The Secretary-General's Lecture Series: 'who is afraid of human rights?'.

Author:Le Huy Quoc-Benjamin, Nguyen Tang

On 26 May 2004, Secretary-General Kofi Annan invited delegates, UN staff and members of civil society affiliated with the United Nations to a lecture entitled "Who Is Afraid of Human Rights?", part of the Secretary-General's Lecture Series. It included brief presentations by three guest speakers: Ali Mazrui, Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities and Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at the State University of New York in Binghamton; Najat Al-Hajjaji, Permanent Representative of the Mission of the Libyan Arab Jamahariya to the United Nations and Chairperson of the 59th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights; and William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. A question-and-answer session followed.


In his opening comments, Mr. Annan addressed the continuing violations of human rights: "More than half a century after the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is very easy to feel disillusioned, and for millions around the world to wonder if the Declaration's words will ever be more than just that: words on a page." Drawing attention to two recent instances of grievous abuse of Iraqi prisoners and the attack on civilians in Sudan's Darfur region (see page 70), he reminded the audience of the innumerable human rights violations occurring every day in the world which often go unreported.

In his presentation, Mr. Mazrui looked at the cultural dimension of human rights. He said that there was a universal ethical code slowly revealing itself, which would gradually be identified as human rights through "the old utilitarian principle of minimization of pain and maximization of happiness in human experience". He suggested two factors needed to be taken into consideration when discussing culture: historical relativism, which is the change of moral standards across generations; and cultural relativism, which is the variation of moral judgements across different societies and cultures around the world. These factors have affected leadership and ethics in different places and time periods.

Mr. Mazrui also addressed what he said was several major ideological changes concerning universal human rights. These range from homosexuality, the death penalty and interracial marriages to women's rights and political corruption. As evidence of historical relativism, he pointed out that homosexuality has been legalized in most Western countries since the second half of the twentieth century, while only five decades earlier it had...

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