Upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: More important than ever

On December 10, 1948, representatives from countries from all over the world joined together in Paris to draft common principles for the universal protection of human rights. Consequently, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without dissent, and set standards that would come to mark a milestone in the history of human rights. This year, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Declaration.

The period after the Second World War had led the world to a critical juncture. Despite the hostilities that had prevailed for so much of that period, the international community was able to surmount its disagreements and come together to set universal standards. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was composed by representatives of regions all over the world, of differing legal and cultural backgrounds. Egypt was among the countries that participated in the drafting of the Declaration at the General Assembly. Now, 70 years later, the principles enshrined in the Declaration have been accepted by and incorporated into the legal systems of virtually all states. The principles have proven to be universal. They belong to all of us, regardless of ethnic origin, age, language, gender, religious affiliation or socio-economic background.

The Declaration set a road map for human dignity. This map has aided humanity in upholding justice and equality in the hardest of times. In the years between its adoption and the present day, the Declaration has maintained and defended the right to life, as well as freedom of religion and belief. It has aided in the fight against racism and intolerance. It has also enabled people to exercise their democratic rights and to take part in shaping their societies. Furthermore, it has served as an inspiration for many subsequent declarations and treaties, further strengthening the international legal framework.

The principles enshrined in the Declaration remain relevant as the work toward better implementation of the Declaration continues in all parts of the world. Human rights can never be taken for granted.  

To put the Declaration into effect, we need to focus on the daily lives of people. The European Union (EU) not only promotes and defends human rights in international forums and encourages all governments and cooperation partners to adhere to the principles of universal human rights, but also supports members of civil society, who fight every day for the rights of all of us. Human rights workers are at the core of the practical execution of the principles enshrined in the Declaration. To protect their valuable work, it is imperative to ensure space for civil society to operate.

Furthermore, we can all use our voices to put human rights into practice, no matter our profession or position. We can all speak up for the benefit of others, knowing that cherishing the rights of others also safeguards our own rights.

Civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are all interdependent and indivisible. In order for democracy to take root, grow and prosper, all human rights must be respected. Human rights are also interrelated — one right cannot be eschewed in favor of another.

The Declaration maintains the right to a social and international order in which rights and freedoms can be fully realized. Sustaining prosperity necessitates working together for security, but also for the fundamental freedoms of people. A country that enjoys economic welfare can, on the surface, appear unwavering in the application of its legal framework. However, without ensuring political freedoms, including access to information, no nation can prosper. Only a country which grants not only responsibilities, but also freedoms, to its citizens can survive through times of turbulence.

This has proven to be correct across the globe and in various contexts. In the country where I grew up, which was at the time called Czechoslovakia, we enjoyed living standards and an education system that were relatively acceptable. We lacked, however, freedom of expression and assembly, as well as access to information. When the people stood up for their political rights, the seemingly strong state collapsed. Establishing a modern and democratic state that delivers benefits equitably to all people is essential for stability.

Marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I wish to assert my conviction that the principles enshrined in the Declaration do not divide us; they unite us. By marking us as equals, by connecting us across cultures and by empowering us in shaping the international community, human rights continue to guide us in working for a better tomorrow.

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Ivan Surkoš