58th Plenary Meeting of General Assembly 73rd Session

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18-Dec-2018 00:24:38
Spotlighting role of human rights defenders, General Assembly awards United Nations prizes, commemorates landmark declarations at 57th, 58th, and 59th plenary meetings.

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The General Assembly today commemorated anniversaries of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, with high-level plenary meetings that included a dedicated award ceremony honouring the 2018 recipients of the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights.

Recognizing those who have made outstanding contributions to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the Assembly presented awards to Rebeca Gyumi, founder and executive director of the Msichana Initiative, an organization in the United Republic of Tanzania that aims to empower girls through education, and the late Asma Jahangir, who as Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer defended the rights of women, children, religious minorities and the poor. The Assembly also honoured both Joênia Wapichana, a member of the Wapichana tribe in northern Brazil, who became the country’s first female indigenous lawyer and the first to appear before its Supreme Court, and the organization Front Line Defenders, founded in Dublin in 2001 to address the protection needs of defenders and to help them to continue their work without risk of harassment, intimidation or arrest.

Secretary-General António Guterres said the work of the 2018 prize recipients and that of other human rights defenders is essential for collective efforts to sustain peace and ensure inclusive sustainable development. Often that work is dangerous, he said, with defenders facing murder, disappearances, torture, arbitrary imprisonment and other attempts to silence them.

Marking the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (Ecuador), said it was one of the most important contributions that the world body has made to mankind, reflecting the collective aspirations of an international order founded on human dignity and with a view to making the world a better place.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said upholding all people’s human rights is the only possible path to peace. Attacks on fundamental rights and freedoms of the Universal Declaration are not motivated by that document’s failure, but rather stem from its success, she said, urging Member States to work towards peace and justice for all.

The representative of Tajikistan said the Universal Declaration and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action are “two pillars of global human rights action”. They codify important messages and understandings of the past and provide the international community with frameworks to respond to emerging challenges. Most importantly, they enshrine the international community’s commitment to find global solutions to common challenges that hinder humanity’s progress, he said.

The representative of Lithuania, speaking on behalf of the Eastern European Group, said the Universal Declaration has become a cornerstone of international law, enabling many States to build a solid and robust human rights architecture. While that Declaration “spells out in a mere 30 articles the rights and duties we owe to each other by virtue of our humanity”, she added, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action manifested a great hopefulness for the post-cold war era. However, promises made are yet to be fulfilled, she said, stressing that its anniversary is an opportune moment to evaluate the overall societal impact human rights have had throughout the years.

Speaking on behalf of the African Group, the representative of Namibia, recalled that when the Universal Declaration was adopted in 1948, only four African countries were members of the Organization and had a seat at the table. By setting out the fundamental freedoms that should be inherent for every human being, the Universal Declaration “spoke directly to our plight”, he said, also expressing pride in the progress that African countries have made in advancing human rights.

Commemorating the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted by the General Assembly in 1998, many speakers voiced admiration for human rights defenders around the world who dedicate and sometimes sacrifice their lives fighting for economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. Others called on the international community to recommit to the Declaration and do more to protect those who stood up for the rights of their fellow human beings.

The almost 300 deaths of human rights defenders recorded in 2018 could have been avoided if Member States had undertaken the commitments made 20 years ago to protect those who defend rights and democracy, said Michel Forst, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Sounding an alarm, he called on Member States to do more. It is no longer the time to diagnose or take half measures, he said, adding that human rights defenders are counting on the international community to take action.

The representative of Tunisia said her country is a living example of the real change that human rights defenders can bring to the world. Since 2011, when Tunisians called for more justice and freedom, partnerships with civil society have been instrumental in building democracy and achieving inclusive and sustainable development. However, she voiced regret that human rights defenders remain subject to attacks and violence, many of which are directed at women.

Calling attention to the human rights defenders that were able to join today’s meeting, the representative of the United Kingdom expressed regret over the opposition by some Member States to their full participation, emphasizing the enormous benefit to be derived when civil society is present to speak about human rights violations and hold States to account, including the vital role journalists play.

The representative of Colombia said work must continue to ensure that efforts to defend human rights are not stigmatized. Highlighting his country’s experience, he said early warning systems make it possible for national institutions to address threats to human rights defenders in a coordinated way, adding that such an arrangement can be a model for other parts of the world.

Representatives of Tajikistan (on behalf of the Asia-Pacific Group), Bolivia (on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean Group), Netherlands (on behalf of the Group of Western European and other States), Bahamas (on behalf of Caribbean Community), Austria, Russian Federation, Norway, Ukraine, Italy, Argentina, Canada, Liechtenstein, France, Indonesia, Uruguay, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Armenia, Belgium, Ecuador, Ireland, Georgia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Chile, Germany, Iceland and Portugal.

A representative of the European Union also delivered a statement.

Delivering opening remarks were the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Norway, an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and representatives of the following groups: Ditshwanelo and the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions.

The General Assembly will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 19 December, to conclude its commemoration of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

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