Are Human Rights Universal?
2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
1986 Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature
Wednesday, 10 December 2008 | 4:30 p.m.
Palais des Nations; Assembly Hall
To watch the video archive, please click here.
Closing remarks delivered by H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco on the occasion of the second edition of the Geneva Lecture Series can be accessed here.
Nobel Laureates Shirin Ebadi and Wole Soyinka advocate for the universality of human rights at the 2nd edition of the Geneva Lecture Series
Geneva – 10 December 2008 - The 2nd Edition of the Geneva Lecture Series that was to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gathered a large and diverse audience of more than 1,000 people. The event took place in the Assembly Hall of the Palais des Nations. Two Nobel Prize laureates, Shirin Ebadi and Wole Soyinka, who were invited to address the issue of the universality of human rights shared their visions and engaged in a lively debate with the audience. The conclusion was unambiguous. Both Shirin Ebadi and Wole Soyinka put forward strong arguments in favor of the universality of human rights – the arguments that underscored the general applicability of the Universal Declaration.
Throughout her speech, Dr. Ebadi contended that human rights were based on universal values. The Iranian lawyer pointed to the necessity of a greater involvement of civil society in intergovernmental processes in the field of human rights. At the same time, she emphasized the importance of the so-called economic rights that are often neglected as part of the human rights agenda. She proposed a new international convention to eradicate poverty. In his turn, Dr. Soyinka explored the issue through the lens of culture while giving a similar answer to Dr. Ebadi’s. The Nigerian writer persuasively demonstrated that the “trap of cultural relativism” can and must be avoided. Cultural relativism has too often been used as a parade to justify discrimination between races, sexes and religions or oppose the diversity of views in society, he recalled.
Following the speeches and a session of questions and answers facilitated by media outlets sponsoring the initiative, Télévision Suisse Romande, Radio Suisse Romande and Tribune de Genève, the lecture proceeded with an open debate with the audience. Mr. Xavier Colin, Producer and Presenter of Geopolitis at the Swiss public TV channel (Télévision Suisse Romande) invited the audience made up of students, diplomats, civil society representatives and UN civil servants to address questions to both Nobel laureates.
The final remarks were made by H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco, which Foundation is an official sponsor of the Geneva Lecture Series. His Highness reiterated the main statement of the speakers by calling for “new forms of solidarity” in the age of globalization and a “scrupulous and universal insistence on human rights” in all countries around the world.
Press release - 12 December 2008
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
- International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, 1966
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- More on universal human rights instruments
- United Nations Population Fund study on the state of world population in 2008 - Reaching Common Ground: Culture, Gender and Human Rights, 2008
- Video archive - Adoption of the Declaration
- For more pictures and videos, please visit: 60 Years of UN Archives
What Experts Say
Universality of human rights
Diana Ay ton-Shenker The challenge of human rights and cultural diversity. UN Information Note , March 1995
Mary Ann Glendon “The Forgotten Crucible: The Latin American Influence on the Universal Human Rights Idea” in Harvard Human Rights Journal, Vol. 16, Spring 2003
- Souleymane Bashir Diagne “Africanity as an Open Question” in Ed. S.B. Diagne, A. Mama, H. Melber, F.B. Nyamnjoh, Identity and Beyond: Rethinking Africanity, Discussion Paper 12, Nordiska Africainstitutet, Uppsala 2001
- Joanne Bauer “The Challenge to International Human Rights” in Ed. M. Monshipouri; N. Englehart; A.J. Nathan; K. Philip, Constructing Human Rights in the Age of Globalization, M.E. Sharpe 2003
- Mary Robinson “The Universality of Human Rights”, Statement by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, 11 November 1999
- Louise Arbour, Address of High Commissioner for Human Rights Human Rights and Cultural Diversity to Non-Aligned Movement Ministerial Meeting, Tehran, 3 September 2007
- UN's Pillay stresses universality of human rights, European Parliament Press Service, Human Rights, 29 October 2008
- François Jullien "Universels, les droits de l'homme?" in Le Monde diplomatique, February 2008 (French version, English version is not available)
- Nuri Albala "Droits de l'homme" - Response to François Jullien's article "Universels, les droits de l’homme ?", in Le Monde diplomatique, March 2008 (French version, English version is not available)
- Zehra F. Kabasakal Arat “Forging A Global Culture of Human Rights: Origins and Prospects of the International Bill of Rights” in Human Rights Quarterly 28 (2006) (to access the document subscription with HRQ is required)
- Jack Donnelly “The Relative Universality of Human Rights” in Human Rights Quarterly 29 (2007) (to access the document subscription with HRQ is required)
Unity of Human Rights
- L. Arbour’s article “Human Rights made whole” in Project Syndicate, June 2008
- Briefing paper on Amartya Sen’s contribution “Economic Theory, Freedom and Human Rights: the Work of Amartya Sen” , ODI Briefing Paper, November 2001
- Martha Nussbaum “Human Rights and Human Capabilities” in Harvard Human Rights Journal, Vol. 20, Spring 2007
Full realization of all human rights
- Mary Ann Glendon “The Rule of Law in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” in Northwestern University Journal of International Human Rights, Vol. 2, April 2004
- Kenneth Roth “The Case For Universal Jurisdiction” in Foreign Affairs, September/October 2001
- For expert contributions on the challenges of the full realization of human rights, please consult the page of the expert seminar organized by OHCHR on the links between articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR): Freedom of expression and advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, 2-3 October 2008, Geneva
What the media say
Coverage by media partners and other newspapers
- Radio Suisse Romande (RSR)
- Tribune de Genève
- Tribune de Genève - Shirin Ebadi et Wole Soyinka: deux prix Nobel à Genève, by Alain Jourdan, 1 December 2008
- Tribune de Genève - Deux Prix Nobel dénoncent le piège du "relativisme culturel", by Alain Jourdan, 11 December 2008
- Le Temps - Le pladoyer de Shirin Ebadi et de Wole Soyinka, by Stéphane Bussard, 11 December 2008 (to access the document subscription with the newspaper is required)
- Le Temps - Wole Soyinka, la plume et le poing, by Arnaud Robert, 12 December 2008 (to access the document subscription with the newspaper is required)
Thematic press review
- Universality of human rights
Le Monde - Le premier résultat d'une croisade by René Cassin, 14 December 2008 (English version is not available)
Le Monde – Video archive: René Cassin, "fantassin des droits de l'homme", online since 5 December 2008 (English version is not available)
TSR - Une avocate au service des droits humains (interview with Navanethem Pillay), 8 December 2008 (English version is not available)
TSR - Pipilotti Rist, vidéaste et passionaria verte (interview with Pipilotti Rist who conceived one of the 22 short films produced on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), 11 December 2008 (English version is not available)
Tribune de Genève - Les "crimes d’honneur": de graves violations des droits de l’Homme, AFP, 12 November 2008 (English version is not available). For more information, please consult the background document "United Nations Population Fund study on the state of world population in 2008 - Reaching Common Ground: Culture, Gender and Human Rights, 2008"
- Unity of Human Rights
Tribune de Genève - Un milliard de crève-la-fin pour les 60 ans des droits de l’homme, by Andrés Allemand, 10 December 2008 (English version is not available)
Le Temps - L'Organisation mondiale de la santé dénonce des progrès «profondément inégaux», 15 October 2008 (English version is not available, to access the document subscription with the newspaper is required)
- Full realization of all human rights
Tribune de Genève - Droits humains: l’action doit suivre la Déclaration, par Fabienne Bugnon, le 10 décembre 2008 (English version is not available)
Le Temps - La Suisse pour une Cour mondiale des droits de l'homme, le 6 décembre 2008 (English version is not available, to access the document subscription with the newspaper is required)
Courrier international - A chacun ses droits de l’homme. Peut mieux faire. Malgré les innovations qu’elle a apportées, la Déclaration en est encore à l’adolescence, par Camil Ungureanu, le 4 décembre 2008 (English version is not available)
- UN 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
- The UN System and Human Rights
The responsibility for opinions in the documents cited on this page rests solely with their authors. The citation of these documents does not constitute an endorsement by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research neither by the organizers or sponsors of the Geneva Lecture Series.