(AFP) – Dec 10, 2008
PARIS (AFP) — Six decades after the United Nations endorsed the fundamental principles of our shared human rights, campaigners Wednesday demanded action to defend these values against the worst abuses.
While for some the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was cause to celebrate great advances in dignity, angry voices were raised in countries such as China, Zimbabwe and Greece.
In China, where the years since the declaration have seen enormous economic advances but iron-fisted one-party rule, several human rights activists were rounded up and arrested in the days leading up to the anniversary.
Police detained at least four activists after 300 intellectuals, dissidents and writers signed Charter 08, an open letter published online calling for democracy in China and timed to coincide with the celebrations.
In Zimbabwe, black-robed lawyers marched on Parliament and the Supreme Court to protest human rights abuses -- including the kidnapping of activists -- by supporters of President Robert Mugabe's beleaguered regime.
Meanwhile in Greece, young demonstrators rioted for the fifth straight day in protest at the slaying by police of a 15-year-old boy.
Other countries saw lesser violations of the spirit of the 1948 Declaration, such as in Iran, where state agents confiscated rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh's passport to prevent her from flying to Italy to receive an award.
Against this backdrop, UN chief Ban Ki-moon, in a video message from Poznan, Poland where he is attending a major climate change parley, said: "It is my hope that we will act on our collective responsibility to uphold the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration."
"We can only honor the towering vision of that inspiring document when its principles are fully applied everywhere, for everyone," he added.
And the 192-member UN General Assembly marked the occasion by awarding the 2008 United Nations in the Field of Human Rights to several personalities as well as to Human Rights Watch.
Honored were: Pillay's predecessor, Louise Arbour of Canada, former US attorney general Ramsey Clark, Dr Denis Muekwege honored for his tireless work helping female patients recover from horrific sexual and physical violence in Democratic Republic of Congo and Dr Carolyn Gomes, executive director of the citizens action group, Jamaicans For Justice.
Former Pakistani premier Benazir Bhutto, assassinated last year in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, and US-Brazilian Sister Dorothy Stang, a staunch defender of the poor and the environment murdered in the Amazon in 2005 after previously receiving death threats from loggers and landowners, were also awarded the prize posthumously.
Meanwhile champions of human rights were gathering in Paris to mark the anniversary.
Born out of the trauma of World War II, the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration 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 its preamble before world officials, artists and rights groups at 8:00 pm (1900 GMT), in a ceremony at the Palais de Chaillot, 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, told AFP.
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 initially adopted by 58 states, with World War II's atrocities fresh in their minds.
"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights," proclaimed Article 1 of the text.
"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," Hessel said, citing the election of Barack Obama as the first black US president.
"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."
Amnesty International, which was marking the anniversary with a rally in Paris, has urged Obama to put human rights back at the top of Washington's agenda and to close the notorious Guantanamo Bay military prison.
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