International Human Rights Day 10 December 2020

Today is significant as it coincides with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and signing of SA’s Constitution into law.

Honourable Minister of Justice and Correctional Services

Honourable Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development

Retired Deputy Chief Justice Moseneke

Ambassador Moloi, Department of International Relations and Cooperation

Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission

Chairperson of the Project Trust

Esteemed panellists,

Civil society representatives,

Members of the United Nations family and diplomatic community


Good morning and happy international human rights day!

It is an honour to deliver these remarks on behalf of Ms. Nardos Bekele-Thomas, the United Nations Resident Coordinator for South Africa.

            This has been a year to remember.  Surprising in many respects but also sobering and tragic for those that have lost loved ones – we honour them and mourn their loss with their loved ones.  

COVID-19 has upended the lives of everyone and deepened fissures of inequality. It has slowed economic development and dented progress in the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals at the onset of the ‘Decade of Action’.  

The theme of today’s commemoration of International Human Rights Day “recover better – stand up for human rights” reflects the challenges that we face as a global community in combating the pandemic. Today, we highlight the centrality of human rights in efforts to contain COVID-19, slow down the spread of infections, diminish the rate of mortality and provide the economic stimulus and social protection to mitigate its impact. 

This underscores the imperative of public institutions and their leadership to provide transparent and effective, accountable action that adheres to human rights principles. It underlines the need to focus on the most vulnerable - those most affected by the pandemic and the response thereto.

Today’s commemoration is also significant as it coincides not only with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but also the signing of South Africa’s Constitution into law in 1996 and the 25th Anniversary of the South African Human Rights Commission.  We also pay tribute to the first black Chief Justice Mahomed in post-Apartheid South Africa.

In South Africa, the Constitution is the foundation of the country’s democracy, which reaffirms the values of human dignity, equality and freedom. It takes inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is globally revered for its inclusivity and its progressive approach to human rights.

Whilst we forge lessons learned from this pandemic, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Constitution are a beacon of hope and a blueprint for prosperity. However, this prosperity must be anchored in the legacy of valiant anti-apartheid stalwarts such as Chief Justice Mahomed as well as the strength of institutions such as the South African Human Rights Commission and other national protection systems that place the agenda of “we the people” at the centre of recovery.

In South Africa, the pandemic has exposed a number of societal ills such as corruption, poverty, inequality, and unemployment.

Education and children’s livelihoods have been disrupted by school closures- online learning efforts exposed the deep digital divide in society. 

Fiscal space has contracted, limiting investments in social spending and the progressive realisation of economic and social rights.

And when we retreated into our homes, the scourge of gender-based violence, including femicide was perpetrated. Becoming a tainted stain on our conscience and a shadow pandemic.

But with every challenge, comes an opportunity. This annus horribilisis an opportunity for introspection - for us to craft a future that improves human dignity.

The resilience and strength of the people of this country has shown itself yet again, and the leadership of this country has been vested in developing evidence-based approaches to responding to the pandemic.

Therefore, our collective call to action on this human rights day is: 

First: to end discriminationof any kind. Like pre-existing conditions that make individuals more fragile, gaps in respecting human rights have made all of society more vulnerable. If anyone is at risk, everyone is at risk. Discrimination, exclusion and other human rights violations harm us all.

And to the women human rights defenders on the frontlines of the response and women and girls who have borne the brunt of gender based violence – the message is simple we shall not give in, we shall not stay silent.

Thesecondcall to action is to reduce widespread inequalities. Universal social protection, universal health coverage, and other systems for the delivery of fundamental rights are not luxuries. They keep societies standing and can shape a more equitable future.

The third: is to encourage equal and full participation, especially from young people, persons with disabilities, homeless people, migrants, refugees, frontline workers and older persons to name a few. All voices have a right to be heard.

The fourth: is to increase and intensify our resolve and efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, a concrete Agenda for universal human rights.

The only way we can overcome this crisis is if we stand up for human rights.

We can forge a united and caring society committed to the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom, and the principles of Ubuntu and Batho Pele, which espoused the life of Chief Justice Mahomed and forms the basis of South Africa’s Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The time to act is now.

Let us work together to recover better and stand up for human rights.

Speech by
Nardos Bekele-Thomas
Resident Coordinator
Nardos Bekele-Thomas
UN entities involved in this initiative
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights