Statement by the Holy See for “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70"

H.E. Archbishop Bernardito Auza
Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See
Publication Date: December 06, 2018

Statement by H.E. Archbishop Bernardito Auza

Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See


Side Event on

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70:

Foundations, Achievements and Violations”

United Nations Headquarters, New York, 4 December 2018


Your Excellencies, Esteemed Panelists,

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,


I am very happy to welcome you to this afternoon’s event in anticipation of next Monday’s 70th Anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the Holy See is honored to sponsor together with ADF International.


The occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an opportunity not only to celebrate it as one of the great achievements in the history of the United Nations but also to reaffirm its importance and recommit to promoting and defending the rights, fundamental freedoms and responsibilities it articulates.


At its adoption, 70 years ago this coming Monday, one of its principal catalysts, Eleanor Roosevelt, hoped that it would become the “international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.”


When Pope John Paul II spoke to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1979, he called it the “fundamental document,” the “basic inspiration and cornerstone of the United Nations Organization,” and a “milestone on the long and difficult path of the moral progress.”


It was a great triumph achieved at a tremendous cost, he said, “paid for by millions of our brothers and sisters” who had suffered, sacrificed, been brutalized and even subjected to genocide. The atrocities of two world wars and especially the Holocaust had revealed that there are some actions so wicked that no one can or will justify them and certain fundamental values that no one will dispute.


After the horrors of the first half of last century, it was obvious that human progress could not be measured only by scientific and technological advances, since even those could become weapons against the innocent; rather human progress had to be the integral development of persons and peoples, especially their ethical development. The Universal Declaration was a huge step forward in this process of human moral development, becoming “one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time,” as John Paul II said in his second visit to the UN in 1995. Its enduring impact, however, depends on its remaining what he called the UN’s “basic value,” inspiring and challenging the consciences of UN Members and the people of the world.


Human rights are at the core of the United Nations. The Preamble of the UN Charter solemnly affirms “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small,” but it didn’t specify what those fundamental human rights were. That was left for the work of the Commission on Human Rights, which in the Universal Declaration elaborated both political and civil rights — including life, liberty, property, freedom of speech, religion and assembly — and economic, social and cultural rights, like work, education and basic subsistence.


The elaboration featured several elements:


The rights it articulated were practical, made to guide action.


They flowed from the conviction that every person needs to be treated like every other human being.


They were framed not only in relation to the State but also to various mediating institutes like the family, human community, and religious groups, since human beings are persons in solidarity and fraternity rather than isolated individuals.


The rights were “recognized” by the Declaration, insofar as the framers believed they pertained to persons by the very fact that they’re persons, and were not liberties merely conferred to them by ruling powers.


Its 30 articles left room for different understandings and applications according to local contexts; in fact its genius was that it was drafted to be relevant to all peoples in a pluralistic world and permitted diverse cultures, institutions and legal systems to converge around a fundamental nucleus of values, transcending divisions and appealing to our shared humanity.


Even though the Declaration per se had no enforcement mechanism, something that was foreseen and remedied in the twin human rights Covenants of 1966, many of its principles acquired legal force through incorporation into national legal systems.


As we mark this 7oth anniversary, I would like to highlight three of its fundamental presuppositions that, because of cultural changes, are perhaps not as widely and deeply appreciated today as they were by the framers and the delegates who voted for its adoption.


The first is about its universality. The Declaration attempted to formulate rights that would be valid in every age, place, and culture. It presumed that there are indeed universal human rights, rooted in human nature. Human persons everywhere and at all times not only have an underlying dignity that can never be justly trampled, but also an underlying ethical substratrum or conscience that can recognize that dignity in themselves and others. This universality has been challenged at times by those who have argued that the Declaration is excessively the fruit of western ideas, or by those who think that all truth, including ethical, is relative to context, or by governments or groups who want to violate others’ rights, but it is unmistakably presupposed in the Declaration.


The second presupposition is with regard to objectivity. The framers thought that human nature was self-evidently the same everywhere and that all people were capable through rational reflection of understanding certain basic truths about human nature, dignity and rights. Removing human rights from this objective mooring in favor of subjectivistic or relativistic understandings in fact undermines the rights themselves, permitting their universality to be denied for cultural, political, social, philosophical or religious reasons.


The framers were able to speak about human rights because they had a rich, objective notion of what it means to be human. There is a contemporary temptation to accentuate the word “rights” while neglecting the even more important word “human,” but human rights are premised on the existence of a nature objectively shared by all members of the human race by the very fact of their humanity. From that nature flows human dignity, which refers to the intrinsic worth of the person, no matter one’s circumstances, no matter how young or old, rich or poor, strong or vulnerable, healthy or sick, wanted or undesired, economically productive or incapacitated, politically influential or insignificant. Because dignity is innate and objective, all human beings are equal in value, and human rights cannot be given or taken away by the State or any other actor. A reductive vision of the human person, on the other hand — one that treats the person as an isolated monad without a social nature or as a social being without individual dignity — opens the way to the growth of injustice, social inequality and corruption.


The third presupposition is about the unity of the rights recognized in the Universal Declaration. Some today view the Declaration as a list of separate guarantees that one can choose to defend or dismiss. This not only was not the understanding of the framers, but in practice undermines every right in the Declaration, because once some rights become optional, every right does.


When Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the U.N. General Assembly in 2008, during the year marking the Declarations’ 60th anniversary, he spoke about the importance of this unity. Today, he said, there is “pressure to reinterpret the foundations of the Declaration and to compromise its inner unity so as to facilitate a move away from the protection of human dignity towards the satisfaction of simple interests, often particular interests. The Declaration,” he continued, “was adopted as a ‘common standard of achievement’ [as its Preamble indicates] and cannot be applied piecemeal, according to trends or selective choices that merely run the risk of contradicting the unity of the human person and thus the indivisibility of human rights.”


The Declaration, he was saying, is not, and cannot be allowed to become, a menu of rights from which one can choose according to personal, national, or international taste.


As we mark the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration, we can see some of the consequences of failing to uphold its universality, objectivity and unity.


Many of the provisions so clearly articulated in the UDHR continue to go unrecognized. The 2018 Report of the Secretary-General on the Work of the Organization highlights that, although there has been much “progress made in the advancement of human rights at a global level… challenges to the protection of human rights are a global phenomenon.” The Report notes that one in ten children is still subjected to child labour, one in three people currently in detention is held without trial, 29 percent of children under five do not have birth registration, and there are 250 million women married under the age of 15, all directly contrary to rights recognized in the Declaration.


Moreover, Article 4 states that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude,” and yet tens of millions are ensnared by various forms of so-called modern slavery. Article 3 affirms that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person,” and yet in many places those rights are not only not respected but their violations are even celebrated, even in U.N. institutions. Article 18 upholds the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, to change one’s religion or belief, and the freedom alone or in community with others, in public or private, to manifest that religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance; yet these rights are infringed upon, restricted or denied and in so many places changing one’s religion or even practising one’s faith is still a death sentence or a reason to be discriminated against.


Pope Francis, addressing in January the diplomats accredited to the Holy See, said, “At a distance of seventy years, it is painful to see how many fundamental rights continue to be violated today,” as he listed those already mentioned as well as the violations of the rights of migrants and refugees in view of the Global Compacts.   


Perhaps the most newsworthy part of Pope Francis’ remarks in January, however, involved his concern about how the language of human rights and even the human rights monitoring mechanisms are being used to advance newly claimed rights that not only do not enjoy international agreement but in many cases reinterpret the Declaration in ways contrary to the rights explicitly defended.


“Over the years,” Pope Francis stated to the diplomats, “particularly in the wake of the social upheaval of the 1960s, the interpretation of some rights has progressively changed, with the inclusion of a number of ‘new rights’ that not infrequently conflict with one another.” He continued, “Somewhat paradoxically, there is a risk that, in the very name of human rights, we will see the rise of modern forms of ideological colonization by the stronger and the wealthier, to the detriment of the poorer and the most vulnerable, … disregarding the due respect for the fundamental rights proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”


The point Pope Francis was making is that the human rights in general, and the Universal Declaration in particular, were not meant to be used as weapons to advance political, economic, military or cultural agendas contrary to the fundamental human rights. Human rights cannot be treated as open terms whose meanings different actors can change to suit their purposes. Otherwise, this practice will gradually eviscerate universal respect for the Declaration and human rights, leaving the world worse off and people far more vulnerable.


This 70th anniversary is an occasion for us, with the words of the U.N. Charter, to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights (and) in the dignity of the human person” and to commit ourselves to the promotion and defense of the rights contained in the Universal Declaration and to the urgent labor of ensuring human rights for all.


During his second visit to the United Nations, John Paul II said that the States that founded the United Nations in 1945 and adopted the Universal Declaration three years later “truly lit a lamp whose light can scatter the darkness caused by tyranny — a light that can show the way to freedom, peace, and solidarity.”


Now is the time for us to put oil in that lamp and set it alight anew in every hall of this institution, in all international and national bodies, in universities, schools and homes, and in each of our heads and hearts, so that the Declaration, obtained at such tremendous cost, might remain “one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time,” just like it was in the minds and hearts of the framers and the peoples of the world seven decades ago.


Thank you very much.

Priests for Life
PO Box 236695 • Cocoa, FL 32923
Tel. 321-500-1000, Toll Free 888-735-3448 • Email: