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Council holds panel on anniversaries of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action

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28 June 1439

AFTERNOON

GENEVA (28 February 2018) - The Human Rights Council this afternoon held a high-level panel discussion on the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, with a focus on the implementation of the provisions thereof, including the benefits of enhanced international cooperation to that end, pursuant the Council resolution 35/1.
 
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the Human Rights Council’s mandate was rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, so this panel served as an occasion to reaffirm commitments to both fundamental texts.  The rights to justice, equality, freedom, dignity and the imperatives of compassion were universal principles.  It was that universality which gave the Universal Declaration of Human Rights its deep resonance.  The Vienna Declaration had taken the fundamental notion of universality a step further by acknowledging the inseparability of all human rights, and all States had recognized that human rights were indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. 
 
Anatoly Victorov, Director of the Department for Humanitarian Cooperation and Human Rights of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, said the anniversaries of those two vital documents presented an opportunity to improve human rights in all spheres, by all organizations, States and civil society.  They provided an opportunity to stop and think about how to make the United Nations more authoritative in its promotion and protection of human rights.  The new goals would be effective only if they were implemented on the basis of equal and constructive cooperation between States. 
 
Christian Strohal, Special Representative for the Austrian Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Chairmanship 2017, said the objective of the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 had been to operationalize the promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and achieve active results. 
 
Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, underlined the importance of revisiting the founding documents of human rights.  People on the ground knew about their human rights, contrary to the usual supposition.  There was less recognition of human rights at all levels of Government.
 
Christof Heyns, member of the Human Rights Committee and former Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, noted that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not in itself a binding document; it was the nine core human rights treaties that gave legally binding force to the norms inherent in the Universal Declaration.  The treaty system, Special Procedures, and the Universal Periodic Review all complemented each other. 
 
Şafak Pavey, Senior Advisor at Women Political Leaders Global Network and former member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said the impact of the two documents was by no means abstract.  Equal representation of male and female experts at the panel, inclusion of both Member States and civil society actors in the Human Rights Council, as well as the accessibility of the panel to persons with disabilities were all living proof of the achievements made by these declarations. 
 
During the discussion, speakers applauded the unique contributions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action to humanity.  They also spoke of the importance of protecting the principles of universality, indivisibility, interrelatedness and interdependence of human rights.  All recognized that today was an important opportunity to ensure that the human rights system flourished, and they called upon Member States to build a world of dignity and human rights.  Participants also recognized that humanity still struggled with horrendous atrocities and unprecedented violence, which brutally violated all human rights and freedoms.  Human dignity was in peril and the human rights situation in the world remained dire.  Even in so-called developed countries, people were lying homeless in the streets.  Despite the progress achieved, a great deal remained to be done.  In addition, double standards, politization, lack of good will, and the Geneva-New York divide, remained challenges. 
 
Speaking were South Africa; Indonesia, on behalf of Association of Southeast Asian Nation; Mexico, on behalf of a group of countries; Chile, on behalf of a group of countries; Denmark, on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic Group; European Union;  Canada, on behalf of the Francophone Group; Republic of Korea, on behalf of Mexico, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia; Belgium, on behalf of a group of Benelux countries; Australia, on behalf of the mountains group of countries; China, on behalf a group of countries; Jordan, on behalf of the Arab Group; Nepal on behalf of a group of countries; Togo on behalf of the African Group; Ethiopia; Brazil; Switzerland; Botswana; Israel; Egypt; Spain; Slovenia; Viet Nam; and Poland.
 
The following non-governmental organizations also took the floor: Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, International Service for Human Rights, International Association of Democratic Lawyers, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Civicus-World Alliance for Citizen Participation
 
 
The Council will resume its work at 9 a.m. on Thursday, 1 March, when it will continue its clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing and the Independent Expert on foreign debt, followed by a clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteurs on human rights defenders and on torture.  
 
Keynote Statements
 
ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the Council’s mandate was rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, so the panel served as an occasion to reaffirm commitments to both fundamental texts.  The Universal Declaration was not a projection of partisan politics, or a project for world domination.  The original push to draw up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had come from anti-imperialist and anti-racist movements in countries of the global south.  Western countries, including the United Kingdom, France and the United States had been initially reluctant.  It was Latin American States, with their experiences of slavery, colonialism and foreign domination, which had pushed for international human rights measures even before the Second World War.  Once discussions had been underway, the Philippines had stood staunchly for powerful language prohibiting torture.  India and Pakistan had strongly backed the rights of women.  China, Costa Rica, Ghana, Jamaica, Lebanon and Liberia had championed language on justice and the dignity of the human person.  
 
The rights to justice, equality, freedom, dignity and the imperatives of compassion were universal principles.  It was that universality which gave the Declaration its deep resonance.  The Vienna Declaration had taken the fundamental notion of universality a step further, by acknowledging the inseparability of all human rights, and all States had recognized that human rights were indivisible, interdependent and interrelated.  Access to social protection and economic opportunities formed a powerful antidote to the spread of violent extremism.  The Declaration on the Right of Development emphasized the right of all individuals and peoples to free, active and meaningful participation in decision-making.  Moreover, it was in Vienna that steps had been taken to create the mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  In closing, the High Commissioner warned that fractures were deepening across the world and that violence was rising.  Today’s human rights violations would become tomorrow’s conflicts.  Hence, the anniversaries should serve to remind everyone of the disasters and catastrophic violence that might ensue when commitments made 70 years ago were violated.
 
ANATOLY VICTOROV, Director of the Department for Humanitarian Cooperation and Human Rights of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, reminded that the Universal Declaration had been adopted some 70 years ago, following a devastating world war, at the dawn of the foundation of the United Nations and a new world order.  The process of its adoption had not been smooth nor without tense and heated discussions.  Today, its provisions were still being arbitrarily interpreted.  It was very important that the Declaration remained universal.  The World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, which resulted in the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, had not only underlined the interdependence and indivisibility of human rights, but it had also consolidated the positions of States in all regions in the world.  The Vienna Declaration was quoted in practically all human rights documents.  The anniversaries of those two vital documents presented an opportunity to improve human rights in all spheres, by all organizations, States and civil society.  Mr. Victorov stressed that the anniversary provided an opportunity to stop and think about how to make the United Nations more authoritative in its promotion and protection of human rights.  The new goals would be effective only if they were implemented on the basis of equal and constructive cooperation between States. 
 
Statements by the President of the Council and the Panellists
 
VOJISLAV ŠUC, President of the Human Rights Council, reminded that many States were of the view that a long path remained to reach the full implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.  Each expert of the panel would share how they thought the texts were affecting human rights issues.  Mr. Šuc then asked about the spirit at the Vienna Conference on Human Rights, and how delegations cooperated to develop the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.
 
CHRISTIAN STROHAL, Special Representative for the Austrian Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Chairmanship 2017, said that the process in Vienna had benefited from a window of opportunity at the end of the Cold War.  States believed they could move forward to fulfil the promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The objective of the Conference was to operationalize those promises and achieve concrete results.  The Conference was the result of a two-year-long complicated planning process characterized by disagreement on several points.  The preparatory process allowed for the development of a global movement with civil society at its roots, creating the momentum to motivate States to act.  States were aware of the promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The universality of all human rights and shared responsibility for implementation brought States together to develop the proposal for the creation of the Office of a High Commissioner for Human Rights.
 
LEILANI FARHA, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, underlined the importance of revisiting the founding documents of human rights.  People on the ground knew about their human rights, contrary to the usual supposition.  They asked why they were not treated as human beings, and why they had to be forcefully evicted.  They wanted to be treated as human beings with dignity.  There was less recognition of human rights at all levels of the Government.  There was some general knowledge of human rights, about the treaties signed, but civil servants held misconceptions regarding the right to housing.  Another misconception was that social and economic rights could not be claimed in front of courts.  As for the effective tools to familiarize people about their social and economic rights, Ms. Farha noted that those were institutional and accountability mechanisms.  A Constitutional provision on the right to housing would be a very useful tool.  Societies needed to create their own human rights cultures; guidelines and manuals were not sufficient. 
 
CHRISTOF HEYNS, Member of the Human Rights Committee and former Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, noted that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not in itself a binding document; it was the nine core human rights treaties that gave legally binding force to the norms inherent in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The treaty system on its own probably would have not made a difference in the implementation of human rights.  The treaty system, Special Procedures, and the Universal Periodic Review all complemented each other.  The idea that each individual had immensurable value was an old one, but the treaty system had turned it into something that could be enforced.  Each individual had a value that could not be sacrificed for the common good. 
 
ŞAFAK PAVEY, Senior Advisor at Women Political Leaders, Global Network and former Member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said that the impact of Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action was by no means abstract.  Equal representation of male and female experts at the panel, inclusion of both Member States and civil society actors in the Human Rights Council, as well as the accessibility of the panel to persons with disabilities, were all a living proof of the achievements made by the declarations.  At the time of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it had been incredibly hard to reach a common ground and find common values, yet respect for human rights had become a universal trend.
 
Discussion
 
South Africa said that inequality amongst people and nations was among the greatest challenges facing the world.  The individual had to be at the centre of development, including as a beneficiary.  Indonesia, speaking on behalf of Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action was enshrined in the Association’s Charter and underpinned the establishment of regional commissions on human rights.  The Association would work to build an inclusive community that protected the rights of its peoples.  Mexico, speaking on behalf of a group of countries, said inalienable rights were being undermined.  The gap between commitment and country-level implementation of human rights obligations was of concern and undermined the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 
 
Chile, speaking on behalf of a group of countries, said the Universal Declaration strengthened the dignity of millions of people.  The explicit commitment to marginalized groups broadened human rights as a pillar of democracy.  Denmark, speaking on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic Group, said that the very existence of the Human Rights Council was a sign of progress as was the expansion of the international legal framework for human rights.  Still, human rights defenders were being persecuted and attacked.  European Union noted that investing in human rights in open societies was the best investment that could be made to sustain security.  The European Union placed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 
 
Canada, speaking on behalf of the Francophone Group, affirmed that values of the French speaking community were expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Collective responsibility was instrumental for the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide.  Republic of Korea, speaking on behalf of Mexico, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia, stated that those countries remained committed to supporting the human rights architecture, and highlighted the importance of the elimination of violence against women worldwide.  Belgium, speaking on behalf of Benelux countries, stressed that the commitments from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action had to be reaffirmed more than ever before as a precondition for peace.
 
Australia, speaking on behalf mountains group of countries, reaffirmed their commitment to stand up for the human rights principles enshrined in the two declarations, and asked the panellists about ways to foster a more effective coordination between the mechanisms in Geneva and New York.  China, speaking on behalf a group of countries, said that needs and rights of developing countries had been often neglected.  The sovereignty of States needed to be considered, whereas human rights should not be used as a political tool in a selective manner.  Jordan, speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, reaffirmed unwavering commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and asked how the 30 articles of the Declaration could be implemented more efficiently. 
 
Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, in a video statement, stated that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had to be celebrated, protected and promoted every day and everywhere.  The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action recognized national human rights institutions as important and constructive actors who had a legal mandate to promote and protect human rights domestically.  International Service for Human Rights reminded of the harassment of human rights defenders who worked for the realization of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  States had to immediately ensure that defenders could carry out their work without any hindrance.  International Association of Democratic Lawyers regretted the appalling human rights situation around the world.  Double standards and selective approaches to human rights were some of the most important obstacles to the implementation of international human rights law. 
 
Responses by the Panellists
 
CHRISTIAN STROHAL, Special Representative for the Austrian Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Chairmanship 2017, underlined the importance of the cooperation between New York and Geneva, adding that the Sustainable Development Goals were a unique opportunity to feed the work done in Geneva to New York.  He also underlined the work of human rights defenders and journalists, noting that Governments should not shoot the messenger but heed the message.  Political will was necessary to close the gap in the implementation of human rights.
 
LEILANI FARHA, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, said that she very much felt the Geneva–New York divide.  There was some discomfort in speaking about human rights in the Third Committee due to supposed lack of expertise.  The Sustainable Development Goals would help create interaction.  As for the implementation gap, it was about mechanisms and accountability.  States and sub-national authorities were not creative enough about how to integrate international recommendation at home.  Every ministry and department should at least be aware of the recommendations coming from the international level. 
 
CRISTOF HEYNS, Member of the Human Rights Committee and former Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, emphasized challenges to human rights and the importance of regional human rights mechanisms.  Strengthening regional efforts was a priority as sustaining the system as a whole relied on making it more grass roots.  He suggested that the treaty bodies hold one session outside of Geneva to bring the global human rights system closer to other communities.  Efforts also had to be made to ensure future generations internalized the values of the international human rights system. 
 
ŞAFAK PAVEY, Senior Advisor at Women Political Leaders Global Network and former Member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said there was a need to assess the diversity of candidates conforming to human-rights-related committees.  Those committees must become more representative, she said, calling for greater inclusion of persons with disabilities.  She also noted that treaty bodies presented an opportunity to share best practices on the protection of human rights identified at the local level.
 
Discussion
 
Nepal, speaking on behalf of a group of countries, thanked for the support provided to the least developed countries through the United Nations Trust Fund, which had made the Council more representative and inclusive.  Togo, speaking on behalf of the African Group, noted that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a source of major inspiration for African countries.  The African Group was concerned about the lack of implementation of the right to development.  Ethiopia reminded that poverty was a big challenge for the realization of fundamental human rights, especially for developing and under-developed countries, in which some 800 million people suffered from hunger.
 
Brazil noted that it was crucial to renew the message contained in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action in favour of the realization of all human rights, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or migration status.  Switzerland called for the fight against anything that questioned the universal value of human rights.  Human rights should lie at the very heart of conflict prevention, and prevention of violence in general.  Botswana asked about the reasons for the limited implementation of many of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and observed that the pursuit of narrow self-interests hindered the achievement of the collective good for humanity.
 
Israel said that it was up to States to uphold the promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The universality of human rights was being consistently challenged in the Middle East.  Egypt warned of persistent and unprecedented violence.  The path forward required increased international solidarity on human rights and the active participation of all relevant stakeholders.  Spain stated that it was important to look back at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to help determine future priorities.  Spain would continue to use the Declaration as a guiding principle for its policymaking.
 
Slovenia noted that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the founding pillar of rights protections and carried a heavy moral debt.  The Human Rights Council was the body giving life to the principles outlined in the Declaration.  Viet Nam assured that all human beings were equal and the promotion and protection of human rights could be successful only if implementation accounted for national and regional contexts.  Poland said this was a time to reflect on whether human rights commitments were met.  Poland took a high-profile role on human rights as a non-permanent United Nations Security Council member, prioritizing freedom of religion and belief. 
 
Amnesty International welcomed recent attempts to address the historic neglect of economic, social and cultural rights.  However, across the world, millions were denied access to adequate food, clean water, decent healthcare, education and housing.  To be credible, States participating in the Council had to create safe and enabling environments for free and open discussion on all human rights issues.  Human Rights Watch warned of a rise in xenophobic populism, profiling on racial and religious grounds, attacks on human rights defenders, and pushback against multilateral institutions, including the Human Rights Council.  It urged States to resist attempts to insert a relativist agenda into United Nations resolutions.  CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation inquired how it came about that the world in the twenty-first century, particularly in the past five years, was backsliding on the same values and institutions which guaranteed a peaceful living together.  How could they develop a new vision today and how could the Human Rights Council spearhead such a new vision?
 
Concluding Remarks
 
SAFAK PAVEY, Senior Advisor at Women Political Leaders Global Network and former member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, noted that various cultural beliefs and harmful practices represented some of the most important challenges to the universal implementation of human rights.  States should organize cultural awareness raising campaigns as they adopted new laws.  International instruments should be turned into the reality of people’s lives.  They should be embedded in national cultures.  There should be more inspiration to transform cultures and do away with old prejudices.
 
CHRISTIAN STROHAL, Special Representative for the Austrian Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Chairmanship 2017, suggested using the Universal Periodic Review recommendations to bridge the gap in the implementation of human rights.  There were too many politics of fear, threats and exclusion.  There was a need for more inclusion and enabling to make 2018 a successful year.   
 
CHRISTOF HEYNS, member of the Human Rights Committee and former Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, referring to the right to life, said current challenges were not intractable and could be addressed through increased technical cooperation.  Accountability and technical mechanisms could lead to success in addressing violence.  He said that sovereignty must be seen in context and that human rights values superseded national sovereignty.  He added that the use of fully autonomous weapons systems was highly problematic. 
 
LEILANI FARHA, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, giving the example of homelessness in wealthy countries, asked how the world got to such a state, underscoring that issues like these were contributing to conflicts.  She expressed concern over the fact that the human rights system had not been active enough to ensure that private actors did not stray from States’ human rights obligations.  She called on States to recognize homeless people as members of the human family and accord them respect.

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