70 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Speech by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs

Paris, 10 December 2018

Univeral Declaration of Human Rights

Seventy years ago to the day, not far from here, the United Nations, meeting at its General Assembly, together accomplished a gesture that surpassed each of its architects, just as it still surpasses each of us today. They adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That gesture – born out of the horror of a global conflict which had, for the second time, devastated Europe – encapsulated, in the name of all mankind, the hope of seeing the aspiration to justice and freedom one day triumph, on a scale encompassing every nation.

So I wanted us to meet at the Quai d’Orsay to listen to the words of those who defend human rights today, because the spirit that prevailed at the Palais de Chaillot 70 years ago now lives on in their battles and their action.

Human rights are anything but an abstraction: you are best placed to testify to that. The diversity of faces, careers, commitments and witnesses who have spoken today shows it: human rights don’t belong to Paris or New York, the West or the last century: they’re a universal requirement.

The principles enacted in the 1948 declaration, which owe a great deal to the inventiveness of the great French jurists, particularly René Cassin, are the bedrock on which an essential part of international law rests, beginning with the two pacts of 1966 and the other great conventions which have specified, extended and updated the legacy of 1948.

Human rights violations worldwide

These reminders are necessary because human rights are severely under threat today, and your testimony this afternoon has clearly shown that.

In countries gripped by conflict, human rights are being massively violated, from Syria to the Central African Republic, Yemen and Burma (Myanmar). In conflict regions, the most basic rights are being flouted, beginning with the right to life, liberty and security proclaimed in Article 3 of the 1948 declaration. In theatres of conflict, we’re currently witnessing the resurgence of the whole spectrum of war crimes: indiscriminate attacks on civilians, population displacements, the denial of care, the use of famine as a military weapon, the conscription of children, enforced disappearances, systematic torture, sexual violence, summary executions and even the use of chemical weapons.

Human rights defenders

But even from the chaos of conflicts, voices emerge, audible worldwide, speaking out to denounce barbarity. These are the voices we had to hear today. I welcome the presence with us – we’ve just heard her – of Julienne Lusenge, who, with a determination we heard and which commands respect, supports women victims of sexual violence in the context of the conflicts in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I also thank Riad al-Turk for being among us to testify to the ravages of the Syria conflict. I’m also delighted to see Lamiya Aji Bashar, who, for years, has been tirelessly denouncing the crimes committed by Daesh [so-called ISIL] against the Yazidi people.

France fully supports you in this battle, just as we support Nadia Murad, with whom you obtained the Sakharov Prize and who, this year, was distinguished with the Nobel Peace Prize, which is being presented to her this very day.

Violations in democracies

But human rights violations aren’t limited to countries laid waste by conflict. Even in the most established democracies, and within the European Union itself, in particular fuelled by the rise of populist discourse, we’re currently observing significant human rights regressions. Individuals are being insidiously deprived of the opportunity to exercise their civil and political rights; women are encountering difficulties in exercising their sexual and reproductive rights – I’m thinking in particular of access to abortion. Twenty years after the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, thousands of activists, lawyers and NGO leaders are subject to completely unjustified intimidation, threats and imprisonment. According to the work of Michel Forst, who is honouring us by his presence among us today, at least 3,500 people have been killed in the past 20 years because they fought for human rights.


Too often, journalists – who, by informing us, defend everyone’s freedom – also pay with their lives for this regression of rights. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, in unspeakable circumstances, shocked the whole world. Over recent years, investigative journalists have been murdered in Europe, reporters threatened and sexually assaulted in Syria, and Reuters journalists heavily sentenced in Burma. I’d like to pay tribute to Cai Chongguo, who recalled earlier how he had to fight to carry out his work, to the extent of having to choose exile.

Challenges to human rights

These worrying trends are echoed in international forums, where we can see a wave of “ideological” challenges to human rights emerging. In the name of what are presented as higher imperatives, such as states’ sovereignty or cultural heritage, the universality and primacy of human rights are being disputed and sometimes denied. The institutions upholding them, like the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Human Rights Council, are also being strongly and regularly criticized.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the grim picture we unfortunately have to paint today, 70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. It’s the context for the stringent action we must take.

France’s role

It was in Paris in 1789 that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed. And it was in Paris, nearly 200 years later, that the Universal Declaration whose anniversary we’re celebrating today was adopted. Ever since then, France’s loyalty to the struggle for human rights has been unfailing. Our diplomatic service upholds this commitment on the international stage, where we defend all human rights, be they civil or political, economic or social.

2019 will be a year of many international events that will all provide us with opportunities to promote our priorities in the human rights field. France will take over the G7 presidency in 2019, the Security Council presidency in March and the presidency of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers in May; and our campaign for a seat on the Human Rights Council in 2022 will gain impetus. To inject fresh dynamism into this aspect of our international action, I’ve asked the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs to create a new human rights strategy that will identify both methods and priority areas of work. Today I’d like to present to you the key elements of this future strategy.

I identify four levers with which France can conduct more effective international action in the human rights field, alongside what I could call partners in goodwill and in coordination with civil society.

International law

First of all, promoting what’s called “international human rights law” and respect for international humanitarian law, particularly in conflict environments. In every field of international cooperation, states must honour the human rights commitments to which they have freely consented. The stability and security of our international cooperation system depend on it. Neither the development of relations between states nor their political decisions must jeopardize legally established principles. We must remember, in all circumstances, that to violate human rights is to violate the law and therefore leave oneself open to prosecution.

Multilateral bodies

Secondly, we must defend the multilateral institutions, and in particular organizations specializing in promoting human rights. Today, as you know, multilateralism is being targeted in a systematic offensive. However, only international cooperation enables us to deal effectively with the challenges shared by states, beginning with respect for basic rights. And with the help of the G7 presidency, we’ll work to bring together potential partner countries – and there are many – which believe international relations must be governed by law and not the balance of power. And in terms of human rights, we’ll prioritize strengthening collective tools to combat impunity. We’ll go on ensuring stringent but unfailing support for the International Criminal Court’s action, and we’ll also continue our discussions and proposals on the effectiveness of this international criminal justice system and on improving the anti-impunity mechanisms the international community has created. I heard you earlier: [let’s] not make do with resolutions, but put resolutions into action.

Supporting international organizations that promote human rights also means – when some distance or dissociate themselves from them – continuing to breathe life into them. Since its creation, the Human Rights Council has helped improve the situation in many countries and enabled us to react to the threats facing human rights defenders. It’s established an irreplaceable peer-review mechanism for the human rights situation: the Universal Periodic Review. We’ll therefore go on resolutely supporting the Human Rights Council’s action, standing as candidates for 2021-2023, just as we’ll go on supporting the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Human rights must also continue to be defended at the United Nations Security Council. Joint initiatives will be taken with Germany – which will be rejoining the Security Council as an elected member in January – in the field of human rights and humanitarian action, especially when we, Germany and France, successively hold the presidency of that same Security Council in the spring.

We’ll also ensure we maintain stringent and close dialogue on human rights with our European partners, in the framework of our bilateral relations with them, be they within the European Union, the Council of Europe or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, because – as I said at the outset – human rights are regressing everywhere, including in Europe. And the presence alongside us today of Dunja Mijatović, Commissioner for Human Rights, is a powerful symbol in the run-up to the French presidency of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers.


Our third lever is the ability to make use of a broad spectrum of methods for taking action. As far as human rights are concerned, we can’t make do with posture diplomacy or declaratory diplomacy; they’re actually what is easiest. We have a duty to act pragmatically, because the issues we have to deal with are very often actual life-and-death issues. That’s why we must mobilize our whole diplomatic arsenal: sometimes international initiatives and public stances are the most effective route; sometimes it’s in the interest of those we defend for us to act discreetly. When individual cases are at stake, bilateral dialogue is often the most effective method – because in order to be listened to, you have to create a relationship of trust that enables very frank dialogue. That’s how we regularly uphold the cause of Oleg Sentsov, or have put across the rights of Taner Kılıç to Turkish leaders. We’ll continue to raise our concerns about individual situations with the people we speak to. I sometimes hear calls for strong public statements, and when they’re not strong enough people tell us about a lack of courage, but courage, ladies and gentlemen, is telling a statesman, a leader, the truth to his face, and that’s often the best way to act. You have to do both, but it’s not one against the other, it’s both together. I’m thinking especially of Egypt, with which we maintain robust dialogue, in the strong belief that only protecting human rights will make possible the national reconciliation process and an effective fight against terrorism. And I welcome the presence among us of Mr Karim Abdelrady, lawyer for several figures involved in promoting human rights in that country.

Dialogue with civil society

Fourth lever: constant dialogue built with human rights professionals. Governments don’t have the same role as campaigning organizations or human rights defenders. Those roles are complementary. And there’s regular dialogue between the Quai d’Orsay and civil society, and I’d like it to be strengthened further. To this end, the framework document setting the goals of our new human rights strategy, which is being consolidated, will be submitted to partner NGOs as part of a coordinated consultation with the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights. Every year I’d like the results of our action to be presented and assessed at these bodies, because we must be as close as possible to where the needs are.


Finally, our human rights diplomacy must draw more on our cooperation and development aid policy. As you know, the President has made this part of his action, and resources will be significantly increased in 2019. And in accordance with our European commitments, we’ve just adopted, today, an interministerial strategy, “Human rights and development”, which aims to integrate the rights-based approach into our cooperation and development aid action. Development programmes aren’t just gestures of solidarity, they’re also a tool for supporting the implementation of states’ international human rights obligations.

France’s new human rights strategy also identifies the priorities we’ll be supporting over the coming year. You know what they are, but allow me to go back over the main ones.

Civil and political rights

The first of these priorities is our battle for universal civil and political rights. We’ll continue our efforts of persuasion to bring about the universal abolition of the death penalty – the battle you’ve fought your whole life, cher Robert Badinter. France will remain committed to the fight against trafficking in human beings, especially trafficking in migrants. It’s one of the scourges of our time, which is rife a stone’s throw away from Europe’s coastline, particularly in Libya. We are duty-bound to respond to this.

We’ll also continue working towards the universal ratification of all the international instruments to combat enforced disappearances and torture, and to fight against impunity for criminals. Earlier I mentioned the importance of the International Criminal Court. I’m also thinking of the Pinheiro Commission and the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria, and the mechanism responsible for gathering and analysing evidence concerning crimes committed in Burma since 2011. We’ll continue to work, at the Security Council or in the European Union framework, so that our arsenal of sanctions is increased and implemented when there are massive human rights violations.


Our second priority is journalists’ safety. Media pluralism, the right to inform or be informed, the ability to express critical points of view are essential for the democratic debate. When the lives of journalists are threatened, freedom of expression is just empty words. France will continue its efforts to get a post created which, attached to the Secretary-General, is concerned with the protection of journalists in the world. It will support, as part of its G7 presidency, the process launched in Paris during the Paris Peace Forum on 11 November, with the adoption of an International Declaration on Information and Democracy, in partnership with RSF [Reporters Without Borders].

Armed conflicts

In our priorities for 2019, we’ll also be continuing our efforts to promote human rights in armed conflicts. Human rights are incorporated into our own external operations. And to build crisis-resilient societies and rebuild societies destroyed and torn apart by war, French diplomacy will promote the rights of those who will be future players in these societies and consolidate peace. As René Cassin said, “there will be no peace on this planet as long as human rights are violated somewhere in the world.” One of the key issues in discussions on the subject at the Security Council is the place accorded to human rights in peacekeeping operations. You mentioned this earlier, Madam Commissioner. So a series of resolutions brought together under the heading “Women, Peace and Security” has encouraged women to be included in peace processes. We’ll be making the most of the G7 presidency to build on these efforts and this action.

Safety of human rights defenders

Finally, France will continue to be committed to the safety of human rights defenders. Alexander Cherkasov and Rosmit Mantilla’s testimonies have given us an idea of the conditions in which these men and women bravely mobilize themselves in many parts of the world. France will also continue constantly recalling the duty of unconditional protection for people eligible for asylum – an obligation under international law.

We’ll go on defending and protecting people who are particularly threatened or vulnerable. The Nobel Committee is today honouring Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege’s commitment in combating violence against women. With the discrimination women suffer, this violence is one of the most recurrent forms of human rights violations in the world. At my request, in March 2018 we adopted a new international strategy for France for equality between women and men, which focuses not just on official development assistance but also France’s external action in the wider sense. The efforts under way in this area will be continued, particularly thanks to our G7 and Council of Europe presidencies. And, in order to get progress made against a background of increasing conservatism, I’d like to build an international coalition to promote the rights of women and their empowerment. We’ll support an initiative aimed at identifying and promoting the most ambitious women’s rights legislation and work actively to get the 2011 Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence universally applied. We’re going to take the initiative for all this in the international coalition.


Generally speaking, for our 2019 programme we’ll go on promoting an inclusive vision when it comes to combating discrimination, by playing an active part in mechanisms which aim to fight every kind of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and homophobia. We’ll continue our commitment to defending and promoting the rights of LGBTI people, with the universal decriminalization of homosexuality as the main objective. It’s essential, because sadly we’re still a long way off.

I would also like France to continue its commitment to helping the victims of ethnic and religious violence in the Middle East. So in 2019 we’re hosting a follow-up conference on the Paris Action Plan launched by my predecessor. As the President announced, France will contribute to the fund to rebuild Sinjar and, in the next few weeks, host 100 Yazidi women and their children, victims of Daesh, who need protection in France.

Those, ladies and gentlemen, in a few words, are the priorities I wish to promote, and how I intend to implement them in the coming months. Our whole diplomatic and consular network will be mobilized to serve this strategy. Our embassies, which act as an interface with the authorities and societies in the countries where they’re based, are indeed on the front line. And bilateral dialogue, cultural action, support for local NGOs and local human rights defenders, and the distinguished figures involved are all valuable levers for our international human rights efforts.

We’ve often used the phrase “birthplace of human rights” to refer to France. This phrase, which recalls that our history has often overlapped with the history of human rights, does us credit. But let’s beware of any misunderstanding: human rights do not belong to any one people, but are a common good which everyone exercises and is responsible for. So we must continue fighting together for justice and freedom. That is how we’ll keep alive the legacy of the Palais de Chaillot’s Universal Declaration.

Thank you./.

An Alarming Context

The 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be celebrated on 10 December 2018 at a troubling time. Serious violations are multiplying in conflict areas, targeting women and people who belong to ethnic, religious and sexual minorities in particular.
The space granted to freedoms and civil society is shrinking considerably in many countries. Even at the United Nations, some States have been questioning the primacy and universality of human rights.

Universal Human Rights

The 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides an opportunity to recall that human rights are not “values” that need to be adapted to local cultures and identities. Respecting human rights is not a political choice but a legal obligation. They are commitments with a universal scope, principles of law guaranteed by solemn declarations or legally binding treaties.

France’s Commitment to Human Rights

France is working tirelessly to defend the universality and primacy of human rights. Ensuring the respect of these rights is one of the founding principles of the French Republic and is at the core of its foreign policy. The priority for France is first to recreate a space in the law to protect human rights.

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. France also encourages all States who have not yet done so to accede to the Rome Statute.

We also need to strengthen the space dedicated to human rights in all the areas of action of the United Nations.

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.

“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.”
Jean-Yves Le Drian, United Nations General Assembly, 26 September 2018

History of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Human Rights Council is made up of 18 members from various political, cultural and religious backgrounds. The Drafting Committee was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A French legal expert and committee member, René Cassin, composed the first draft of the Declaration.

In 1948, the United Nations sought to establish international cooperation to ensure the respect of fundamental freedoms. The Universal Declaration officially defines these freedoms. The main idea is that everyone can live freely provided that they respect and do not harm the freedom of others. Based on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, the 1948 text expounds on and adds certain rights: the right to work, education, culture and health. Since 1948, it has been expanded even further to cover other areas, such as women’s rights, children’s rights and forced disappearances. The 1948 Declaration also created “duties to the community” for individuals.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in Paris on 10 December 1948 (with eight abstentions and no opposition) by more than 50 States whose different ways of life and of functioning reflected the “universal” nature of the text.

Published on 20/12/2018

top of the page