The Declaration of Human Rights

Speech at the demonstration for human rights in Prague, on 10 December 2020, the International Human Rights Day.

 Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, 

10 December has been celebrated as a Human Rights Day since 1950. It has been 70 years, even though it refers to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from December 10, 1948, which is 72 years old. Although this Declaration is a non-binding document, it has become binding as a legal custom according to many theorists. The Declaration is also referred to by the Helsinki Conference, and finally by the UN Charter itself in 2 articles. I suppose most of you don’t even know the text of the UN Charter. It entered as early as October 1945 and of course it was perceived as the most important post-war document. To illustrate: when American Alger Hiss flew to Washington with it, the original Charter received its own parachute. By the way, Hiss himself was convicted during McCarthyism as an alleged Soviet spy. The UN Charter is the founding statute of the UN, and on October 24, 1945, it was ratified by 51 states, including Czechoslovakia.

The UN Charter also took into account the statement of the then US President Franklin D. Roosewelt on the world in 1941, that the future world should be built on 4 fundamental freedoms, the Freedom of speech, of worship, the Freedom from want, not to suffer shortcomings and freedom from fear, a world-wide reduction of armaments. 

At that time, 48 countries from the then 58 UN member states voted in favor of the Declaration of Human Rights. Unfortunately, 8 states abstained, including Czechoslovakia. And, of course, the Union of South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet Union. 

Binding documents that followed the Declaration of Human Rights, but also the UN Charter, include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at the end of 1976. Both Covenants inspired the creation of the Czechoslovak Charter 77.

The declaration states, among other things, that the people of the United Nations reaffirmed in the Charter their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in equal rights for men and women, and in their determination to promote social progress, and create better living conditions in greater freedom.

  1. Everyone has the right of freedom of opinion and expression; this right does not permit anyone to suffer harm for his or her beliefs, and includes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
  2. Everyone has the right to work, to have a free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work, and to protection against unemployment.
  3. Everyone, without any discrimination, is entitled to equal pay for equal work.
  4. Every worker has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  5. Everyone has the right to a standard of living in such a way as to ensure his or her health and well-being and the health and well-being of his or her family, including in particular nutrition, clothing, housing and medical care, as well as the necessary social measures; he is entitled to security in respect of unemployment, sickness, incapacity for work, conviction, old age or, in other cases, loss of earnings due to circumstances beyond his control.

The Chartists, at least for the most part, promoted these rights. Probably the most famous chartist was Václav Havel. In the spirit of the Charter, he emphasized the utter "indivisibility of human rights," and in a New Year’s speech in January 1990 he declared, that "the suffering of every human being applies to all other human beings." He said then that he would be president for a year. But then he changed his mind and was president for 13 years. And the author of the great essay "On the Power of the Powerless" knew that power was corrupt. As early as 1991, he admitted that the lustration law was "very problematic" in terms of fundamental human rights, but despite an advice from former dissidents such as Jaroslav Šabata or Zdeněk Jičínský to not to sign the law, he refused, saying that this position would be "a typically dissident, albeit morally pure, but extremely risky act of civil disobedience." And he even acknowledged that by law, "many people will be treated unfairly." For example, the Lustration Act allows for the application of the principle of collective guilt and underestimates the need for an individual judicial assessment of guilt, as was the case in the former GDR, for example. Two years later, Havel signed an anti-communist law. Then the indivisibility of human rights ceased to apply and he supported the so-called humanitarian bombing of the former Yugoslavia, as well as the invasion of Iraq, in violation of the UN Charter, let alone the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not to mention international law.

One of the main principles of Charter 77 was the belief that human rights are universal and indivisible. This, of course, can lead to an underestimation of the distinctive and different history and culture in a number of non-European countries, where the Euro-Atlantic principle of democracy cannot be grafted. And it can no longer be exported on tanks, as the so-called coalition of the willing, led by US President Bush Jr., tried to do in Iraq. It can also lead to a misunderstanding of why, for example, many Africans would prefer the right to live without hunger or the right to work to many civil rights. Nevertheless, the principle of the indivisibility of human rights is extremely important. And it should mean that the Czech Republic should be equally vigorous in enforcing human rights in Cuba and Saudi Arabia.

As for the Balkans, for example, Vaclav Havel was far from the only one to condemn Serbia’s human rights abuses against Kosovo Albanians, while reports of the killing of Serbian prisoners and the sale of their organs were trivialized. Articles by journalists, such as the New York Times, who wrote about the responsibility of Kosovo’s top officials for these crimes, have not been reprinted in our country. The Czech Foreign Minister was one of the first visitors to Pristina after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, which was in conflict with international law.

It comes as no surprise, that the Czech Republic took a very negative view of a report by South African Jewish judge Richard Goldstone, in which Israel was found guilty of massive human rights abuses and war crimes during the war against Gaza at the turn of the year long time ago, during years 2008 and 2009. No one has a monopoly on human rights. We should react in a balanced way to their violation. I tried to do so as a Foreign Secretary when I agreed with a text that was critical of the human rights violations in Cuba, but I added to it the sharp condemnation of US blanket sanctions against Cuba, which do not promote human rights but harm the living standards of ordinary citizens. Of course, I was not met with understanding from the American authorities, but my arguments were also rejected by a section of the Czech public, especially by journalists.  It showed that even in the governorate we do not have to be only obedient vassals.

Promoting human rights is both right and useful. Right because of our natural humanity, which protests when other people in poverty, humiliation and despair, lose their dignity. Useful because a world that creates the poor, humiliated and desperate is not safe even for those who can comfortably arrange themselves in it. Our foreign policy should be based on the fact that misery and disrespect for the rights of others will always threaten them, and that we are against a policy that ignores this premise. Petr Drulák[1] wrote about the Czech human rights policy against states that are at the same time a thorn in the side of the eye of USA as Czech human rights Atlanticism. This orientation resulted from both domestic anti-communism and efforts to build a special relationship with the United States. This concept has been rejected not only by unquestionable Chartist leftists such as Jaroslav Šabata or Petr Uhl, but also, for example, by Chartist and diplomat Jiří Dienstbier[2].

Above all, he had a sense of different perspectives. His Dream of Europe begins with the quote that the world "looks different in Vienna and different in Texas." As a former dissident, he was aware of the importance of civil rights, but this did not prevent him from recognizing the importance of social rights, the neglect of which he criticized economic liberalism. He criticized Reagan with his "evil empire" rhetoric, Clinton’s war against Yugoslavia, and the war of Bush Jr. He perceived human rights more broadly than just civil rights. He believed that it should also include social and environmental rights. For several billion people, freedom from hunger is increasingly important than freedom of political expression. In this respect, human rights policy is shaking hands with development cooperation and should be in close contact with it.

Oskar Krejčí[3] reminded us that no idea was associated with as many setbacks and defeats as the idea of human rights. Many people are still tyrannized by cynical rulers and murdered in senseless wars. Millions of people are still born into poverty, depriving one of all dignity and sometimes of life. The powerful and the wealthy always tend to take every inequality as natural. However, human rights are based on the idea of equality and are a political conception of justice. The idea of human rights has always expressed above all the interests of the oppressed and the exploited. It demands equality for them. As Donnelly writes, "human rights is the language of victims and robbers." The history of the idea of human rights can be imagined as a struggle throughout history against such a prevailing order, which seeks to promote ethical and legal ideas that suit only the interests of the ruling groups.

Civil, social, economic, gender, cultural and environmental rights cannot be separated. They all participate in the realization of a dignified life, and denying any of them is detrimental to human dignity. The long-term denial of some of these rights poses a threat not only to the internal stability of the affected societies, but can also become a source of international instability. An example of ignoring human rights violations in Czech foreign policy is our relations with the rich countries of the Persian Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, the richest country in the region.

Good diplomatic relations with states that violate human rights lead, above all, to improved mutual trade relations. In 2001, when Václav Havel first flew to Saudi Arabia, the Czech Republic’s exports amounted to only $ 35 million; by 2013, our exports to this kingdom had climbed to 356 million. And by 2019, it had reached $ 582 million. This also applies to the arms trade. From 2013 to 2017, the Czech Republic exported weapons and military equipment for a total of 144 million euros. In 2014, Saudi Arabia was even the largest customer for Czech weapons. Saudi Arabia is the Czech Republic’s third most important trading partner in the region after Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

I end by recalling the main idea of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Charter 77 that human rights are universal and indivisible. That is why we should be in solidarity not only with the Chinese, Tibetans or Cubans, but also with the Saudis, the Bahraini and the Palestinians; and also with ordinary Kurds or Turks. In particular, I do not understand the silence of the fact that there are many political prisoners in EU Member States. I am thinking of Catalans sentenced to long prison terms for wanting Catalonia’s independence. Doesn’t it deserve our attention?

And last but not least, we must increase our Europe-wide activity for the release of Julian Assange, who is the best-known victim of the struggle for freedom of expression. As early as February 2016, the UN Commission on Human Rights Commission ruled that Assange was being arbitrarily detained in the United Kingdom in violation with international law. These days there is a Petition proposal for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Julian Assange on Facebook. The proposal emphasizes that “The founder of WikiLeaks has made available to the world authentic documents, unmasking the background and motives of aggression trampling on international law at the cost of hundreds of thousands of ruined lives, humanitarian calamities, and the devastation of entire countries. In the face of the serious personal risks he has taken, he has made a significant contribution to the efforts of the entire international community, which has resisted wars for deceptive reasons and has forced their perpetrators to refrain from even more dangerous acts.

And I also would like to emphasize that you can find other petitions for the release of Assange on other websites (on the Levice website). It is prepared by the Czech Diem 25 platform (Assange is a founding member of the Diem 25 movement). The petition emphasizes that Assange shows signs of torture and is unable to speak coherently. The UN also requested his release. One of UN’s experts wrote that Assange showed all the symptoms of a victim of long-term psychological torture, which is a result of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. To me International Human Rights Day seems to be a good opportunity to step up the campaign for the release of Julian Assange. Under British law, there is nothing to prevent his release from prison, and the processing of an American request for his extradition, which, however, must be rejected while he is required to be released on bail. 

Thank you for your attention and for your support for left-wing politics in the Czech Republic! 

Jan Kavan


  1. is a Czech political scientist, from 2004 to 2013 director of the Institute of International Relations, from 2014 to 2015 First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, from 2017 to 2019 Ambassador of the Czech Republic to France.
  2. After 1989, he became the country’s first non-Communist foreign minister, a post he held until 1992. In 2008 he was elected to the Czech Senate.
  3. He is a Czech political scientist (left-oriented), the author of approximately thirty books and more than thousand articles in the area of political science.