The UN Declaration Of Human Rights 60th Anniversary Celebration

A wonderful speech given by Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs * speaking in his personal capacity on 10 Dec 2008



1                         Sixty three years ago, the guns of war fell silent, bringing an end to history’s deadliest war.  The world had never seen before, destruction and killing on such a scale.  Deeds of unspeakable evil were committed.  None was more evil than Hitler’s attempt to exterminate all the Jews of Europe.


2                         In 1945, the leaders of the victorious allies, especially Roosevelt and Churchill, created a new liberal world order.  The order was anchored in institutions, such as, the UN, World Bank, IMF, the GATT, and founded on respect for the rule of law and for international law.  The UN was founded in 1945 and, in the following year, the UN Commission on Human Rights was created.  The Commission was chaired by the wife of FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt.  In 1948, the Commission submitted the draft Declaration on Human Rights, to the 3rd UN General Assembly, for its approval.  On 10 December 1948, the Assembly adopted the declaration, at its meeting in Paris.  It is a happy coincidence that France is the current Chair of the EU Council.


Six Questions


3                         In 1948, the UN had only 58 member States, in sharp contrast to its current membership of 192.  Most of the countries of Asia and Africa had not yet been granted their right of self-determination.  They did not participate in the drafting and adoption of the Declaration.  Therefore, we cannot claim any parental pride in the declaration.  Should we, Singaporeans, nevertheless, join the world in celebrating its 60th birthday?  What has the Universal Declaration achieved?  Does the Declaration have any imperfections?  Should the West have welcomed, instead of rejected the Draft Universal of Human Responsibilities?  Is the doctrine of “Responsibility To Project” a helpful addition?  What are the difficulties, in practice, of promoting the universal observance of human rights?  I will attempt to answer these questions briefly.


Question No. 1 : Should We Join the Party?


4                         Should we, Singaporeans, join the world in celebrating the 60th birthday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?  I think we should join the party because the birthday girl has given hope and inspiration to the oppressed and persecuted and has helped to make this a more humane world.  Singapore subscribes to the principles contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Question No. 2 : What Has She Achieved?


5                         What has the Universal Declaration achieved in the past 60 years?  She has mothered a large family of international legal instruments on human rights as well as many important declarations.  Let me mention some of the most important conventions:



(i)              Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948);

(ii)            Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951);

(iii)           Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1953);

(iv)           Slavery Convention (1926), amended by protocol (1953);

(v)             International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1966);

(vi)           International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966);

(vii)          International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966);

(viii)        Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979);

(ix)          Convention Against Torture (1984);

(x)            Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989);  and

(xi)          International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (1990).


6                         In addition to the conventions and declarations, the Universal Declaration has also inspired the different regions of the world to advance the cause of human rights at the regional level.  Europe is the most advanced region, with an European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950) and a plethora of other conventions, protocols, charters, and an European Court of Human Rights.  In the case of North and South America, we have the American Convention on Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court for the Protection of Human Rights.  Africa has the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights.


7                         The ASEAN Charter, which will come into force on 15 December 2008, will establish the ASEAN Human Rights Body.  Its terms of reference are currently being drafted by a High Level Panel, which is making good progress.  The terms of reference, like the Charter, is an enabling document.  It will set a broad direction and the ASEAN Human Rights Body will make progress, in an evolutionary manner, and by learning from practice.  The ASEAN Human Rights Body will also have to take into account the diversity of the ASEAN family.


Questions 3 and 4 : Human Rights and Human Responsibilities


8                         I will combine my questions 3 and 4.  One possible imperfection of the Universal Declaration is its emphasis on the rights of the individual.  Historically, this is understandable because of what happened during the Second World War and because Asians and Africans had little say in the formulation of the declaration.  A group of the elder statesmen of the world, belonging to the InterAction Council, spent 10 years (1987 to 1997) formulating a draft Declaration on Human Responsibilities.  In 1997, they, led by former Dutch Prime Minister, Andries Van Agt, and former German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, submitted the document to the UN for its consideration on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration.  Europe and America were so opposed to the document that they succeeded in blocking its submission to the UN.  It was quite extraordinary for Europeans and Americans who profess to believe in freedom of speech and thought, to have closed ranks to “silence” the voices of a group of our elder statesmen, including such Western luminaries as Van Agt, Schmidt, Jimmy Carter, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, and others.

9                         What did the draft Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities contain?  It contains 19 articles on responsible behaviour.  The central argument is that freedom must be balanced by responsibility.  Thus, for example, the right to free speech must be balanced by the responsibility to speak truthfully; the freedom of the media to criticise governmental actions must be used with responsibility and discretion; and the freedom of religion must be balanced by the responsibility to avoid expressions of prejudice and acts of discrimination towards those of different beliefs.  Article 15 also enjoins the representatives of religions “not to incite or legitimise hatred, fanaticism, and religious wars, but should foster tolerance and mutual respect between all people”.


10                      My view is that rights and obligations go hand in hand.  I have a right to my religious belief, or to have no belief, but I have no right to denigrate the beliefs of others.  A European journalist or newspaper has no right to denigrate Islam or the Prophet Mohammed.  The freedom of speech and of the press must be balanced by the responsibility to respect the religious faiths of others.  I hope that one day, the UN General Assembly will adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities.


Questions 5 and 6 : R2P and Realities


11                      I recently watched an episode of Christiane Amanpour’s programme, “Cry Bloody Murder”, on CNN. The episode was on genocide.  It began by discussing the massacre of Armenians during the First World War and the Holocaust.  It then described how, for various political reasons, the West did nothing to protest against Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in Northern Iraq, the failure of the UN Security Council to stop the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, and the failure by NATO to stop the slaughter of Muslims by the Bosnian Serbs for three years, and the failure by the UN to protect the Muslims in the so-called safe haven of Srebrenica, etc.  After watching the programme, I could not help but conclude that on human rights, our deeds often do not match our words.  My other conclusion is that politics will usually trump principle and interest will trump value.


12                      My concluding thought is that there is some truth in the cynical statement that the path to hell is often paved with good intention.  Let me take you back to last year when, out of the blue, the typhoon Nargis hit Myanmar, especially the Irrawaddy Delta.  Initially, the Myanmar Government declined to accept international assistance.  This stance shocked the world.  Some of our Western friends threatened the Myanmar Government with the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect.  France and the United States sent humanitarian relief on their war ships.  In order to break the impasse, the ASEAN countries offered to take the supplies from the war ships and bring them on shore, but France and the United States refused.  In the end, it was at a special meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers, held in Singapore on Lord Buddha’s birthday, that ASEAN succeeded in persuading the Government of Myanmar to accept international assistance and to agree to allow ASEAN and the UN to co-chair a pledging conference in Yangon.  Later, again, through gentle persuasion, Myanmar accepted ASEAN’s proposal for a tripartite team, comprising representatives of ASEAN, the UN and Myanmar, to visit the Delta and to undertake a comprehensive survey of the extent of the devastation and the assistance needed for the area’s recovery.  This mission was successfully accomplished.




13                      Let me conclude.  First, we should celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The Declaration has been a beacon for the oppressed and the persecuted.  It has also led to the development of a major corpus of conventions, protocols, charters, declarations to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.  The world has become a more humane and civilised home for humanity.


14                      Second, I believe the West made a mistake in 1998 when it prevented the UN General Assembly from considering the draft Declaration of Human Responsibilities.  Rights and responsibilities are the yin and yang or head and tail of the same coin.  The world would be a better home if freedom is balanced by responsibility.  As a broad generalisation, I would say that in the West, there is too much freedom and not enough responsibility whereas, in the East, there is too much responsibility and not enough freedom.


15                      Third, in the real world, no country can have a foreign policy based exclusively on human rights or even on human rights as its first priority.  Every country has to balance its commitment to human rights against its other interests.  As a result, we cannot expect consistency in any country’s human rights policy.  We should also acknowledge that we live in a world of diversity.  We have different histories, cultures and values.  As a result, we view the same picture and draw different conclusions.  A few years ago, my Foreign Minister, George Yeo, said that instead of criticising China’s shortcomings in human rights, China should be given a Nobel Peace Prize because no country has ever lifted so many people out of poverty in such a short time.  He said this in all sincerity because his maternal grandparents lived in southern China and suffered decades of poverty.


Thank you very much.

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