Human Rights Day: UN pays tribute to activists, landmark Vienna Declaration

Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the UN Human Rights Office. Credit: OHCHR

10 December 2013 – Honouring human rights activism, including the legacy of Nelson Mandela, senior UN officials today mark Human Rights Day calling for greater political will and resources to implement laws and standards designed to promote and protect the rights and dignity of all people everywhere.

“Promoting human rights is one of the core purposes of the United Nations, and the Organization has pursued this mission since its founding,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his message for the Day. “Then, as now, the key to success is the political will of Member States.”

He added that Member States have the primary obligation to protect human rights and prevent violations at a national level, and to stand up when other States fail to live up to their commitments.

This is not always easy, Mr. Ban noted, adding that over the past 20 years, the world has seen genocide and many other appalling and large-scale violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

The theme for this year’s observance is ‘20 Years Working for Your Rights,’ marking the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Plan of Action, adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights, convened in the Austrian capital in 1993, which crystallized the principle that human rights are universal and committed States to their promotion and protection, for all people regardless of national political, economic and cultural systems.

“The Vienna Declaration should be viewed as a blueprint for a magnificent construction that is still only half built,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said noting also that the Declaration led to the creation of her office known by its acronym OHCHR.

She stressed the importance of modern technologies in transforming the way human rights work is carried out. The Internet, social media and other innovations to improve real-time communications and information-sharing are “magnifying the voice of human rights defenders, shining a light on abuses, and mobilizing support for various causes in many parts of the world.”

They also facilitate human rights violations, the UN official cautioned, noting the use of mass electronic surveillance and data collection, as well as the use of autonomous weapons systems known informally as ‘killer robots’ which pose deeply troubling ethical and legal questions.

Ms. Pillay summarized that at the international level, a huge amount of work remains to be done “to transform human rights from abstract promises to genuine improvement in the daily lives”, particularly among marginalized or excluded groups.

As part of today’s events to mark the Day, OHCHR will honour six recipients of the 2013 Human Rights Prize, an honorary award given to individuals and organizations in recognition of outstanding achievement in human rights.

This year’s winners are: Biram Dah Abeid of Mauritania, a son of freed slaves who works to eradicate the practice; Hiljmnijeta Apuk of Kosovo, a campaigner for the rights of people with disproportional restricted growth (short stature); Liisa Kauppinen of Finland, President emeritus of the World Federation of the Deaf; Khadija Ryadi, Former President of the Morocco Association for Human Rights; Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice (the Constitutional Court); and Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban who advocates for education.

Among previous recipients is Nelson Mandela, whom officials lauded in their messages for the Day, and whose legacy is honoured today in an official memorial service in Johannesburg attended by Mr. Ban and more than 90 heads of State and Government.

Mr. Mandela’s work and the spirit of the Human Rights Day are also being marked in South Sudan, where Hilde Johnson, the head of the UN peacekeeping mission there (UNMISS), drew parallels between the fights to end apartheid in South Africa and the political struggles in South Sudan, including the referendum in 2011 on whether the region should remain a part of Sudan or become independent.

“Madiba reconstructed a nation, the new South Africa, and he made sure it was built on respect for human dignity and human rights,” Ms. Johnson said referring to Mr. Mandela by a popular term of endearment. “Make these same principles your Bill of Rights – for all – be your most important building stones.”

The most widespread demand of women and men is perhaps the opportunity to work in dignity, the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) said.

Some 20.9 million people were in forced labour during the period between 2002 and 2011, and there are still 168 million children in child labour, according to UN figures. In addition, 870 million workers and their families live in poverty on the $2 per day line, while about 400 million in extreme poverty.

“Decent work, with the right and principles it embraces, is the sustainable route out of poverty,” said Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General. “The creation of decent jobs remains, and will continue to remain, one of the pressing global development priorities.”

The UN agency highlighted that the right to work is a basic human right and its denial puts at risk the lives, freedom, human dignity, security and health of workers or keeps households in conditions of extreme poverty.

Health and human rights are intricately linked, said Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS in his message, highlighting some of the struggles of people with HIV and AIDS.

“We need to protect and respect human rights and be courageous enough to confront society’s wrongs,” he said. “How can the world accept that some people have access to safety and services while others are excluded because of legal and social status, income or sexual orientation?”

“Everyone has equal dignity and value, and everyone deserves the right to health and to life,” he stressed, adding that ending the AIDS epidemic is a matter of human rights.

The Human Rights Day fails in the culmination of the global campaign of 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence which begins annually on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, marked on 25 November.

“Accountability, the empowerment of women, and societal transformation, are key factors to challenging the norm of impunity and the lack of effective and sustainable responses for acts of violence against them,” said Rashida Manjoo, Special Rapporteur on violence against women.

In her message, Ms. Manjoo urges Governments to intervene to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, saying that failure of States to respond effectively to such treatment of women and girls is yet another form of violence against them.

In its message for the Day, the International Criminal Court (ICC) expressed its deepest sympathies to all people whose fundamental human rights have been violated, particularly those lining in areas of conflict.

The ICC noted that for the first time in history, victims can now actively participate in the proceedings before the Court and apply for reparations.

Human Rights Day stems from the General Assembly’s adoption the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. The Declaration sets out a broad range of fundamental human rights and freedoms to which all men and women, everywhere in the world, are entitled, without any distinction. Flip through a photo story of the Declaration’s birth. http://www.un.org/apps/news/photostories_detail.asp?PsID=33

As part of events being held around the world to mark the Day, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is holding in Paris a cultural event showcasing tango, jazz and traditional music and dance.

“To realize freedom and equality in dignity and rights for all women and men, we must do everything to support countries in meeting the Millennium Development Goals by 2015,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in reference to the eight universally approved anti-poverty targets.

At the UN Headquarters in New York, tennis legend Martina Navratilova and NBA basketball player Jason Collins are taking part in a special event on “Sport comes out against Homophobia.”

Meanwhile, in Oslo, Norway, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is today being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.”


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