The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Thursday said there had been significant achievements since a historic human rights document was adopted in Vienna 20 years ago, but there have also been many setbacks and "the magnificent construction is still only half built."
Pillay, who was opening the two-day "Vienna +20 Conference" in the Austrian capital, said that the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA), adopted by consensus at the World Conference on Human Rights in June 1993, was "the most significant human rights document produced in the last quarter of a century and one of the strongest human rights documents of the past hundred years."
She said that the VDPA "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 and protection of all human rights for all people 'regardless of their political, economic, and cultural systems.'"
The 1993 Vienna Conference led to "historic advances in many vital areas," Pillay said. It also created the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which she now heads (and whose own 20th anniversary will be celebrated as of September).
"Much progress has occurred during the past two decades, thanks to the path laid down in Vienna," the High Commissioner told over 500 assembled diplomats, civil society members, academics and human rights experts attending the 20th anniversary event, hosted by the Austrian Government.
"We can justly celebrate a number of important landmark agreements, including on the world's first permanent International Criminal Court – the creation of which received a significant boost at Vienna – as well as new mechanisms to promote and protect the human rights of women, minorities, migrant workers and their families and other groups. Vienna opened the door to stronger UN human rights mechanisms, including an expansion in the number of Special Procedures." Today, the 48 Special Procedures cover the entire spectrum of human rights, she noted. Vienna also strengthened the system of expert committees, known as treaty bodies, which assist States performance to meet their legal obligations under international human rights treaties, and to the important system of national human rights institutions which now exist in 103 countries.
However, the High Commissioner warned the work was far from complete: "We must recognize that in many areas, we have failed to build on the foundations of the VDPA. The inspiring opening promise of the Universal Declaration – that all human beings are born equal in dignity and in rights – is still only a dream for far too many people," she said.
"This week twenty years ago, snipers were gunning down children in the streets of Sarajevo," she said, noting that the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was taking place "less than a day's drive from the conference rooms where the World Conference was taking place."
"Today, only a little further away, the children, women and men of Syria cry out in pain and beg for our aid," the High Commissioner said. "And once again, we are failing them – as we have done in a succession of other horrific conflicts, including Afghanistan, Somalia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq – to name just a few."
"Time and again, the international community has promised to protect civilians from slaughter and gross violations of rights. And yet even as I speak to you now, women are being abducted and raped, hospitals are being targeted, and indiscriminate shelling and deliberate massacres stain the earth with the blood of innocents," Pillay said.
"All this is intolerable. And yet it continues to happen. Our progress along the path that we laid down in Vienna 20 years ago has been marked by constant setbacks as well as many achievements. Some promises have been half fulfilled – for example in the area of international justice, where we have an international court, to which some deserving situations are referred and others – including Syria – are not. But, twenty years ago, we had had no international courts at all since Nuremberg."
"When we come here, we are not celebrating history," the High Commissioner said. "We are talking about a blueprint for a magnificent construction that is still only half built. It is essential that we view the VDPA as a living document that can and should continue to guide our actions and goals. Human rights are still not universally available, or viewed as indivisible and interrelated, despite our promise to make them so. States still continue to make arguments about cultural relativity. Women, minorities and migrants are still discriminated against and abused. The right to development is still not accepted by everybody. Power still corrupts, and leaders are still prepared to sacrifice their people in order to retain it."
Pillay said another key achievement of Vienna was to provide a major boost to civil society organizations and other human rights defenders (she herself was representing a women's rights NGO at the 1993 Conference). Such organizations "have expanded to a degree that was unimaginable at the time, especially at the national level," she said. "But they are also, today in 2013, facing unprecedented challenges, including restrictive laws and reprisals."
"We need to do our utmost to revive the spirit of the Vienna Declaration, and relearn its messages," she concluded. "We must refocus on its startling clarity of purpose which, at the time, we had scarcely dared hope to achieve. It reaffirmed the dignity and rights of all, and showed us how to achieve them. It crystalized the concepts of universality, and impartiality with regard to justice. It showed us the way forward, and to some extent we have followed that path. But, sadly, reprehensibly, we also continue, all too often, to deviate from it."
Check the Universal Human Rights Index: http://uhri.ohchr.org/en
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