Prof. Ole Espersen

How to Make the Declaration a Living Reality?



Speech by the CBSS Commissioner on Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, including the Rights of Persons belonging to Minorities, Professor Mr. Ole Espersen, at the University of Latvia on December 11, 1999 devoted to the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.



It is an honour for me to speak at the University of Latvia at this special occasion, and I warmly thank you for your kind invitation.

The celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has, I think, a special bearing in Latvia and other countries which - for well known and most tragic reasons - were unable to participate when this document was adopted. With this in mind, I am particularly pleased to be present to celebrate the 50th Anniversary in Latvia.


Paris. December 1948.
Forty eight votes in favour.
None against.
Eight abstentions.

The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly was the first crucial step on the march to reach out, to touch and to change nations and people - all over the world - with a Declaration which phrase the inherent rights and dignity of all human beings.

The adoption of the Declaration was a first step in the sense that from now on efforts to forward the standing of human rights could lean on an international statement on the essence of human rights. Within the field of human rights, the Declaration provided the first international instrument resting on international foundation.

The struggle to protect and promote human rights gained momentum from the very existence of the Declaration, and many international treaties and declarations on human rights have been signed and ratified since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The United Nations had fifty eight member states in 1948. The world had faced uproar and tragedy. Given the historical circumstances it is remarkable - and inspiring - to consider that a large number of states united to define a common declaration, a common platform. Representing a wide variety of cultural, political and religious aspects they managed to set their eyes on a common good, a common goal.

The result of their efforts - the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - is celebrated worldwide this year. I think we should also celebrate - and be inspired by - the work that preceded the adoption of the Declaration. There were obstacles and pitfalls in different and sometimes conflicting views on the contents of the document. Overcoming obstacles and pitfalls naturally involved difficult moments for individual states, but they made it and a document of paramount importance was taking shape and was finally ready to be presented to the United Nations General Assembly.

That moment in time - a cold winter day in Paris 1948 - which we, and many friends around the globe, recognise today gave a scattered world a platform for change, a platform of hope, a platform for action. The thirty articles of the Declaration spelled out direction and meaning at a time when nations and people had been recently hurt by the horrors of two world wars. In 1948, the world needed this document.

If we write 1998 instead, we can say the same. The world needs the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.



Once the Declaration was adopted I think many reflected that it phrased something we already knew - a kind of knowledge which is beyond acquired professional expertise or education, it is something we know from being human. Inherent rights, inherent knowledge.

The Declaration holds a timeless message. Today, fifty years after adoption, it is an important instrument and a constant presence in current affairs all over the world. In another fifty years, I am sure, this will remain the same. In an ever changing world where events and developments occur with increasing speed and intensity there will always be this need for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is at the same time an instrument for change and a reminder of values which are universal and timeless.



A question on the present standing and status of human rights would most certainly produce a number of interesting replies from this audience, and I hope you will share your views in the discussion in a little while.

When I think of the standing of human rights in 1998, as we approach a new millenium, I tend to think in terms of awareness and frustration.

There is a comparatively high awareness of human rights today and for this, I am sure, we can pay tribute to the Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration has played a vital and active role since it phrases the essence of human rights. It is a concrete reference, and the very existence of it has pushed many people to proceed from mere thinking to determined action. There are many fine advocates of human rights all over the world who gain their principal inspiration from the contents of the Declaration of Human Rights.

At the end of this century we also experience a lot of frustration in this field. There is legitimate frustration on continuos and severe violations of human rights, frustration on insufficient progress and lack of practical means to implement human rights.

Frustration may lead to passivity. It may also be a call for ardent activity.

Awareness and frustration. For the years to come, it is my hope that increased awareness and the surrounding frustration will unite in constructive human rights action rather than in faint passivity. I also hope that governments will make result insufficient progress and lack of practical means to implement human rights are often a matter of limited budgets. Awareness and action on government level are indeed important to advance the standing of human rights.



In the midst of shortcomings and difficulties in the field of human rights we should also recognise the tremendous impact of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration is known and used all over the world, it has been translated into two hundred and fifty national and local languages. Today the Declaration is as important as ever, and as we continue towards future anniversaries of this document we can benefit from a platform which has been strengthened by five decades of ceaseless efforts to enhance the impact of the Declaration among nations and people.




How to make the Declaration a living reality? To continuously ask this question is to connect with the spirit of the Declaration, which has a message which is clear although not spelled out in writing. The message is "do something". Read and know the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with its thirty articles, and do something.

The Declaration gives a comprehensive account of human rights. It acknowledges civil and political rights as well as economic, cultural and social rights. The Declaration puts the limelight on all kinds of human relation and human interaction. It is an entity, a package of non-negotiable rights which place duty and responsibility on the part of governments who have adopted the Declaration.

In order to come closer to the Declaration, in order to make this comprehensive document more "workable" it is useful to single out separate articles and evaluate specific areas from the point of view of progress and shortcomings, with the aim of paving the way for further improvements. To focus specifically on a separate article in the context of my country, my region or the world at large is a good practice and may inspire new and necessary plans for action and change.



Allow me to focus specifically on two articles of the Declaration.

Article 19 states that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression". This article is a cornerstone of a democratic society. People in so called old democracies tend to forget not to take the freedom of expression for granted. We should not forget to take a moment or two to consider how grossly this article has been, and still is, violated around the world. I think that this is one article which has a special standing in Latvia and other countries which have had to reclaim the right to freedom of expression.

Article 3 states that "Everyone has the right to life. " We know that this article is brutally violated every day. This article is also central in the discussion on the death penalty. The state should not deliberately kill people - not even those who have committed very serious crime - and thereby institute state sanctioned violation of the third article of the Declaration, state sanctioned violation of the right to live. This is one major argument against the death penalty. Those who favour the death penalty maintain that this is the only lust punishment for gruesome criminal acts, and that this punishment has to be used in order for society-to effectively disassociate itself from grave criminality.

I have frequently made clear that I am against the death penalty and hope to see it abolished all over the world, not the least within the circle of the CBSS member states. To have or not to have the death penalty is a fundamental issue - the choice has far reaching ramifications for the whole society, it puts a signum on society.



During the past fifty years we have seen repeated violations of basic human rights, but we have also seen a human rights movement which has developed a world wide network on different levels for the protection and the promotion of human rights. There exist today a strong world wide partnership with the aim of making the Declaration a living reality for everyone, everywhere. We know that much remain to be done. We also know that much is being done by the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the OSCE and many other organizations including an impressive number of NGOs.

The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a first step. The first fifty years after adoption have developed and cemented the universal platform created by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

The question "How to make the Declaration a Living Reality?" is at the core of the work performed by the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, NGOs and others. This is also the case within the Council of the Baltic Sea States. The aim of making the Declaration a living reality within the CBSS is a corner stone of the mandate assigned to me as OBSS Commissioner of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, including the rights of Persons belonging to Minorities.



How do we protect and promote each and everyone of the articles in the Declaration of Human Rights?

This is a very valid question in all parts of the world, in every country all over the globe. This question has to have a permanent and prominent position on the political agenda, and it has to be asked over and over again: How do we protect and promote each and everyone of the articles in the Declaration of Human Rights?

One simple question and a host of answers. Answers which perhaps tend to focus on abuse and shortcomings in the field of human rights in other countries, in other parts of the world. When we picture the international community we can all give too many examples of where and how the articles of the Declaration are subject to violent and continuos abuse. Just a quick glance in the morning paper or a brief look at the evening news is enough.

Obvious abuse of the Declaration of Human Rights is painful and traumatic reality for many, many of our fellow human beings. The sheer extent of it, the enormous number of individuals who suffer can be a signal to those who happen to be in a more favourable location to distance oneself from events and developments which are difficult to understand and unpleasant to think of. However, behind numbers and crude statistics are faces, hearts and souls of individuals - faces, hearts and souls of persons who are our fellow human beings.

There are indeed places where the letter of the Declaration has made progress, places where the spirit of the Declaration is present in lawmaking and government procedure. Places where there are few or no reports on obvious and open human rights violation.

Still, and this is important, no government can rest assured when it comes to human rights. No government can proclaim that this or that country is sate and secure from violations of human rights. I think we need to develop an eagle's eye for misconduct and violation of human rights - in every country.

Well being on the level of the individual is central in the work to protect and promote human rights. Furthermore, countries where human rights play an important role have developed stable and secure societies.



We collect our past experiences, blend them with our hopes for the future and move on. To bring along the past is very natural - the past does leave a mark on us. However, we should try to "travel lightly" and not let the past be a burdensome luggage.

Someone told me that taking part of history lessons on WW II in school clearly affected her. She paid great attention to what the teachers said and understood that these lessons were important. Some years later, in a country which had been severely wounded by the war she suddenly realized that many of her friends in the neighborhood did not have grandfathers. They had been killed in the war, leaving wives and underage children behind.

She told me that the pattern of missing grandfathers in this neighborhood, several decades after the war, made a deep and lasting impression on her. This experience was perhaps an even more instructive lesson on the horrors and absurdities of war than the ones she ever received at school. Also, it was a simple and telling story fit to present even to the very young.

I think progress in the field of human rights can be well served by a good sense of history and a sincere will to learn from the past - not cling to it - and move forward.



The Declaration of Human Rights is a universal document. This 50th Anniversary is acknowledged all over the world. Personally, I am very glad to be in Riga, Latvia on this special occasion.

I sometimes get questions on "what should be done" in the area of human rights in light of Latvia's position in Europe.

To point at possibilities and make recommendations is part of my work and the mandate assigned to me as CBSS Commissioner on Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, including Persons belonging to Minorities.

The bottom line when confronted with questions on "what should be done" is that Latvia should engage in issues on human rights because it is good for the Latvian society. If the Declaration of Human Rights is a living reality in Latvia it is because it is anchored in the Latvian society, with the people who call Latvia their home.



Let us make good use of the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.

Indeed, the years to come is a more valid focus than the past at an occasion like this. Let this 50th Anniversary be a point of departure for yet further and stronger efforts to implement the articles of the Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration presents a constant challenge and an urgent call to make the thirty articles a living reality for more and more people - in our own countries, in our region and around the globe.

We should not just celebrate today. People all over the world lack basic human rights, and at this very moment, as we meet here at the University, fellow human beings experience what it means to lack basic human rights.

We should not just celebrate today, but acknowledge that the Declaration of Human Rights provides us with a useful tool and a strong companion in our struggle to change the situation for persons whose human rights are abused.

More than a time for festive celebration, an occasion like this is an opportunity to take stock of the situation in the field of human rights. It is an opportunity for each and everyone to pause and reflect on what has been done and what needs to be done. Let us pause and reflect today and then go on with our work.



As I have been given the privilege to address this honourable audience at the University of Latvia on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights I would like to mention another anniversary which came and went without celebration here in Riga, but was recognised in other parts of the world, namely the 25th anniversary of the University of Latvia in 1944.

"Balticum shall live!"
is the title of a book I keep in my office. It is a collection of short essays and articles dedicated to "The brave people of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (....) in the assurance of the imminent liberation."

One entry, first published in a major Swedish newspaper in September 1944, focus on the 25th anniversary of the University of Latvia. It recalls that the inauguration of the University in September 1919 was the starting point for a dynamic period where the University claimed its position in the international sphere of research and academic exchange. In 1944 the situation was different - much different. In light of this, the events of the last decade and the recent celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Proclamation of the Republic of Latvia I found the end of article quite moving. On the nature and attitude of the people in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania the article said that they

"....have a wonderful urge to live."


Connecting to the topic of the article - the 25th anniversary of the University of Latvia - the article close by saying that "surely they will not let go of their hope that one day a free university will reopen in independent Latvia."

I am very glad to be here today. I too have on many occasions experienced that wonderful urge to live in the people of Latvia and in the neighboring countries, and I am confident that you will fuel the Declaration of Human Rights with this "wonderful urge" and contribute to make it a living reality - in this region and in the world.



The lecture of Professor Mr. Ole Espersen at the University of Latvia was arranged by the University of Latvia Institute on Human Rights.