UN Marks 70th Anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights at Beirut Arab University

Under the theme “A Defender for a Right”, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in collaboration with the United Nations Information Centre in Beirut (UNIC Beirut) and Beirut Arab University (BAU), organized a special ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and celebrate Human Rights Day that falls annually on 10 December.

The ceremony, which was held at BAU premises, was attended by Bassam Al-Halabi, representative of caretaker Minister of Human Rights Ayman Choucair, MP and Head of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights Michel Moussa, MP and representative of Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri Roula Tabesh, Regional Representative of OHCHR Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa (ROMENA) Roueida El-Hage, Director of the UN Information Centre in Beirut Margo El-Helou, President of the Lebanese Constitutional Council Issam Sleiman, President of Beirut Arab University Amr Galal El-Adawi and BAU Secretary General Omar Houri. The ceremony was also attended by representatives of military and security leaders, BAU professors and students, representatives of media outlets and organizations specialized in human rights issues.

The Opening

The Opening featured statements by Choucair, Moussa, El-Hage, and El-Adawi, as well as a video-taped message by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and a reportage on the BAU university and its major activities.   

In his statement, Choucair said that decent life is the main issue that must be addressed when defending human rights, adding that the lack of sense of citizenship among people stops them from enjoying their basic human rights. “Citizenship is not a law,” he noted, “it is a struggle”. Choucair added that the Middle East is unfortunately witnessing a breach of human rights, especially in the presence of major powers that seek to destroy on daily basis the concept of democracy and reject peace and justice in the region.” He pointed out that citizens must strengthen their sense of belonging to their countries away from their social and sectarian affiliations in order for human rights to be attained in the communities.

For his part, Moussa pointed out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has become a ‘unified constitution’ in the world that regulate the preservation and respect of human rights, despite the blatant violations recorded throughout the past 70 years. “There is no doubt that hate speech is caused by conflicts, wars, poverty, and religious extremism, as well as the absence of political and cultural awareness that ignites hatred, intolerance and negative inherited traditions.” Moussa also stressed in his speech the need to control and confront hate speech, adding that this requires close cooperation between governments and civil society to enact effective legislations that regulate the work of educational and social institutions, media, including social media, while preserving the freedom of individuals.

El-Hage began her statement by recalling that the UDHR is enshrined in the preamble of the Lebanese Constitution. “Its principles are therefore constitutionally mandatory, surpassing national legislation, and many countries have followed Lebanon’s example,” she noted. “Although the UDHR has helped many people gain more freedoms and rights, we are still witnessing systematic violations in the world. The struggle for human rights is not over yet,” she added. El-Hage also mentioned some world figures reflecting the progress achieved after the adoption of UDHR. These include increase in women representation in Parliament to one quarter of the total number of Parliamentarians in most countries, increase in the number of countries that abolished death penalty, provision of access to information for all, and offering guarantees for persons with disabilities, including minority groups, migrants and refugees, among others.

El-Adawi in his statement said that “intolerance, xenophobia and incitement to racial and religious hatred all endanger the very essence of human rights.” He also noted that “BAU is one of the first universities in the Arab region that introduced the human rights course as a compulsory requirement for all university students and this shows its unwavering commitment to human rights principles. It also established a Human Rights Center in 2009, whereby volunteers participate in awareness raising activities aiming at combating extremism through social media networks.” El-Adawi concluded his statement by saying that BAU is committed to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda and its related 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as member of the Global Compact Network in Lebanon. “BAU is constantly seeking to achieve social justice and sustainable development in the country,” he pledged.

An Interactive Discussion

After the opening, El-Hage, together with Reda Abdel Aziz, a lawyer and regional human rights trainer, moderated an interactive dialogue entitled Promoting Positive Messages tackling the role of social media and arts in combating hate speech. The discussion also engaged Omar Houri, human rights activists Mirvat Rishmawi and Joumana Merhi, and human rights expert Habib Belkoush.

The dialogue discussed in detail current legislative and policy measures adopted by countries of the region to combat hate speech through social media. Discussions also tackled civil society efforts and initiatives in fighting hate speech, with special focus on the role of the youth.