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Statement by H.E. Ambassador Remigiusz A. Henczel, President of the UN Human Rights Council International Conference on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the World Conference on Human Rights


Vienna, 27-28 June 2013

Mr. Chair,
Excellencies,
Distinguished panelists,
Ladies and gentlemen,

At the outset, let me thank the government of Austria and also a friend of mine from Geneva, Ambassador Christian Strohal, who was one of the key organizers of the Vienna Conference, for inviting me to this event.

We have had two days of very inspiring and fruitful discussions. We have benefitted from the participation of excellent panelists who have shared their thoughts and visions. Much has been said about achievements, existing challenges and future perspectives with respect to the implementation of the VDPA. Thanks to the participation of all of you we will leave from this event with a clearer understanding of where we go next in making our common vision a reality.  Please allow me to add my voice to these deliberations by making a few concluding remarks.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There is no doubt that the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted 20 years ago constitutes a momentous step of the international community in the struggle for the full realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

But it is worth stressing that its adoption would not have been possible without the changes brought about by the end of the cold war. In 1993 the international community was still riding on the crest of a wave of freedom, democracy and change, which emerged from the cold war era, particularly democratic transformation in Central and Eastern Europe and the end of apartheid in South Africa. These historic events generated the so called “Spirit of Vienna” which made possible a great success of the World Conference on Human Rights.

Last 20 years, which have elapsed since then, can certainly be seen in different ways. This anniversary event has already provided numerous examples that shake – using the Hugo Grotius’ concept – the international consciousness.  Victims of Rwanda, Srebrenica, Darfur – just to mention a few of tragic examples – will always remain witnesses not only of incredible cruelty but also of our dramatic failure. “Our” in terms of the international system of protection; “our” in terms of the efficacy of the  world governance; and “our” in terms of the responsibility assumed by all actors acting in intergovernmental bodies of the United Nations.

Yet, fortunately, the post-Vienna period also offers a much more optimistic outlook. Hopefully, I would not sound over-optimistic if I say that transition to democracy and the human rights protection is one of the key features of the changing world. Coming from Poland that has successfully gone through such transition after 1989, I certainly have a soft spot for the efforts to sustainably put an end to violent or autocratic past.

It is striking in democratic transitions, in particular those of the recent past, that they combine the quest for democracy with the demand for rights.

Democratic reforms and the restoration of the human rights protection are seen by those who struggle as parts of the same vision of change.

“Democracy” and “Freedom” appeared next to each other on the screens of our TV sets bringing coverage of pro-democratic protests.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Transition to democracy and human rights protection is, however, a multifaceted challenge and a fragile process. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rightly points out in his Guidance Note on Democracy: “Democratization, furthermore, is neither linear nor irreversible and thus both state institutions and citizens must monitor and maintain oversight of this process. Accordingly, all countries, as well as the international community itself, could benefit from continued strengthening of, and support to, their democratic processes.”

Indeed, the international support offered to Members States in their efforts to build democracy and national systems of human rights protection is essential. I remember very well assistance coming from the UN human rights programme, regional organizations and bilateral partners during the first years of transition in my country in the nineties. It was highly valued, not only for its role in the capacity building in the various spheres of governance; but equally important was its perception by the society as an expression of moral support.  Feeling of empowerment flows from endorsement for one’s direction, solidarity in need, and adequate assistance offered in time.

As President of the Human Rights Council, I note with satisfaction that the Council, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the wider UN human rights programme have made its own contribution to democratic changes and to building national human rights protection systems.

However, building democracy and respect for human rights worldwide is a work in progress and it will remain one of the fundamental challenges during the years to come.

Twenty years ago, the World Conference called for the strengthening of international efforts and assistance in this context. Paradoxically, in a way, progress in democratic reforms reinforces this call today. It shows worldwide relevance of this appeal. Fortunately, many concepts, programmes and instruments have followed the Conference’s plea; for example, the concept of the responsibility to protect adopted by the 2005 World Summit or the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It is now vital to integrate it into the post-2015 sustainable development agenda. However, even the most elaborate policies will remain only on paper if not supported by sufficient determination to implement them in practice. The Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should play the pivotal role in this respect.

Mr. Chair,
Excellencies,
Distinguished panelists,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I strongly believe that building democratic governance, strengthening national human rights protections systems, and putting in place foundations for sustainable development is the most effective way to empower people and prevent grave human rights violations. Nothing can relieve the international community from the responsibility for taking a concerted and effective action to that end.

Together we must continue to rise to this task.

Thank you.