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Why Human Rights Are Still Essential


Statement by Minister for Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström and Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade Johan Forssell on the 75th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

If you ask a random person on the street what they think of when they hear the words ‘human rights’ they might say:

“Equal rights”. Or possibly: “Freedom from fear”.

Freedom. Equality.

Words that perfectly summarise that beautiful first sentence of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

This sentence has been repeated so often over the last 75 years that we sometimes forget the defining perspective it represents. Throughout human history, being born free – in the sense of being free to live the life you wish – has been very rare. 

Nor have we been equal. Our sex, the colour of our skin, our religion, our class, our sexual orientation or our disabilities have traditionally set strict limits for what was possible: defined our rights and our worth in the eyes of society. 

The greatness of the Universal Declaration – and the reason its impact has been so enormous – is that it challenges these hierarchies. 

It puts the individual in the centre. It establishes that the ultimate duty of the State is to respect the rights of the individual: to protect these rights against abuse. And to ensure that everyone’s basic human needs are fulfilled, so that the potential of every individual can be fully realised.

The human rights movement is a movement for freedom, in the deepest possible sense. Its goal is to ensure that every one of us can flourish fully – in all our diversity. 

But the Universal Declaration is not just a vision. It is also a blueprint for how that vison can be achieved. It sets up a system with individuals as rights-holders and States as duty-bearers, accountable for violations. It has inspired an expanding infrastructure for accountability at national, regional and international level.

And yet, as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we know that this system is being challenged. We are witnessing efforts to weaken accountability, to dilute and divert the obligations of States. Efforts to turn back the clock on gender equality, the rights of LGBTIQ+ persons and sexual and reproductive rights. Harassment of human rights defenders and NGOs, the shrinking of civic space, the suppression of independent media and judiciaries. 

Most alarming of all: we are witnessing more armed conflicts than at any time since 1945, with an increase in extrajudicial executions, torture, sexual and gender-based violence and other conflict-related violations.

In these times of conflict, let us return to that first article of the Universal Declaration, and to the second sentence. 

They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

The sentence is less quoted than the first, but equally important. It underlines another fundamental aspect of human rights: they are up to us. 

The choices we make, how we act towards one another, how we safeguard the international rules-based order that we have inherited will ultimately determine our future. 

The international human rights system is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, but it requires sustained support in order to continue to function. We must speak up in its defence when it is challenged. It requires our reason, and our conscience.

Sweden will continue to stand together with all our global partners who stand ready to tackle this challenge. We are convinced that only a world that respects human rights can deliver a sustainable and prosperous future.

In this anniversary year, there is simply no acceptable alternative.