustenance, including access to credit, have been more acute for individuals, families and communities who had been victims of deep-rooted practices of exclusion and discrimination. Upheavals of such magnitude are also likely to condemn whole generations to abject poverty if structural causes rooted in human rights violations are not addressed.

A failure to empower vulnerable groups to claim their rights and the enforcement of repressive policies aimed at gagging protest altogether further compound the predicament of the marginalized. Through a human rights lens, we must put corrective measures in place. These should include not only immediate relief but also fair policies on land ownership, access to credit and basic services, equitable access to other productive resources and public policy safety nets, as well as the creation of vehicles and channels to publicize needs, denounce abuse and obtain redress.

A good starting point towards achieving these measures would be to heed the UN Secretary-General's appeal to do more and faster in meeting the Millennium Development Goals and ensure that these goals are pursued in concert with human rights. One of the "added values" of the human rights approach to poverty reduction and development, which the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) champions and advocates at every opportunity, resides in providing a framework of institutions and norms to help reduce disparities and foster cooperation. This approach helps mediate conflicting claims that inevitably arise through development processes. Indeed, human rights norms provide an objective set of minimum standards that help us to understand who has been marginalized, or even forgotten, in the process of creating social change and development.

Climate change is another topic of global impact that has often been tackled without the benefit of a human rights component in international responses. However, climate-related challenges also pose a direct threat to a wide range of universally recognized human rights, such as the rights to life, food, water, health and adequate housing. The consequences of calamitous weather conditions are already visible in many parts of the world. A human rights approach compels us to look at the people whose lives are most adversely affected. It provides the legal rationale and grounds to advocate the integration of human rights obligations into policies and programmes that counter the negative effects of the environment. It links the assessment of critical vulnerabilities, which are deliberately or negligently overlooked, with accountability for acts of commission and omission on the part of States.

Similarly, migration is another major human rights challenge that requires an integrated approach. The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families provides a good basis for shaping policies that are coherent across national borders and respectful of migrants' rights in both the receiving and sending countries. I strongly encourage all UN Member States to ratify this important instrument, as effective responses to the challenges of migration require uniform standards from which to build concerted action on the part of both receiving and sending countries. We must also spare no effort to address human trafficking, a phenomenon that is often unduly conflated with migratory flows. Trafficking represents a multi-billion dollar industry that commodifies human beings and is antithetical to human rights and humanity at its core.

As for terrorism, it is undeniable that this scourge often thrives in environments in which human rights are curtailed or violated, where non-violent channels to express discontent are lacking, and where discrimination and exclusion are rampant. It is broadly recognized that not only is respect for human rights an essential element of an effective counter--terrorism strategy, but that disrespect for them actually undermines counter-terrorism efforts and breeds violent confrontation. Indeed, human rights should be placed at the core of international cooperation in countering terrorism. States are legally bound to ensure that measures taken to combat crimes of terrorism comply with their obligations under international human rights law, in particular, the right to recognition as a person before the law, due process and the principle of non-refoulement.*

Due to their scale and consequences, current global challenges to human rights are more likely to be readily recognized as common threats worthy of the international community's attention. However, long-entrenched abuses stemming from racism, xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance are problems that shamefully continue to occur on a daily basis across the world and all too often remain below the international radar screen. There is no doubt that ethnic rivalries, racial discrimination and religious intolerance underlie many of today's communal strife and violent conflicts. Furthermore, the persistence of racism in the aftermath of conflict has been a key source of instability and a major obstacle to sustainable peace. The increased mobility of peoples resulting from globalization or forced displacement has led to incitement, hatred and a rise in xenophobia.

Managing human diversity is one of the major challenges of the twenty-first century, and this will require a multi-pronged strategy. The Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in 2001, has provided a solid set of tools to help States eradicate racial and ethnic discrimination and inequality. The debate on this topic has been re-energized by the decision to hold a United Nations Review Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, to take place in April 2009 in Geneva. The conference will evaluate the implementation of government commitments made seven years ago in Durban to eradicate racial hatred and discrimination.

A wide range of views and positions have recently surged on this topic. Not all of them were temperate or accurate, but essentially no one disputed the importance of the issues at stake in the review conference. It is imperative that all States participate and contribute to this crucial process, in order to consolidate and improve the common ground for fundamental human rights issues which we all agree on. To maximize our chances of success in this process, we need active participation by all, without which the anti-racism debate and agenda will be impoverished. For these reasons, I urge Governments that have expressed an intention not to participate in the conference to reconsider their position.

This discussion also prompts me to underscore a fundamental reality: that despite the best of intentions, human rights instruments, mechanisms and processes are not self-fulfilling. More determined collaborative action is needed to maximize the potential for change and improvement. Cooperation takes place in many forms and venues: at the international level primarily, within the auspices of the United Nations, specifically the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, as well as other UN bodies, such as the Security Council. A particularly noteworthy feature of the Human Rights Council is its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism, which has already reviewed 32 States and drawn information from a variety of stakeholders, including civil society.

Presently, we should recognize that UPR carries a promising potential, although I believe that some forms of independent expertise should be made an integral part of the procedure. It was not possible to include such expertise at the initial stage of the review, but improvement could come to fruition when preparing for the second cycle in 2011. Moreover, the Human Rights Council is virtually a standing body. The frequency of its meetings, in both formal and informal gatherings, may create more opportunities to better hone operations and responses to chronic human rights conditions and crises. Such assiduity may also help to build a firmer ground of understanding and create more opportunities for capacity-building among Council members than sporadic interactions would permit.

Cooperation also takes place at the regional and national levels. Within this framework, I believe that OHCHR is in a unique position to assist regional organizations, Governments, national human rights institutions and civil society in their efforts to protect and promote human rights. The expansion of its field operations and the increasing and deepening interaction with UN agencies and other crucial partners in government, international organizations and civil society that OHCHR has undertaken are important steps in this direction. This is where we can easily strive for practical cooperation leading to the creation of national systems that promote human rights and provide protection and recourse for victims of violations.

OHCHR plays its part in a variety of ways in countries where it has offices, peace missions or with human rights advisors to UN country teams. Our activities in the field now include 50 technical cooperation projects, which frequently consist of human rights monitoring and training assistance to States, national human rights institutions and civil society, to help build their capacity, develop their scope of intervention and better monitor ground situations. Typically, these projects are also implemented in collaboration with pertinent United Nations agencies, as well as regional partners and non-governmental organizations. Moreover, OHCHR has been endowed with and has nurtured strong expertise in transitional justice mechanisms to address past crimes. These are effective tools to combat impunity that can also encourage reconciliation in post-conflict societies.

In conclusion, despite many current fears and uncertainties, I am encouraged by the enormous attention that the year-long commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration has brought to the issue of human rights. Across the world, voluntary organizations, institutions, teachers, students, lawyers, politicians and the media have focused on the Declaration and its continuing relevance in today's world. But we cannot stop here. Sixty years on, we are still a very long way from achieving the goals laid down in the Declaration. No country in the world can sit back complacently and say, "We're there". Tens of millions of people are still unaware that they have rights that they can demand, and that their Governments are accountable to them and to a wide-ranging body of rights-based national and international laws. Despite all our efforts over the past sixty years, it is essential that we keep up the momentum and thereby enable more and more people to claim their rights. We know that a great many challenges remain along the path of full realization of human rights. I have outlined some of the most daunting among them, including those that absorb our energy and attention, as priority matters at the OHCHR. But let me underscore that the sixty years that elapsed since the adoption of the Universal Declaration have also shown the way forward. We are now much clearer in the knowledge that the pursuit of human rights requires the individual and collective commitment of all. That commitment must overcome partisanship and narrowly defined interests, requiring imagination, energy, diplomacy, solidarity, determination and hard work. I am confident that States, international organizations and civil society can together continue to harness such qualities and put them to optimal use in the service of human rights.

We will only be able to wholly honour the towering vision of the Universal Declaration.


* Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 33(1), Prohibition of expulsion or return ("refoulement"): "No Contracting State shall expel or return ("refouler") a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."

Sources and Relevant Links:

UN Chronicle Issue 2-3, 2008 Are Human Rights Universal?

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