Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
December 15, 2023
Good morning. Thank you, High Commissioner Türk, President Francis, and Secretary-General Guterres, for gathering us to reflect on this amazing document’s past and plan for its future. Thank you all for being here, and I particularly welcome the family of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Colleagues, 75 years ago, the world enshrined the universal rights of every person on earth: freedom of thought and religion, speech and peaceful assembly, equal protection under the law, inalienable dignity and liberty – no matter who you are or where you were born, or what you own or how you pray.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, in fact, a universal document written straightforwardly, and translated into more languages than any other document on earth, according to Guinness World Records. It is an unlikely document, with no shortage of roadblocks that threatened its adoption. But above all, it is a radically hopeful document.
And that is no small feat. Because in 1948, there were numerous reasons to be cynical. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created in the aftermath of a devastating world war and horrific genocide. The year in which it was adopted was a time of oppression and discrimination, including here in America where an insidious combination of systemic racism and sexism meant that people like me didn’t have much of a chance of reaching places like this.
And the drafting process posed its own challenges. Those charged with creating the Declaration represented vastly different peoples, philosophies, and political systems. And yet, for all their differences, the document’s drafters shared the belief that a better world was possible, and that the very act of enumerating its values brought us closer to it.
And perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman way ahead of her time, who chaired the drafting commission, put it best. She said, “One should never belittle the value of words…for they have a way of getting translated into facts, and therein lies the hope for our universal declaration.”
Still, 75 years later, the rights enshrined in the Declaration remain, in far too many places, aspirational. As we speak, the human rights of the world’s most vulnerable are under attack.
In the PRC, where Uyghurs face harsh punishment for practicing their faith.
In Russia, where journalists are repressed and detained for telling the truth.
In Afghanistan, where women and girls are deprived of their fundamental right to an education.
In Sudan, where ongoing atrocities bear horrifying similarities to the Darfur genocide almost 20 years ago.
In Israel, where Hamas committed horrific acts of sexual assault during their attacks on October 7.
In Gaza, where women and children bear the brunt of a heartbreaking conflict.
And, yes, right here in America, where the fight for equal justice and dignity continues for women and people of color, for immigrants, and members of the LGBTQI+ community, for those with disabilities, and for peoples of all faith, including those facing Islamophobia and antisemitism; for a beautiful six-year-old, who was horrifically killed by a neighbor.
In this moment, I know there are those who are tempted to indulge in cynicism, that perhaps this document is just that – a document with no real staying power. But like the drafters who gathered in Paris 75 years ago, I remain hopeful. Not only because I have seen the ways in which the Declaration guides our work here at the United Nations: to prevent and resolve conflict, to foster understanding and sustainable peace. But because I see the ways in which it inspires all those beyond these walls to fight, to speak out for the innate liberties we all deserve, often at grave risk to their lives and livelihoods.
By recommitting ourselves to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we recommit ourselves to these people. To that end, we’re pleased to hear other states’ commitments to human rights in Geneva earlier this week and to share the United States’ own pledges: to make our democracies more resilient, to advance human rights in the private sector, and to promote racial justice and equity here at home.
And all the while, we reiterate our support for the Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda and commit to multilateralism as a means to end conflict, sow seeds of peace, and make much-needed progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. That includes working within the United Nations, working within the United Nations framework, and it also means partnering with academics and civil society, NGOs and the private sector to amplify the voices of those targeted by violence, or denied equal protection under the law.
Colleagues, the drafters’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an act of awesome, urgent hope. Not only in the document they penned, but in our ability to realize it even when it’s difficult. In fact, especially when it’s difficult. Because while these rights may be inalienable, they are not inevitable. We must work, every day, to make them a reality for every person on earth. And for that reason, I commend the awardees of the UN’s prized human rights award, who have all worked tirelessly to commit to the principles of the Human Rights Declaration.
So today, as we commemorate the Declaration’s 75th anniversary, let us look ourselves in the mirror, clear-eyed about our shortcomings, but hopeful for our future. And let us rededicate ourselves to action to promote and to protect human rights. That is how we truly honor this document, not only today, but every single day going forward.
Thank you, Mr. President.