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20 years working for human rights

28 February 2013

The 7,000 delegates to the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 reached an agreement hailed at the time as “a new vision for global action for human rights into the next century.” This was despite widespread pessimism in the run-up to the Conference that the governments involved would not find common ground on the broad range of human rights issues slated for discussion.

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA), adopted by the Conference, marked a new beginning in the exploration of human rights principles which has seen fundamental progress made in women’s rights, the development of international law to achieve accountability for human rights abuses, the protection and promotion of the rights of indigenous and minorities and a much greater global understanding of the universality and indivisibility of human rights.

Addressing a high-level panel at the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Declaration, UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon said the World Conference was “an important milestone” which had “advanced our efforts to strengthen human rights work around the world”.

“Human rights and fundamental freedoms are the lifeblood of the United Nations,” Ban said.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, attended the Vienna Conference in 1993 as a civil society representative, a member of a women’s rights organization.

She described the historical context of the Conference: it was held as the Cold War ended and as South Africa’s system of apartheid was being dismantled.

“For me – a person from a State [South Africa] which had been excluded from the international community for almost twenty years, where the majority of women and men were excluded from participation in public life and decision-making – the Vienna Conference left an enduring impression,” Pillay said.

Widely regarded as the event that underscored for world governments the importance of the role of civil society, Pillay said the 800 non-governmental organizations that participated in the event “learned the value of cooperation and linkages across interests and the North-South divide.”

“Their participation created a “human rights identity” within civil society,” she said.

The Vienna Conference also marked a turning point in attitudes to women.

In her address, Pillay spoke of “a new appreciation by Government and human rights activists of gender-specific human rights violations, as well as a new appreciation by women’s rights activists of the value of international human rights. For the first time, also, Government representatives and members of civil society spoke about women’s rights at a conference not specifically dedicated to women issues.”

A most significant achievement of the delegates was their agreement that the United Nations should create the mandate of High Commissioner for human Rights to give extra prominence to the promotion and protection of human rights.

In his message, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described the move as a “crucial decision”.

Prominent human rights lawyer and a participant at the Vienna Conference, Hina Jilani, said the creation of the Office of the High Commissioner was “amongst the more significant achievements of the Conference… [and] has had tremendous impact on the consolidation of work in the field of human rights, on maintaining consistency in the promotion of existing initiatives and introduction of important new initiatives.”

Adama Dieng, the Special Adviser of the Secretary-general on the prevention of genocide drew attention to the developments in international justice following on from the Vienna Conference which led to the commitment of governments to the Right to Protect: to protect civilian populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Dieng asked for a recommitment to “a world free of atrocities.”

Carla Del Ponte, the former Chief Prosecutor of two United Nations international criminal law tribunals, said the main human rights achievement of the past twenty years was “the deferral to justice of those responsible for the commission of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.”

Del Ponte, currently serving as a Commissioner of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, said after the Vienna Declaration, the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (1993) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (1994) demonstrated clearly that impunity would no longer be tolerated by the international community.

Safak Pavey, a Member of the Turkish Parliament and a member of the Committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, described herself as being from the “90’s generation” and as such she paid tribute to those who participated at the Vienna Conference and who managed to deliver “a strong message… to the international community and civil society that a consensus could be reached on human rights”.

Pavey warned, however, that human rights “still provoke political controversy”. The major challenge facing the global human rights community in the next twenty years, she said, will be reconciling freedoms and traditions.

Hina Jilani drew attention too, to the deficits. “Serious violations of human rights have not ceased,” she said. “While increasing the power to control, little has been done by governments to build capacity of the State to protect. The politics of identity, greater difficulties in the management of pluralism and diversity, increasing poverty and diminishing role of the state in providing social security still challenge the ability of human rights systems to provide the means through which rights can be realized.”

28 February 2013