Speech of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, at the opening of the seminar on "Enriching the universality of human rights: Islamic perspectives on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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"I am pleased to open this seminar on Enriching the universality of human rights: Islamic perspectives on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to welcome here today our distinguished experts on Islamic law. 

The 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has encouraged people all over the world to reflect on the meaning of the Declaration for them and on the contribution their own civilization and traditions can bring to a better understanding and a fuller realization of the rights proclaimed by the Declaration. This, in my view, is at the heart of the universality of the Declaration. It is a document which each human being can approach from her or his own culture and traditions and which has for everyone a message of human dignity. 

This search for unity in cultural diversity is a particular responsibility of the United Nations. The Secretary-General recently stated his belief that "alongside a global diversity of cultures, there exists one, worldwide civilization of knowledge within which ideas and philosophies meet and develop peacefully and productively." He called for us to do our part " to make possible a global civilization that is defined by its tolerance of dissent, its celebration of cultural diversity, and its insistence on fundamental, universal human rights..". 

The General Assembly recognizing the importance of understanding between civilizations has just last week declared the year 2001 "United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations". 

I believe that the discussions which are beginning now will make a contribution to the dialogue between civilizations and to the building of the global civilization based on respect for human rights. An important element in building this global civilization is dialogue and discussion between religions. I had occasion to deal with this in a statement I made last August on Freedom of Religion or Belief at a conference at the University of Oslo and I will be making available to you copies of that statement. 

We all know the greatness of Islam and its civilizations and of its immense contribution to the richness of the human experience, through the sciences, literature, art, and through the profound belief and theology of the Muslim religion. When we speak of Islam we are speaking of the religion of 20% of the human family spread across the whole globe and expressed through many cultures. It has shown itself to be universal in nature and has the dignity of the human person, tolerance and equity at the core of its message. 

The Organization of the Islamic Conference has some 55 Member States and plays a leading role in international affairs. I am especially pleased that all those States, with one exception, have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child thus signifying their agreement with a very detailed expression of fundamental human rights from economic, social and cultural to civil and political. And given that the Convention protects individuals up to the age of 18, a very significant percentage of the population of those countries are covered by the Convention's protection. 

It was in this context that I was happy to accept the invitation of the Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran to facilitate a process of preparing Islamic commentaries on the Universal Declaration and today's seminar is a key element in that process. In preparing this seminar we have worked closely with the Secretary-General of the OIC and the OIC representative at Geneva and I want to express my gratitude to them both. 

During the preparations I have been encouraged by His Royal Highness King Hassan II of Morocco and at his request a very significant book was prepared as a background document to the seminar for which I am deeply appreciative. I would also like to thank His Highness the Aga Khan for his valuable support for this project. 

Following consultation with the OIC and advices from others, including United Nations colleagues, I invited 20 experts selected on the basis of the depth of their Islamic legal background and knowledge of human rights law and their familiarity with other legal systems and cultures. I asked the experts to contribute short papers and take part in an exchange of scholarship, views and opinions on the issue. However, they have not be called upon to review current practice with regard to the protection of human rights nor to reach conclusions or adopt positions. 

I have also invited two special guests to contribute to the themes, H.E. Javad Zarif, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran and Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Chairman of the Al Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation. 

Three major themes were selected to structure the discussion: 
-Islam, the principle of non-discrimination and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; 
-Islam, civil and political rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; 
-Islam, economic, social and cultural rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

In the final session, tomorrow afternoon, there will be an opportunity for a general exchange of views by the experts on Islamic perspectives on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

I particularly hope that these discussions will deepen our understanding of the first paragraph of article 29 of the Universal Declaration which states that " everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible". 

In the beginning we envisaged the seminar as a small meeting of experts which would produce a number of papers and a summary of the discussions on which the wider United Nations and others could comment. But interest grew in making the discussions accessible to expert members of treaty bodies, and others. We thus decided to open the seminar to observers from governments, non-governmental organizations and the public. However, to preserve the basic scholarly objective, the discussion itself will be limited to the invited experts. 

The results of this seminar, the papers and the discussions, will be prepared as a publication which I am sure will encourage further exploration of this most interesting subject. 

I am looking forward to the coming discussions. Opinions will differ and that is welcome. I am sure it will be an enriching experience. I have already learned much during the preparations and from the papers we have received."

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