UN Rights Declaration Turns 60

Historic: US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt holds the Spanish version of the human rights declaration, in 1948.

PARIS ~ Rights champions and diplomats gathered in Paris on Wednesday to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN human rights declaration, arguing its ideals remain as relevant as ever six decades on from its adoption.

Born out of the trauma of World War II, the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights shaped modern concepts of human dignity and served as a template for international rights conventions that followed.

Ninety-year-old Holocaust survivor Stephane Hessel read out its preamble before a gathering of European and United Nations officials, artists and rights groups at 8:00pm, in a solemn ceremony at the Palais de Chaillot near the Eiffel Towel, where it was adopted on December 10, 1948.

“Still today, it is a text worth reading. It is perfectly relevant. All the more so because it has not been upheld – and it is asking us to fight for it,” Hessel, who helped draft the declaration, said.

“We live in a world that tramples on human rights all the time.”

Based on France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the 1776 US Declaration of Independence, the 30-point non-binding text was adopted by 58 UN states, with the atrocities of World War II fresh in their minds.

Article 1 of the text proclaims: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Hessel said that the election of Barack Obama as US president was an indicator of the progress on the equality front.

“Pessimists say things are getting worse and worse, that the world is a terrible place but there has never been so much progress in 60 years,” he said.

“We created a united Europe, we got rid of apartheid, we ended the Soviet Union and its gulags, we set up the International Criminal Tribunal to try rogue heads of state.

“Just look at Obama, a black man at the head of the United States.”

Amnesty International, which was marking the anniversary with a rally in Paris, is looking to Obama to put human rights back at the top of Washington’s agenda, urging him to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison in his first 100 days in power.

“I hope very much that the US really take a strong stand on human rights in the future,” Amnesty’s head Irene Khan said in a recent interview to mark the 60th anniversary.

“And there is every reason for the US to do so. As the world’s largest power, everyone looks at the US as a role model.”

Rights advocates list the sufferings of Palestinians, the atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur, humanitarian disaster in Democratic Republic of Congo or the US rights record in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, as continuing affronts to human rights.

“What the 9/11 attacks did was expose the hypocrisy of Western democracies that until then had been champions of human rights abroad,” Khan said.

The UN declaration did not prevent a new genocide from occurring, in Rwanda in 1994, and basic rights continue to be violated on a daily basis around the globe.

To coincide with the anniversary, the campaign group Survival International issued a plea for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world, from the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode indians of Paraguay to the Kalahari Bushmen in Botswana.

And the ACAT anti-torture group called for a stepped-up efforts to eradicate torture, still thought to be used in half of all countries around the world, as well as outlaw the death penalty.

The address by Hessel, who helped draft the declaration, kicks off an evening of music, speeches and film projections chaired by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

As part of the celebrations, five foreign NGOs working to uphold the rights of women and children in Uzbekistan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco and Somalia were to receive a special human rights prize.

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