UNITED NATIONS: Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 75 – Celebrating the diversity, strengths, and achievements of civil society

Speech by the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, published on the OHCHR on 06/07/2023 – accessible here.

I would like to sincerely thank all core group members for their commitment to civic space and supporting the work of the Office.

We will hear from the panellists about hopes and opportunities their rich experiences bring. I will focus on the importance of celebrating civil society to advance the promotion and protection of human rights.

Our commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights is anchored in its profound vision of “all human beings born free and equal in dignity and rights”, as proclaimed in 1948. It is also grounded in the idea that the ability to access information, to safely and freely express views, to participate in public affairs, to inspire, mobilise and unite with others, is central to the exercise of the range of human rights.

The indivisibility, universality, and interdependence of rights was reconfirmed by the 30-year-old Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action on Human Rights – which is also about having a say in relation to these rights.

The UN Secretary-General was clear in his vision “Our Common Agenda”: States and international organizations need to listen better, to build trust between people and institutions. Hearing and heeding people’s voices brings legitimacy and credibility to decision-making.

Investing in inclusive, innovative, and safe participation channels for people, formal and informal ones, and protecting this space, offline and online, is key.

There are many inspiring illustrations of civic participation facilitating the trust of communities in state institutions. During the pandemic, in many countries civil society contributed to the COVID-19 responses by providing life-saving services, advocating for people-centred policy decisions, promoting vaccination campaigns, raising awareness, and disseminating information, including often to isolated or remote communities.[1]

In embarking on the Human Rights 75 Initiative, we aspire to rejuvenate the spirit that led to the adoption of the Universal Declaration, strengthen the worldwide consensus for human rights, and look to the future.

Above all, in this year lies an opportunity for transformative change in the lived realities of all – including through the effective, inclusive, and safe participation of civil society. Civil society has represented, engaged with, and amplified the voices of those least heard/visible.

Protecting and promoting the space for civil society to inform and navigate our collective responses to future challenges is indispensable.

As we reflect on possible breakthroughs for human rights over the next 25 years, we can carve the space for more creative solutions through stronger inclusion.

In the national, regional, and international exchanges being organised in the framework of the Human Rights 75 Initiative this year, civil society must be heard if we truly want to uphold the principles of universality and indivisibility in practice: first, because the process of inclusion and meaningful participation matters in and of itself, and second because looking at how decisions impact the human dignity of the people affected, ensures ownership.

The High Commissioner has called on the different actors (States, business, young people, United Nations entities and others) to make concrete human rights pledges in the framework of this year, to be presented at a high-level event in December.

We hope to see pledges by States and others to strategically expand civic space, online and offline and to put meaningful participation at the heart of development and peace efforts. To inject participatory approaches in all projects and processes – making the voices of all constituencies heard: women, young people, minority groups/representatives, everyone.

And we hope to see pledges to make safety of civil society actors a real priority.

Given the central role of civil society in advancing human rights and sparking change, we hope you will take up this opportunity (with the Office’s support!) to come up with and advocate for forward-looking commitments and a vision for human rights that can spur transformative change in line with the hopes and aspirations of people everywhere.

Excellencies, colleagues,

An open and enabling civic space is the pre-condition to realize all human rights for all. Human rights, not understood as legal constructs, but rather as tools for identifying root causes, assessing contexts, informing solutions, and contributing to decision-making.

After all, civic space is the best indicator of a state’s commitment to uphold the noble aspirations and ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – demonstrating its true commitment to re-dedicate efforts towards robust protections of human rights for all.