Subject(s): HUMAN rights -- International cooperation; UNIVERSAL
Declaration of Human Rights, 1948; WOMEN -- Social conditions
Source: Harvard International Review, Fall99, Vol. 21 Issue 4, p60,
Author(s): Robinson, Mary
Abstract: Offers a look at women's human rights in the 21st century.
Description of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the
Vienna Declaration and Program of Action of 1993; Violence against
women; State responsibility.
Section: WOMEN AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS
A SELECTIVE DECLARATION
Women's Human Rights into the New Millennium
Women's rights are human rights. This affirmation seems self-evident,
yet women waited until 1995 to see it stated unequivocally in an
international document. That year, the overwhelming majority of the
world's nations adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action
at the end of the Fourth World Conference on Women in China. The
inclusion of these documents in the final act of that historic
gathering is not to be underestimated. The recognition of women's
rights as human rights, one of the goals of the international women's
movement, came about only after decades of struggle. More importantly,
it visibly illustrates evidence of women's transformation of the
human-fights discourse, pointing toward the recognition of the human
rights of all people.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international
covenants that followed it proclaim equality between men and women and
proscribe discrimination, but the traditional human-rights framework
has not fully incorporated the rights of women. The concept of
equality means much more than treating all persons in the same way,
for equal treatment of persons in unequal situations will perpetuate
rather than eradicate injustice. Feminists and others quickly realized
that a critical rethinking of what human rights meant to women was
required. As Rebecca J. Cook has observed, "International human fights
and the legal instruments that protect them were developed primarily
by men in a male-oriented world. They have not been interpreted in a
gender-sensitive way that is responsive to women's experiences of
To transform international human rights in order to take the concerns
of women into account is to tackle notions that have held firm sway
for decades, some even before the birth of the human rights movement.
Among these notions is the primacy accorded to civil and political
rights over economic, social, and cultural rights--an imbalance which
in itself belies the supposed "gender neutrality" of rights.
Gender and Human Rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the inherent
dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human
family. The Vienna Declaration and Program of Action of 1993
forcefully reiterates that all human rights--civil, cultural,
economic, political, and social--are interdependent. With the benefit
of 50 years of experience, it has become clear that all human rights
must be respected with the same degree of affirmation and conviction.
Freedom of speech and belief are as important as freedom from fear and
want; the right to fair trial and the right of participatory and
representative government should be considered side by side with the
rights to work, health care, and education.
This vision continues to be challenged, however. Some still hold that
economic, social, and cultural rights are not rights at all but goals,
albeit laudable ones, that governments should strive to achieve. For
many in this camp, only civil and political rights are universal. This
attitude may help explain why fundamental rights to decent living
conditions, food, basic health care, and education, all laid down in
the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,
are widely denied. The 1999 State of the World's Children report of
the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) warns that nearly a
billion people, one sixth of humanity, are functionally illiterate.
Two-thirds of them are women. Meanwhile, the latest World Bank report
indicates that the recent financial and economic crisis has driven
many into poverty, measured by the World Bank as income of less than
US$1 per day.
The victims of poverty are in fact denied almost all rights--not only
to adequate food, health care, and housing, but also to participation
in political processes, access to information and education, fair
legal treatment, and the benefits of citizenship. These conditions are
exacerbated for the most vulnerable, in particular women and children,
who in some parts of the world are being increasingly exploited
through drug trafficking, forced labor, and prostitution. Thus, the
separation of economic, social, and cultural rights from civil and
political rights does not reflect the reality of women's positions in
society, in which the violation of these rights is not so neatly
As gender inequality creates conditions of exploitation or
subordination in the economic sphere for women, the lack of attention
to these rights is of particular concern. At the same time, women are
increasingly demanding progress in areas of health care, food,
shelter, and employment. The lesser status given to these rights
complicates this articulation. As Charlotte Bunch writes, "Women's
rights advocates need to show how socioeconomic rights are central to
the achievement of women's rights...Women fighting for recognition of
their human rights advocate a holistic understanding of human rights
as indivisible and interconnected. Socioeconomic and political-civil
rights should not be seen as competitive but as equally important
needs that must be sought together, not one before the other."
The holistic approach to human rights has, at least officially, gained
much new ground in the last decade. The Vienna Declaration and Program
of Action recognized in Chapter 1, Paragraph 18: "The human rights of
women and the gift child are an inalienable, integral, and indivisible
part of universal human rights." In the same section, the Program of
Action established that "the full and equal participation of women in
political, civil, economic, social, and cultural life, at the
national, regional, and international levels, and the eradication of
all forms of discrimination on the grounds of sex are priority
objectives of the international community." At the Third International
Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994, the
world's governments validated sexual and reproductive rights for the
first time, recognizing the right of women to make their own decisions
on issues of sexuality and reproduction, as well as the fight to
information about and access to contraceptive services.
The exercise of sexual and reproductive rights is clearly described in
the Cairo Programme of Action as "the basic right of all couples and
individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and
timing of their children and to have the information and means to do
so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and
reproductive health." It also includes a couple's right to make
decisions concerning reproduction "free of discrimination, coercion,
and violence." The Beijing Platform for Action, for its part, stresses
that "all human rights--civil, cultural, economic, political, and
social, including the right to development--are universal,
indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated."
These commitments on paper have been translated into governmental
"plans of action" to implement the goals fixed in Vienna, Cairo, and
Beijing. The United Nations is carrying out a program of
"mainstreaming the gender perspective" in all its activities, ensuring
that women benefit equally from development and other programs.
Certainly, these formal commitments have yet to be realized. However,
the history of the international women's movement over the last 30
years demonstrates how women can bring issues to the world agenda and
obtain concrete commitments from governments and institutions that can
then be translated into effective change at the grassroots-level. The
special session of the UN General Assembly to be held next year to
assess the progress made since the Fourth World Conference in Beijing
in 1995 will provide another opportunity for women to make their
voices heard, as they have done so effectively in the cycle of such
gatherings that began in Nairobi in 1985.
One example of the potential of the international women's movement is
the growing global recognition of violence against women as a human
rights issue. Putting the issue on the human rights agenda has also
meant successfully challenging other firmly entrenched notions of a
traditional human rights framework like the public-private distinction
in enforcing human rights and the principle of state responsibility.
The issue of violence against women has only recently found its place
on the international human rights agenda. In the 1970s women's issues
were generally related to problems of political and economic
discrimination and to equitable participation in the development
process by women of the Third World. The major international legal
instrument concerned with women's rights per se, the 1979 Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,
concentrated on the vague concept of "discrimination." The issue of
gender-based violence is not specifically addressed in the Convention,
although it is clearly fundamental to its provisions.
Similarly, at the World Conference to Review and Appraise the
Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality,
Development and Peace, held at Nairobi in July 1985, the issue of
violence against women arose only as an afterthought to the issues of
discrimination, health, and economics. Still, it was acknowledged that
violence against women--in the family, in the community and by
states--has inhibited women from enjoying the full benefits of human
rights. Women have since focused the issue on the agenda around the
world, conducting successful grassroots campaigns that made
international forums take notice.
In 1992, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against
Women (CEDAW) formally included gender-based violence under
gender-based discrimination (formally known as CEDAW General
Recommendation 19, entitled "Violence against women," 1992). The
process of anchoring the issue of violence against women firmly on the
international agenda culminated in the adoption, without a vote, of
resolution 48/104 by the General Assembly on December 20, 1993,
entitled the "Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against
Women." The following year, the UN Commission on Human Rights
appointed the first Special Rapporteur on the issue, Sri Lankan human
rights expert Radhika Coomaraswamy.
In fighting violence against women from a human rights perspective,
women have challenged doctrines of privacy and the concept of the
sanctity of the family. In the past, the state and the law intervened
with regard to domestic violence only when violence became a public
nuisance. Otherwise, the doctrine of privacy allowed for violence
against women to continue unabated. Indeed, much of the blame for
violence against women can be placed on government inaction. There
appears to be a permissive attitude, a tolerance of perpetrators of
violence against women, especially when this violence occurs in the
home. Governments rarely acknowledge the gravity of the crime. A
failure to recognize crimes such as domestic violence, marital rape,
sexual harassment, and violence associated with traditional practices
persists in many countries. Even where crimes of violence against
women are recognized in the law, they are rarely prosecuted with
vigor. But according to norms recently established by the
international community, a state that fails to prosecute crimes of
violence against women is as guilty as an individual perpetrator.
States have a positive duty to prevent, investigate, and punish crimes
associated with violence against women.
The public-private distinction, which has been at the root of most
legal systems, including human rights law, has created major problems
for the enforcement and recognition of women's rights. It is a
positive development that states are reaching into the privacy of the
home, and are now increasingly being held responsible for human rights
offences committed within the home.
The problem of violence against women brings into sharp focus an issue
that has been troubling the international community: state
responsibility for the actions of private citizens. In the past, a
strict judicial interpretation held the state responsible only for
those actions which it or its agents were directly accountable. In
this case the interpretation would encompass issues such as women in
custody and in detention, and perhaps the issue of women involved in
armed conflict. The questions of domestic violence, rape, and sexual
harassment were seen as the actions of individuals, and thus beyond
the responsibility of the state.
However, it is now a recognized part of general international human
rights law that states are responsible for the protection of the
rights of individuals to exercise their human rights, the
investigation of alleged violations of human rights, the punishment of
the violators of human rights, and the provision of effective remedies
for the victims of human rights violations.
Yet states are rarely held responsible for ignoring their obligations
with regard to women's rights. The reason for this is twofold. First,
states do not consider women's rights as human rights, especially
those rights that are exercised in the home or the community, and they
do not see such violations as an "internationally recognized
justiciable wrong." Second, states do not consider themselves
responsible for violations of women's rights by private actors.
Except for categories such as "pirates" and "international war
criminals," private individuals and agencies are not generally bound
by international human rights law. But states may be responsible for
their failure to meet international obligations even when violations
originate in the conduct of private individuals. State responsibility
for the violation of women's human rights by private actors is
anticipated by customary international law.
Using the existing human rights and international legal framework and
transforming it simultaneously, state responsibility for the violation
of women's human rights by private actors is anticipated by customary
international law. States are held legally responsible for acts or
omissions of private persons when, among other instances, the states
fail to exercise due diligence in the control of private actors.
International and regional human rights conventions and recent
judicial decisions have expanded the standards developed by customary
international law. For example, in the 1988 Valesquez case (Valesquez
Rodriguez Case Honduras, 4 Inter. Am. Ct. HR (Ser. C.), 1988), the
Inter-American Court of Human Rights imposed liability on Honduras for
its lack of due diligence in preventing unexplained "disappearances,"
whether by the state or private actors. These standards also held
states responsible for the organization of the government apparatus
and structures of public power in order to make them capable of
judicially ensuring free and full exercise of human rights.
Besides complying with the "due diligence" standard for the protection
of human rights, states are required by international human rights
instruments to ensure equal protection of the law for their citizens.
This emerging trend toward holding states responsible for actions of
certain private actors is reflected both in the CEDAW and the
Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Discrimination under the Convention is not restricted to actions by or
on behalf of the state; this is expressly acknowledged, in regard to
violence, in General Recommendation 19. Article 2 (e) of the
Convention specifies that states' parties are required "to take all
appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any
person, organization or enterprise." This provision covers state
responsibility for violations by private actors. Article 16 explicitly
refers to discrimination in the family and Recommendation 19 clearly
includes family violence within its purview.
The Declaration sums up the current standards in operation as they
relate to the question of violence against women. Article 4 (c) of the
Declaration proclaims that states should "exercise due diligence to
prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation,
punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are
perpetrated by the State or by private persons." All states are not
only responsible for their own conduct or the conduct of their agents,
but are now also responsible for their failure to take the necessary
steps to prosecute private citizens for their behavior, in compliance
with international standards. This emergence of state responsibility
for violence in society plays an absolutely crucial role in efforts to
eradicate gender-based violence and is perhaps one of the most
important contributions of the women's movement to the promotion and
protection of human rights.
The experience of the international women's rights movement and its
successes in specific areas are instructive for other human rights
defenders around the world. The analyses women have applied and their
redefinition of human rights to make them truly universal can find a
parallel in other "readings" of the human-rights discourse.
Rights are not gender-neutral, for the instruments that contain them
are the product of particular circumstances, places, and authors.
Similarly they are not "culture neutral." The founding human rights
document of our era, the Universal Declaration, is an informative
The basis in personal dignity that it and other UN human rights
instruments indicate has a Western philosophical, even religious tone.
But the developing phase in the history of human rights over the last
50 years of interpretation and implementation of the Declaration has
opened it up to new perspectives and challenges in cultural conditions
much more diverse than its Western roots had offered.
The Declaration's capacity to be translated into very different
languages and cultures is undeniable, even if much of the work of
translation has yet to be carried out. This work is essential if the
Declaration is to be relevant to people around the world. Women are
taking up the challenge and showing the way.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): In many states such as Afghanistan, women are
still explicitly denied basic human rights.
By Mary Robinson
MARY ROBINSON is United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Title: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A living document.
Subject(s): UNIVERSAL Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
Source: Australian Journal of International Affairs, Jul98, Vol. 52
Issue 2, p117, 4p
Author(s): Robinson, Mary
Abstract: Opinion. Discusses the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights which will be commemorated on December 10,
1998. Details on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
Information on the commemoration; Background information on the
THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS: A LIVING DOCUMENT.
On 10 December 1998 we will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in the
shadows of Auschwitz and Nagasaki and on the doorstep of the Cold War.
Like all major anniversaries it provides an opportunity to take stock,
to examine what has been achieved and to reflect on what needs to be
accomplished in the future. It is fitting that this should take place
in the same year as the five-year review of the World Conference on
Human Rights which was convened in Vienna in 1993 and as we approach
the new millennium.
The commemoration, however, cannot take place amidst the fanfare of
selfcongratulation. Too much remains to be done in the field of human
fights protection and promotion to rest on our laurels. The
present-day victims of destitution and persecution are uppermost in
our minds as is the yawning gap between aspiration and genuine
I went to Cambodia in January, where I visited the museum Tuol Sleng
in Phnom Penh. It had been a school, but became a place of torture and
inevitable death for over 16000 people during the Khmer Rouge period
from 1975 to 1979. As I looked at the iron beds with torture
implements, saw the graphic photographs of how they had been used, and
walked past row upon row of photographs of young girls and boys, of
old people, of people from every walk of life: civil servants,
peasants, intellectuals, soldiers, students; as I saw the piled-up
clothes and shoes it brought back so vividly my visit to Auschwitz,
and when I came to Hiroshima in 1995, and the terrible aftermath of
the genocidal killing in Rwanda which I saw on my first visit there in
1994. How often have we said 'never again'? This, surely, is the
strongest argument for the universality and indivisibility of human
fights. It also reminds us of the need for eternal vigilance in
safeguarding those rights.
The commemoration has another purpose. It is to remind the peoples of
the world of the tenets of the Universal Declaration and, in so doing,
to reaffirm and renew our attachment to these fundamental principles
and to this vision. For it is also, and perhaps primarily, through
education that the aims of this great document can be fulfilled. That
is why it is so important that countries include in their national
plans of marking the anniversary a further commitment to integrating
human fights education not only into school curricula but into youth
groups and continuing education projects. The commemoration compels us
to reflect on the continuing relevance of the Universal Declaration to
the political, social, economic and cultural environment we live in
and how we can transform its promise into a living reality for more
people. Our achievements so far in this domain, when we remember the
genocides, the continuing conditions of 'absolute poverty' in the
world around us, are a cause of shame. We must match our rhetoric with
When the Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly on 10
December 1948 it distinguished itself from other great
'constitutional' documents--such as the Code of Hammurabi, Magna
Carta, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man or the American
Declaration of Independence--in two fundamental respects. It was the
first international articulation of the rights and freedoms of all
members of the human family. For the first time in the history of
mankind nations had come together to agree on the content of the human
rights of all human beings. They did so in the aftermath of the
barbarities of the Second World War, out of respect for the dignity of
each human being and because they perceived the close connection
between violation of human rights and national and international
peace. The emphasis throughout the Declaration was on rights and
freedoms applicable to every person everywhere.
Secondly, the Declaration--the 'common standard of achievement for all
peoples and all nations'--treated human rights as not only universal
but indivisible; that is, that civil and political rights, on the one
hand, and social, economic and cultural rights, on the other, are both
demanding of protection on the same plane and are interdependent and
interrelated. In doing so, it laid the essential conceptual
foundations of the international law of human rights, it charted the
human rights agenda of the United Nations for this century and beyond
and awakened the great forces in civil society to the cause of human
Thus, the Declaration proclaims in its Preamble that 'recognition of
the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalterable rights of all
members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and
peace in the world'. Economic, social and cultural rights are set out
with the same degree of affirmation and conviction as civil and
political rights. Freedom of speech and belief are enshrined but also
freedom from fear and want. Fair trial and the right of participatory
and representative government sit shoulder to shoulder with the right
to work, to equal pay for equal work, and the right to education. Both
sets of rights are proclaimed as 'the highest aspiration of the common
people'. All the people.
We must be honest, however, and recognise that there has been an
imbalance in the promotion at the international level of economic,
social and cultural rights and the right to development. Extreme
poverty, illiteracy, homelessness and the vulnerability of children to
exploitation through trafficking and prostitution are telling
indictments of leadership in our world as we end this millennium. I
have committed myself as High Commissioner for Human Rights to work,
together, I hope, with a global alliance for human rights, to redress
that imbalance. 1998 is a good year to begin to forge this alliance.
Today the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands as a monument
to the convictions and determination of its framers who were leaders
in their time. It is one of the great documents in world history. The
travaux preparatoires are there to remind us that the authors sought
to reflect in their work the differing cultural traditions in the
world. The result is a distillation of many of the values inherent in
the world's major legal systems and religious beliefs including the
Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic and Jewish traditions.
The Declaration has exerted a moral, political and legal influence
throughout the world, far beyond the aspirations of its drafters. It
has been the primary source of inspiration of all post-war
international legislation in the field of human rights. All of the
United Nations human rights treaties and resolutions as well as the
regional human rights conventions--the European and American
conventions and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' rights--have
been directly inspired by the Declaration. Virtually every
international instrument concerned with human rights contains at least
one preambular reference to the Universal Declaration as do many
subsequent declarations adopted unanimously or by consensus by the
General Assembly of the United Nations.
Its detailed provisions have served as a model for many domestic
constitutions and laws, regulations and policies that protect human
rights. National courts throughout the world have had recourse to the
provisions of the Declaration in the interpretation of provisions of
national law or directly applicable international law. Parliaments,
governments, lawyers and non-governmental organisations throughout the
world invoke the Declaration when human rights issues are discussed.
Many of the provisions of the Declaration have become part of
customary international law, which is binding on all states whether or
not they are signatories to one or more multilateral conventions
concerning human rights. Thus, what started its existence as a solemn
but non-binding proclamation of rights and freedoms has, at least in
some respects, if not all, acquired through state practice the status
of universal law.
Twenty years after its adoption, its tenets were authoritatively
endorsed by the 1968 Proclamation of Teheran and transformed into the
provisions of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which
entered into force in 1976. Most recently 171 countries participating
in the 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights reaffirmed
their commitment in the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action to
the purposes and principles mentioned in the Declaration, emphasising
and endorsing its inspirational role as the basis for United Nations
standard-setting. It also inspired other world conferences, including
the Beijing Platform of Action, re-emphasising that women's rights are
human rights. Indeed, one of the functions of the office of the High
Commissioner for Human Rights established by the General Assembly in
1993 is to promote and protect the rights and freedoms contained inter
alia in the Universal Declaration.
In short, the Declaration has, since its adoption, assumed the mantle
of a constitutional instrument, giving specificity to the concept of
human rights in the United Nations Charter and radiating its benign
influence throughout the planet.
My vision of the Universal Declaration, however, strays beyond its
legal and political influence. Nelson Mandela has recently reminded us
that the Declaration was adopted only a few months after the formation
of the first apartheid government. He said--and I quote:
For all the opponents of this pernicious system, the simple and noble
words of the Universal Declaration were a sudden ray of hope at one of
our darkest moments.
During the many years that followed, this document ... served as a
shining beacon and an inspiration to many millions of South Africans.
It was proof that they were not alone, but rather part of a great
global movement against racism and colonialism, for human rights,
peace and justice.
It is often said that rights which exist on paper are of no value. But
paper, vision, commitment and action are the powerful tools of peace.
The pages of the Universal Declaration, as Nelson Mandela observed,
have been a source of courage to the downtrodden by showing them that
they are not alone. They also interrogate our sense of solidarity.
Notwithstanding the cruel fact of the persistence of human rights
violations throughout the world, this document has served and will
continue to serve as a reminder that the world community cannot turn a
blind eye to the suffering of the oppressed and the destitute and that
it has a mandate to concern itself and, where possible, offer
succour--beyond all frontiers.
One need look no further than the Preamble of the Declaration to
realise that, while the world around us is evolving at a pace more
rapid than at any other time in human history, the premises on which
the Declaration is founded will remain valid and immutable forever.
Test their relevance against the bitter realities of today's world
events. The Preamble continues to articulate our response. It speaks
of 'barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind'. It
points out that 'it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to
have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and
oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law'.
It reminds us of the close connection between human rights observance
and 'friendly relations between nations'. It ends with a phrase that
goes to the heart of the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary,
that a 'common understanding of the rights and freedoms is of the
greatest importance for the full realisation of this pledge'.
No one reading these phrases today can fail to be struck by their
insight into the connection between denial of human rights and
peace--domestic and international--and their enduring actuality.
But today's world is more complex than it was fifty years ago. There
are now many more participating states than there were in 1948 and
more strident and concerned voices from civil society. The agenda set
by the Declaration is surprisingly apt for these new
complexities-whether they are linked to the rights of indigenous
peoples or the right to development or discrimination on grounds of
gender or on the basis of sexual orientation--but who could have
imagined in 1948 that we would use the fiftieth anniversary of the
Declaration as an opportunity to reposition these fresh concerns and
others in our order of priorities?
It is in this context that the search for global ethical standards and
the work of the Inter Action Council and others in focusing on human
responsibilities brings fresh insights into the interpretation of the
Preamble and Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as
a living document. It is right that we should focus more on duties and
obligations but, I believe, it would be wiser to avoid the distraction
of seeking a new declaration. Instead, we need to recognise and
recommit ourselves to the extent to which these values are implied in
creating through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 'a common
standard of achievement for all people and all nations' which can be
reinforced by greater emphasis on them as values for individuals and
communities in all our civil societies.
It is thanks to the Universal Declaration that human rights have
established themselves everywhere as a legitimate political and moral
concern, that the world community has pledged itself to promote and
protect human rights, that the ordinary citizen has been given a
vocabulary of complaint and inspiration, and that a corpus of
enforceable human rights law is developing in different regions of the
world through effective regional mechanisms.
I would venture to suggest that it has become an elevating force on
the events of our world because it can be seen to embody the legal,
moral and philosophical beliefs held true by all peoples and because
it applies to all. It is precisely this notion of 'universality'--in
the widest sense--that gives it its force. Its universal vocation to
protect the dignity of every human being has captured the imagination
of humanity. It is this vision which explains the enduring mission of
the Declaration and its unsurpassable dominance as a statement of
legal principles. We tamper with it at our peril.
A famous British historian of the last century (Lord Acton) said of
the two pages of the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man that
they weighed more than whole libraries and more than all of Napoleon's
armies. The remark is also fitting for the Universal Declaration.
But I have a preference for a more poetic image partly inspired by
Vaclav Havel. It is that of a tree which was planted for mankind as a
symbol of justice in fertile soil following the end of a great
cataclysm. It has gradually taken root and grown into a unique and
enduring specimen. Much care has been taken to water the ground around
it and to nurture its growth. Cuttings have been taken and planted
throughout the world. We have watched it grow every day. Patiently.
Slowly it has acquired impressive stature.
But like all living things it has a certain fragility. It is part of
our heritage that we have been asked to teach others its history and
purpose and to hand down the skills and commitment needed to sustain
it. Its message will have to be understood and acted upon. Most of
all, and in Havel's words, 'it will need to be looked after with
understanding and humility but also with love'.
[*] Keynote address delivered at the Symposium on Human Rights in the
Asia-Pacific Region, United Nations University, Tokyo, 27 January 1998
By MARY ROBINSON[*],(United Nations High Commissioner for Human