Apple CEO Tim Cook made a rare public appearance at the United Nations last week, speaking as he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award from his alma mater, Auburn University, during its 20th International Quality of Life awards.

Cook spoke about issues including racism, equality and human rights, highlighting Apple's concern about the important matters.

"Growing up in Alabama in the 1960s, I saw the devastating acts of discrimination," said Cook. "Remarkable people were denied opportunities and treated without basic human dignity, solely because of the colour of their skin."

"In my office, if you were to come visit me, and I encourage you to do it, you would see three photos," he continued. "Two are of Robert Kennedy and one is of Reverend Martin Luther King. They sacrificed everything, including their lives, as champions of human rights and human dignity. Their images inspire me. They serve as a reminder every day that regardless of the path that one chooses, there are fundamental commitments that are a part of one's journey."

"For this reason and many others I was very fortunate that my life's journey took me to Apple. In addition to finding the company and a founder unlike any other, I found in Apple a company that deeply believed in advancing humanity through its products and through the equality of all of its employees," said Cook, who joined Apple in 1998 as senior vice president of Worldwide Operations, and took over from Steve Jobs as CEO shortly before he died in 2011.

"Much has changed since my early days at Apple, but these values, which are at the very heart of our company, remain the same," Cook said in his speech. "These values guide us to make our products accessible to everyone."

Cook went on to say that he reads every one of the hundreds of emails he receives from customers each day.

"Last week, I received one from a single Mum with a three-year-old autistic son who was completely non-verbal. The child had recently been given an iPad, and as a result, his mother told me that for the first time in his life, he had found his voice," he said. "I receive scores of these incredible stories around the world and I never tire of reading them."

"We never, ever analyse the return on investment," said Cook of Apple. "We do it because it is just and right."

Touching on working conditions in Apple's factories, a subject that recently returned to the media after reports that suggested Apple supplier Foxconn was still struggling to limit working hours, Cook said:  "These values also guide us to educate the employees of companies we work with on their human rights. We provided training for more than 2 million people around the world, many of whom work in our factories."

"These values lead us to insist that the companies we work with comply with our code of conduct, which in many cases go far beyond laws," he added. "We have hundreds of people at Apple and in our factories doing this important job every day. It's a very tough job. It requires honesty, resilience and determination and it all comes down to human dignity."

Cook also spoke about gay rights during his speech. Apple is known for its support of gay rights, and has this year formally stated its support for the US Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defence of Marriage Act, which ruled same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

"These values have also recently guided us to support legislation that demands equality and non-discrimination for all employees, regardless of who they love," said Cook to great applause. "This legislation, known as the employment non-discrimination act, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. I have long believed in this and Apple has implemented protection for employees even when the laws did not."

"Now is the time to write these basic principles of human dignity into the book of law," Cook concluded.