Vienna+20: A new vision for human rights

The 20th anniversary of the World Conference on Human Rights was commemorated in New York during a special event co-hosted by Dr. Heinz Fischer, Federal President of the Republic of Austria, and UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay.

On the margins of the United Nations General Assembly’s 68th Session, Presidents, Ministers, members of civil society, the UN Deputy Secretary-General and, for the first time ever, two former and the current UN Human Rights Chiefs, all met at the “Vienna+20” event to discuss human rights progress over the past 20 years and the way forward. At the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA) was adopted, which led to the establishment of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“The Vienna World Conference and the World Summit 2005 firmly placed human rights at the centre of UN activities,” Fischer said. “However, UN responses to recent human rights crisis situations have failed to protect the human rights of the men, women, and children concerned.”

Pillay reported on the outcome of an initial 20th anniversary event, held in Vienna itself, earlier this year, saying “participants agreed that a strong human rights normative framework is in place.” However, there was still a need for greater implementation. “In almost every area—from development to conflict, we see evidence that UN action on human rights is falling short,” Pillay said.

She also referred to political obstacles as a leading cause for poor implementation, noting that the human rights situation in Syria will not improve without a sustained political consensus among Member States on human rights.

Pillay emphasized the importance of moving away from a fragmented approach to human rights to a comprehensive human rights vision. She noted that the 1993 World Conference had linked human rights, the rule of law and democracy, and that human rights had since been recognized as one of the United Nation’s three pillars. In practice however, she explained that while human rights is a necessary platform for development and the rule of law is a tool to translate human rights into national development policies, the UN does not adequately merge the two concepts in order to leverage support for development.

The UN’s Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, picked up on the same theme. “There is no peace without development,” Eliasson said. “There is no development without peace.  But there is no development or peace without human rights. If one of these pillars is weak, the whole structure is weak.” Eliasson went on to refer to the UN’s Internal Review of UN action in Sri Lanka, and its findings that of a “systemic failure.” He underlined that the “vibrations” that accompany human rights violations often provide the first sign of a developing crisis, and that the United Nations needed to use violations as the basis for preventive responses to possible crises. The Deputy Secretary-General said that the United Nations was now taking steps to implement the recommendations of the Internal Review Panel.

In her assessment of progress, Louise Arbour, former UN Human Rights Chief and current President and CEO of the International Crisis Group, said that "If every child born today was given a copy of the preamble of the Universal Declaration, they may take it at face value that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. But, by age 10 and certainly 15, I think they would challenge that proposition for a lack of evidence." She said that, although there were three women who have held the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, women have not achieved the position in society they are entitled to.

Providing her own analysis, Mary Robinson, also a former UN Human Rights Chief, referred to the Millennium Declaration and said that it didn’t adequately reflect human rights, the rule of law or good governance.  Robinson also regretted that in the first decade of this century, the world had given insufficient attention to economic, social and cultural rights. She pointed to the War on Terror, 9/11, and the war in Iraq as having damaged respect for human rights. "What the war on terror has taught us is that we must uphold our human rights values and that established rights are at the core in order to win the minds and hearts of people," she said.

“Over the next 20 years, we could eliminate disappearances, torture, discrimination, poverty and hunger,” Pillay said. “We could ensure access to education for all children, including every girl. With much strengthened engagement between the United Nations and Member States, and with greater implementation that still escapes us.”

Beginning with the Presidents of Costa Rica and Croatia, a considerable number of Member States, civil society actors, and one student, spoke from the floor, recalling progress on human rights as well the need to significantly strengthen UN human rights action. The event was moderated by UN Human Rights Office Assistant Secretary-General Ivan Šimonović.

1 October 2013

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