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70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Texts of the pre­sen­ta­tions on the 3rd of Decem­ber 2018 in Gene­va at the Palais des Nations

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Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and other International Organizations in Geneva

   “The Gen­er­al Assem­bly, pro­claims this Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights as a com­mon stan­dard of achieve­ment for all peo­ples and all nations, to the end that every indi­vid­ual and every organ of soci­ety, keep­ing this Dec­la­ra­tion con­stant­ly in mind, shall strive by teach­ing and edu­ca­tion to pro­mote respect for these rights and free­doms and by pro­gres­sive mea­sures, nation­al and inter­na­tion­al, to secure their uni­ver­sal and effec­tive recog­ni­tion and obser­vance, both among the peo­ples of Mem­ber States them­selves and among the peo­ples of ter­ri­to­ries under their jurisdiction.”’ 

Sev­en­ty years ago, the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights (UDHR) stat­ed, for the first time in the his­to­ry of mod­ern States, the pri­ma­cy of free­dom and the uni­ty of the human fam­i­ly over and above any polit­i­cal or ide­o­log­i­cal divi­sions based on race, sex, reli­gion or any oth­er human char­ac­ter­is­tic. The objec­tive was to defend the indi­vid­ual from the absolute promi­nence of the State, which total­i­tar­i­an ide­olo­gies might “divinise” and thus pro­mote as an alter­na­tive way to build the “city of man”. 

The UDHR rep­re­sent­ed a new attempt to erad­i­cate the ele­ments allow­ing vio­lence and geno­cide in the past World Wars and to affirm the impor­tance and cen­tral­i­ty of the human being in the rela­tions between States and the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­ni­ty, all with the aim to build a new and more peace­ful future. To achieve this ambi­tious goal, the Dec­la­ra­tion recog­nised the nat­ur­al rights of every indi­vid­ual, affirm­ing the pri­ma­cy of life, the impor­tance of social com­mu­ni­ty, and the need to build struc­tures capa­ble of guar­an­tee­ing democ­ra­cy, rule of law, and accountability.

The Dec­la­ra­tion was not only a sim­ple procla­ma­tion but a new stance tak­en by the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­ni­ty as a whole, and it aimed to place human dig­ni­ty among the high­est val­ues which organ­ise the inter­nal and exter­nal behav­iour of nations, soci­eties, and gov­ern­ments. This stance is still valid today; more impor­tant­ly, it can­not be sub­sti­tut­ed because it is the only approach that ele­vates the indi­vid­ual as the pri­ma­ry actor and recip­i­ent of all polit­i­cal deci­sion while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly eval­u­at­ing the social impli­ca­tions of the rights shared among all human beings.

With great respect, the Holy See recog­nis­es “all the true, good and just ele­ments inher­ent in the very wide vari­ety of insti­tu­tions which the human race has estab­lished for itself and con­stant­ly con­tin­ues to establish’7 There­fore, it has always con­sid­ered this Dec­la­ra­tion as ‘a step in the right direc­tion, an approach toward the estab­lish­ment of a juridi­cal and polit­i­cal order­ing of the world community’?

The Dec­la­ra­tion rep­re­sents a very pre­cious ref­er­ence point for cross- cul­tur­al dis­cus­sion of human dig­ni­ty and free­dom in the world. The quo­ta­tion shared at the open­ing of this arti­cle con­cludes the UDHR Pre­am­ble and estab­lish­es the goal of this doc­u­ment, which is now shared by nine addi­tion­al human rights treaties elab­o­rat­ed in the past sev­en­ty years fol­low­ing the Declaration.

In the present era, the inter­na­tion­al con­text has changed rad­i­cal­ly, and the entire struc­ture of the human rights doc­trine and law is strug­gling to con­front new the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal threats. On one hand, the con­sen­sus that approved the Dec­la­ra­tion and reaf­firmed it through the adop­tion of the Vien­na Dec­la­ra­tion and the relat­ed Pro­gramme of Action twen­ty-five years ago, seems to be weak­ened; mean­while, dif­fer­ent con­cep­tions, and even denun­ci­a­tions of human rights as a mere prod­uct of West­ern cul­ture, are gain­ing ground in dif­fer­ent inter­na­tion­al and region­al fora. On the oth­er hand, recent decades have wit­nessed the birth of the cat­e­go­ry of so— called “new rights”, emerg­ing from a the­o­ret­i­cal approach that frag­ments the human being and pro­motes a selec­tive and often con­flict­ing con­cept of indi­vid­ual free­dom. These dif­fer­ent stances lead to mis­per­cep­tions and con­fu­sion that under­mine the glob­al recog­ni­tion of human rights as uni­ver­sal in their nature, thus risk­ing triv­i­al­iz­ing “one of the high­est expres­sions of the human con­science of our time”.’ 

In its actions at the Unit­ed Nations, as well as in all its inter­na­tion­al posi­tions, the Holy See has always sup­port­ed the imple­men­ta­tion of this impor­tant Dec­la­ra­tion and con­sis­tent­ly reaf­firms that we share a com­mon human dignity—dignity which pro­vides the indis­pens­able back­ground that sus­tains the inter­re­lat­ed­ness, uni­ver­sal­i­ty, and indi­vis­i­bil­i­ty of human rights.

As Pope Fran­cis posit­ed dur­ing an address to the diplo­mat­ic corps accred­it­ed to the Holy See: ‘From a Chris­t­ian per­spec­tive, there is a sig­nif­i­cant rela­tion between the Gospel mes­sage and the recog­ni­tion of human rights in the spir­it of those who draft­ed the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights.’^ Indeed, it is this ‘spir­it’ that we have to recov­er and re-pro­pose to the world and to every human being, by empha­siz­ing that ‘recog­ni­tion of the inher­ent dig­ni­ty and of the equal and inalien­able rights of all mem­bers of the human fam­i­ly is the foun­da­tion of free­dom, jus­tice and peace in the world’. 

The aim of this book­let is to present cer­tain aspects of the Holy See’s posi­tion and reem­pha­size the orig­i­nal intent of the Dec­la­ra­tion. This requires, for instance, clar­i­fi­ca­tion on why the right to life is ‘the supreme right from which no dero­ga­tion is per­mit­ted’^ and has cru­cial impor­tance both for indi­vid­u­als and for soci­ety as a whole. The effec­tive pro­tec­tion of the right to life is the pre­req­ui­site for the enjoy­ment of all oth­er human rights. There­fore, the right to life requires a com­mit­ment to uphold life from con­cep­tion to nat­ur­al death. In all its inter­ven­tions at the Unit­ed  Nation and oth­er inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions, the Holy See upholds the orig­i­nal ideals of the U.N. Char­ter and the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights, main­tain­ing the anthro­po­log­i­cal con­cep­tion of the human being as an indi­vid­ual in con­struc­tive rela­tion with oth­er human beings, all shar­ing the same equal dig­ni­ty from con­cep­tion to nat­ur­al death.

The drafters of the UDHR knew that the suc­cess of their effort would require devel­op­ing, over time, a ‘com­mon under­stand­ing’ of the mean­ing of the document—as the Pre­am­ble states explic­it­ly. More­over, the devel­op­ment of the vocab­u­lary of human rights pro­found­ly influ­enced the effec­tive imple­men­ta­tion of the UDHR over the next decades. The attempts to rewrite the pro­found mean­ing of human rights a pos­te­ri­ori have often brought less clar­i­ty and con­flict, weak­en­ing the same struc­ture that was intend­ed to rein­vig­o­rate and expand. In fact, the uni­lat­er­al affir­ma­tion of ‘new rights’, based on cer­tain the­o­ret­i­cal and anthro­po­log­i­cal views, has favoured those who blame the entire struc­ture of human rights as being influ­enced by West­ern cul­ture or, even worse, as a new kind of cul­ture coloni­sa­tion. How­ev­er, these accu­sa­tions fail to under­stand that the UDHR was ‘the out­come of a con­ver­gence of dif­fer­ent reli­gious and cul­tur­al tra­di­tions, all of them moti­vat­ed by the com­mon desire to place the human per­son at the heart of insti­tu­tions, laws and the work­ings of soci­ety’ rather than the impo­si­tion of one cul­ture on all oth­ers.   In the polit­i­cal vocab­u­lary of human rights today, even a min­i­mal agree­ment on the core mean­ing of human dig­ni­ty is rapid­ly dis­ap­pear­ing and becom­ing frag­ment­ed into inco­her­ence. In the ‘pol­i­tics’ of human rights, dig­ni­ty is invoked for the most dis­parate and con­tra­dic­to­ry ideas, so much so that it is essen­tial­ly impov­er­ished of its mean­ing in some human rights dis­course and decon­struct­ed into dif­fer­ent, often con­flict­ing, parts. Human dig­ni­ty is fre­quent­ly used to jus­ti­fy many so-called ‘new rights’, even those which con­tra­dict or deny the very ori­gin of their basis, which are exten­sive­ly and expert­ly pre­sent­ed in the con­tri­bu­tions to this book­let. The illus­tra­tions of the decon­struc­tion and rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of dig­ni­ty are numer­ous, but in the inter­est of brevi­ty, I will cite only one promi­nent exam­ple, name­ly the polit­i­cal efforts in many con­sti­tu­tion­al and inter­na­tion­al con­texts aimed at legal­iz­ing physi­cian-assist­ed sui­cide and more active forms of euthana­sia; they have tak­en the word ‘dig­ni­ty’ as their ral­ly­ing cry—‘death with dig­ni­ty.’ Con­se­quent­ly, dig­ni­ty has become some­thing that is achieved through a prob­lem­at­ic act of will rather than some­thing inher­ent in the per­son that is invi­o­lable and wor­thy of respect.

If we want to rein­vig­o­rate the human rights struc­ture, favour­ing the glob­al imple­men­ta­tion of the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion and safe­guard­ing the con­cept of uni­ver­sal­i­ty that is at the core of the Dec­la­ra­tion, we should aban­don those inter­pre­ta­tions of rights that are objec­tive­ly dis­tant from the found­ing texts and thus con­tribute to mak­ing uni­ver­sal con­sen­sus much more dif­fi­cult. If we fail to do this, we risk cre­at­ing a ‘con­flict of anthro­polo­gies’, which has already inten­si­fied by the process of glob­al­iza­tion and human mobil­i­ty.® It is impor­tant to clar­i­fy that the rights rec­og­nized by the UDHR were not intend­ed to be rein­ter­pret­ed or reshaped accord­ing to the polit­i­cal or social ten­den­cies of the moment. Indeed, they are derived from the human dig­ni­ty that is com­mon, shared, and inher­ent to every human being, regard­less of any oth­er difference. 

The Pre­am­ble of the UDHR con­cludes with clear and well-defined objec­tives, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly iden­ti­fy­ing every human being and insti­tu­tion as an active par­tic­i­pant in the imple­men­ta­tion and expan­sion of human rights—rights which ulti­mate­ly aim to ‘secure their uni­ver­sal and effec­tive recog­ni­tion’?® The fol­low­ing arti­cles with­in the book­let encom­pass con­tri­bu­tions of dif­fer­ent authors and of the Holy See, all com­mit­ted to the com­mon effort of the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­ni­ty to build a bet­ter world where “the uni­ver­sal­i­ty, indi­vis­i­bil­i­ty and inter­de­pen­dence of human rights all serve as guar­an­tees safe­guard­ing human dignity”.’ 

Fac­ing the chal­lenges and con­flicts of our time, we should rec­og­nize that due respect of human rights is the true source of peace. Today, the mul­ti­lat­er­al sys­tem is blocked and encoun­ters enor­mous dif­fi­cul­ties; in the mean­time, many inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions are strug­gling against a grow­ing lack of legit­i­ma­cy. In this regard, the 70th Anniver­sary of the UDHR can be a turn­ing point. Though direct­ly refer­ring to a pre­vi­ous eco­nom­ic cri­sis. Pope Bene­dict XVI’s encour­ag­ing words from his Encycli­cal Let­ter Car­i­tas in Ver­i­tate hold wis­dom for us today, espe­cial­ly in our strug­gle to rec­og­nize basic human truths: ‘The cur­rent cri­sis oblig­es us to re-plan our jour­ney, […] to dis­cov­er new forms of com­mit­ment, to build on pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences and to reject neg­a­tive ones. The cri­sis thus becomes an oppor­tu­ni­ty for dis­cern­ment, in which to shape a new vision for the future’.^^ This Anniver­sary rep­re­sents a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to reaf­firm the UDHR’s piv­otal impor­tance as a ref­er­ence point for glob­al and cross-cul­tur­al dis­cus­sion on human rights, free­dom, and dig­ni­ty. It rep­re­sents fur­ther oppor­tu­ni­ty to restate those very con­cepts of human rights, democ­ra­cy, rule of law, and indi­vid­ual free­dom that have their roots in the recog­ni­tion and pro­mo­tion of human dig­ni­ty. The rel­e­vant­work of the Unit­ed Nations should serve as a base and build­ing-block on which to acknowl­edge this tran­scen­dent dig­ni­ty and in order to ful­fil the hope that ‘this Insti­tu­tion, all its mem­ber States, and each of its offi­cials, will always ren­der an effec­tive ser­vice to mankind, a ser­vice respect­ful of diver­si­ty and capa­ble of bring­ing out, for the sake of the com­mon good, the best in each peo­ple and in every individual’.” 

Gene­va, Decem­ber 2018