70 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Speech before the UN General Assembly delivered by Jean-Yves Le Drian (26 September 2018)

Secretary-General, High Commissioner,
Ministers, dear colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,

France, Germany, Costa Rica, South Korea and Senegal are pleased to host you today in celebration of the heritage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in Paris in 1948. We are honoured to receive at this podium the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr António Guterres, who will have to leave a little early given his many commitments, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet, whom I would like to congratulate on her appointment.

We will then hand the podium over to a discussion panel led by Mr Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.

Secretary-General, you have the floor.

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Secretary-General, High Commissioner,
Ministers, dear colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,

This year, in 2018, we commemorate the centenary of the First World War. We also commemorate the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris on 10 December 1948. Anniversaries are a great time to take stock. And where human rights are concerned, my assessment after six years of ministerial experience, as Minister of Defence and then as Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, is that of a general and multiform regression.

1. My first observation is that of the exponential rise in violations of human rights in the environments of armed conflicts. Today, we are seeing a resurgence in conflict theatres of the whole spectrum of war crimes, aimed at terrorizing civilians, forcing the enemy to give up more quickly, and to bring about a demographic shift. I have in mind the deliberate attacks on civilians, the use of prohibited weapons, displacement of populations, famine and deprivation of health care in Syria. I have in mind the summary executions in the Central African Republic. I have in mind the systematic use of torture and forced recruitment of child soldiers by the Boko Haram militia or in South Sudan. All conflicts bring a string of systematic violations of human rights, including sexual violence. The most vulnerable populations, including members of ethnic and religious minorities in particular, suffer the greatest consequences. These may include crimes against humanity and crimes of genocide, as have been committed in recent years against Yezidi and Rohingya populations.

2. My second observation is that of the shrinking space for human rights, including within democratic societies. This trend inevitably follows the growth of nationalist and populist discourse – and Europe has not been spared. Twenty years after the General Assembly’s declaration on defenders of human rights, lawyers, journalists and NGO staff are seeing their activities obstructed by laws that seek to muzzle civil society in guise of regulating it.

This shift goes hand in hand with what I would call “ideological” challenging of human rights, in political discourse and in international forums. The universality and primacy of human rights are being undermined by various forms of relativism. The institutions that defend them, such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, are being challenged by the same movement.

3. I would, however, like to recall here that human rights are not “values” that should be adapted to local identities and cultures, and that respecting them is not a political choice: it is a legal obligation. They are commitments, principles of law guaranteed by solemn declarations or legally binding treaties with a universal scope. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been the foundation of this protective edifice. Since 1948, it has been expanded to cover other areas, such as women’s rights, children’s rights and forced disappearances. It now needs to cover new fields, such as cyber space, protection of journalists, the right to a healthy environment, and the protection of civilians in armed conflicts. France has engaged determinedly in this combat, promoting, along with other partners, the draft Global Pact for the Environment and by launching initiatives on the protection of civilians and of journalists. France will also continue to seek consensus to bring about the universal abolition of the death penalty, the elimination of all forms of discrimination, including that based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and to ensure respect for the sexual and reproductive rights of women – I have the right to abortion in mind in particular.

4. It is this edifice built since the adoption of the Universal Declaration in 1948 that now needs to be defended. The priority is to recreate a space in law to protect human rights. When these rules of international human rights law are trampled upon, the perpetrators must be brought to justice – just as they are in ordinary law. And this justice needs to be exercised in conditions of impartiality and independence. That is why France will support the activities of the International Criminal Court in investigating crimes committed against the Rohingya – crimes that may constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It is also why France encourages all States that have not yet done so to accede to the Rome Statute. Without accountability and without mechanisms to combat impunity, international human rights law is an ineffective law. In this respect, I would like to commend the work of the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Hissène Habré trial.

We also need to strengthen the role of human rights in all the areas of action of the United Nations. Peacekeeping operations now incorporate a human rights dimension. And the series of texts adopted since Resolution 1325 on “Women, Peace and Security” has marked an essential step forward in including women in peace processes. The Office of the High Commissioner and the mechanisms of the Human Rights Council, which France has supported since their creation, are also essential in promoting and implementing these achievements. That is why France is putting forward a candidacy for a seat on the Human Rights Council for 2021-2023.

Lastly, the progress of human rights relies on enhanced dialogue between States and civil society, with advocacy bodies and field specialists. That will be the spirit and goal of the Paris Peace Forum, which will be held in November this year.

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As we meet here today, representing several continents, we demonstrate that human rights are not specific to a given cultural area. We recall our commitment to the international system promoting human rights, to the power of the rule of law, and to the multilateral institutions.

That is the best tribute we can pay to those who, seventy years ago, drafted a Universal Declaration amidst the ruins of a global conflict that had devastated Europe. As we meet here today, we solemnly state that the universalist achievements of 1948 are our heritage, a “common good” for humankind that we are prepared to defend and determined to foster.