On 20th anniversary of historic declaration, UN officials urge progress on human rights

Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, addressed opening the Vienna+20 Conference. UN Photo

27 June 2013 – While there have been significant human rights achievements since the landmark adoption of the Vienna Declaration 20 years ago, people across the world are still being denied basic liberties, a United Nations senior official said today, calling on countries to step up their efforts to prevent gross rights violations.

“Much progress has occurred during the past two decades, thanks to the path laid down in Vienna…but the magnificent construction is still only half built,” said Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, opening the Vienna+20 Conference in the Austrian capital.

“[The Vienna Declaration] 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.”

“Even as I speak to you now, women are being abducted and raped, hospital are being targeted, and indiscriminate shelling and deliberate massacres stain the earth with the blood of innocents,” she said, stressing this was “intolerable” and calling for action to stop rights violations, particularly in places mired in conflict such as Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Hundreds of diplomats, civil society members, academics and human rights experts have gathered for the two-day Conference to mark 20 years since the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA) at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993.

In her remarks, Ms. Pillay said the VDPA, born “in the best of times and worst of times” – the end of the Cold War and the start of a rash of brutal internal conflicts – was “the most significant human rights document produced in the last quarter of a century and one of the strongest...of the past hundred years.”

She added that the VDPA “crystallized 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 VDPA, which created the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also paved the way for important landmarks agreements and human rights mechanisms Ms. Pillay said, including the International Criminal Court. It also strengthened the system of expert committees, known as treaty bodies, which assist States to meet their legal obligations under international human rights treaties, and national human rights institutions which now exist in 103 countries.

Still, there have been many setbacks, the High Commissioner noted, adding that the work started is 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.

“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.”

Ms. Pillay urged countries to revive the spirit of the Vienna Declaration and refocus their efforts to achieve universality, and impartiality with regard to justice.”

In his remarks to the Conference, UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said countries run the risk of becoming numb to violence and rights violations and stressed they need to make an effort to prioritize human rights issues.

“There is a wave of brutalization going over the world,” Mr. Eliasson said. “We are seeing figures of people being killed, innocent men, women and children in great numbers and we get used to it. We almost get numb. They end up on page 16 in a small little note. We must put an end to this prioritization.”

Governments, activists, the private sector and academia all have a role to play, he said, adding that the UN will also continue to improve its work on how it deals with rights violations and upholds the rule of law.


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