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Vienna+20 – the future of human rights

Twenty years ago in Vienna, Austria, more than 7,000 participants gathered for the World Conference on Human Rights. Despite the outbreak of war in the Balkans, the end of the Cold War had given a renewed impetus to the drive to achieve universal human rights.

The Conference participants, were able, ultimately, to put aside their considerable differences and agree on an outcome, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action which is regarded as a landmark event in the history of the modern human rights movement.
In her opening address to the Vienna+20 Conference, held on 27 June to commemorate the 1993 World Conference and its Declaration, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay described it as “one of the strongest human rights documents of the past one hundred years.”

“It crystalized the principle that human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, and firmly entrenched the notion of universality by committing States to the promotion of all human rights for all people “regardless of the political, economic, and cultural systems,” Pillay said.

Austrian Vice-Chancellor and Federal Minister for European and International Affairs, Michael Spindelegger, delivering his keynote address, drew attention to a speaker who was unable to attend the event.  Archbishop Mor Gregorios from Aleppo was taken hostage in Syria more than two months ago. The Vice- Chancellor expressed his “deep felt compassion for all the victims who are dedicated to safeguard freedom of religion.”

Spindelegger said the World Conference in 1993 was a “huge success” that had broken new ground.  He referred specifically to the consensus on the indivisibility of all human rights, advances in women’s rights and agreement in the international community that the principle of human rights protection is a legitimate concern.

Pillay also highlighted progress that has been made since 1993, “thanks to the path laid down in Vienna.” She referred to the establishment of the world’s first permanent International Criminal Court, stronger UN human rights mechanisms, including the Special Procedures – the independent mandate holders who monitor and report on the full range of human rights and the expansion of the Treaty Bodies, the groups of independent experts who assess compliance by Member States with human rights treaties.

The post of High Commissioner for Human Rights was one of the agreements signed off at the 1993 World Conference. Participants agreed on the need for an independent, authoritative voice to speak out on human rights violations globally. 

The Office of High Commissioner has “made crucial contributions to the fundamentally new way in which the United Nations addresses human rights”, Spindelegger said and wished the High Commissioner and her Office a happy birthday.

Pillay herself said the Office of High Commissioner had “filled a major vacuum in the UN system and become an increasingly strong and authoritative advocate for victims across the globe, a voice for the voiceless.”

Yemeni journalist, women’s rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Tawakkol Karman spoke passionately of the struggle for freedom of expression, and transparency as the essential preconditions for democracy.

The Arab Spring had shown the world the important roles to be played by women and youth, Karman said. They must be given the opportunity to participate in all aspects of life and governments must empower them through legislative initiatives, she said.

Karman was one of several speakers on a high-level panel that opened the Vienna+20 discussions.

Another speaker, Salil Shetty, Secretary-General of Amnesty International said the original conference had looked like being a disaster but instead was considered a “milestone”. The establishment of the Office of High Commissioner for Human rights was, he said, a “seminal achievement”.
Shetty noted the many advances since 1993 but he said if governments had stuck to the commitments made at the time, the world would be a different place. He referred to the armed conflicts “on our watch” but at the same time he also pointed to the recent movements for change where people, even from well established democracies,  are saying “no more” and demanding greater accountability.

The global community, Shetty said, is running out of excuses.  Governments and corporations must adhere to human rights principles or people in general, but particularly women and young people will say “no more”.

One of Russia’s most prominent human rights defenders and a founder of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group,  Ludmilla Alexeeva, recalled that in her country twenty years ago, civil society had started to strengthen, the judicial system had started to improve and human rights in general had started to advance. More recently, she said, the situation had deteriorated and she called on the Office of the High Commissioner and the international community to support efforts to boost respect for human rights in her country.

Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, acknowledged progress but he too drew attention to the conflicts in all regions saying that he thought the world “was getting used to violence.” There is a “wave of brutalization in the world”, he said, “and all too often the numbers end up on page 16.”

“There can be no lasting peace or sustainable development without respect for human rights,” Eliasson said.

High Commissioner Pillay called for reflection. “I believe this 20th anniversary provides us with a very important opportunity to go back to Vienna in order to rediscover the way forward,” she said.

“When we come here, we are not celebrating history,” she said. “We are talking about a blueprint for a magnificent construction that is still only half built. It is essential that we view the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action as a living document that can and should continue to guide our actions and goals.”

27 June 2013
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