Press Conference on Vienna+20 - Human Rights Gains, Shortcomings, Way Forward

18 September 2013

Press Conference on Vienna+20 - Human Rights Gains, Shortcomings, Way Forward

18 September 2013
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Vienna+20 — Human Rights Gains, Shortcomings, Way Forward

While significant gains had been made since the historic World Conference on Human Rights — held in Vienna, Austria, in 1993 — more was urgently needed to fully realize those rights for millions of people around the world, a top United Nations official said today at a Headquarters press conference, spotlighting an upcoming event to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Vienna Conference.

Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said a high-level side event would be held on 25 September, during the General Assembly’s sixty-eighth session, to celebrate progress over the last two decades and identify challenges and solutions to implementing the Vienna commitments.  It follows the Vienna+20 High Level Expert Conference, held in June, which examined the legacy of the original conference and made recommendations for improving the promotion and protection of human rights.

“We’ve attracted a lot of attention,” he said, noting that the Presidents of Costa Rica and Croatia were planning to attend, as well as the President of the Parliament of Finland and a long list of senior ministers.  The event would provide a platform to identify “what we have achieved and areas where we have failed”.

By way of background, he said the 1993 World Conference had been held in an atmosphere of optimism after the fall of the Iron Curtain, with the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action envisaging close links between human rights, the rule of law and democracy.  It had led to a number of historic advances:  a more robust organizational framework, the establishment of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a strengthened treaty body system to monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties.  It also had created aspirations for what was possible.

However, he said, “it is not enough to have democratic aspirations.”  As the Arab Spring had shown, if human rights aims were not met, people around the world would rebel.  That underlined the “urgent need for support for relevant institution-building and a widening of democratic space”.

The focus must be on overcoming the present “disconnect”, he continued.  While the Millennium Development Goals were closely related to human rights — food, education and health, for example — they did not directly refer to them, and thus had been weakened.  To reinforce those linkages, he highlighted the proposal for a United Nations task force on sustainability, equality and human rights to be created under a social and economic agenda.

The Vienna Conference was a “shift of paradigm”, said Gerhard Doujak, Head of the Human Rights Department in Austria’s Federal Ministry of European and International Affairs, who joined Mr. Šimonović at the press conference.  “It came at an important political moment that reflected a new understanding of human rights.”  Austria itself was opening its borders to its neighbours, and the time was right for setting new standards.

Describing the Expert Conference in June, he said 130 experts from around the world had considered ways to strengthen the international human rights system.  Discussions had taken place in the framework of three working groups, which had been focused on the rule of law and access to justice for victims of human rights violations, women in public and political life, and human rights and the post-2015 development agenda.

The working groups had developed recommendations for encouraging States and other stakeholders to enhance human rights protection, he said, which Austria would present to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly this fall.

When the floor was opened to journalists, Mr. Šimonović fielded several questions about Syria, noting that the High Commissioner on Human Rights had asked that the situation be referred to the International Criminal Court.  The alleged use of chemical weapons was not the only issue; more than 100,000 people had been victims of conventional weapons.  The commission of inquiry’s recent report had drawn attention to systematic torture, rape, the use of child soldiers, war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Particularly striking was the deliberate targeting of medical facilities — events that had been well documented and should be addressed.

The Security Council, he said, should express its concern about the deliberate targeting of medical facilities.  The practice was more widespread on behalf of the Syrian Government, but instances also had been detected by the opposition.

At the same time, he noted the “positive momentum” generated by Syria’s willingness to allow chemical weapons inspections, which could now be used for other forms of human rights monitoring.  “We’re missing dialogue on humanitarian issues — how to prevent humanitarian suffering, protect the population and ensure access of relief.”  “Dayton did not come out of the blue,” he stressed, citing the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  He hoped that talks in Geneva would start by the end of October.

To another question, Mr.Doujak said the global human rights picture was indeed different from 20 years ago, with international conferences aiming to make the system more responsive to emerging situations.  “We need to react and analyze each situation and take appropriate steps at the country level,” he said.

Mr. Šimonović added that “we are better, but we are not well off.”  Twenty years ago, in the face of events in Srebrenica and Rwanda, United Nations forces on the ground were not protecting civilians from being slaughtered.  The Organization had been receiving information on genocides but no action had been taken.

Today, in contrast, there was an intervention brigade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an emerging doctrine of the responsibility to protect, and a broad recognition that some atrocities must be acted upon.  What was missing was consensus in the Security Council.  In Sri Lanka, “we didn’t sufficiently alarm the international community,” he said.  But today, the Council was receiving regular information on Syria.  “We tell them what they need to know whether they like it or not,” he said.

Taking a question on the effectiveness of the Human Rights Council, Mr. Doujak described why it was worthwhile to support that body, saying that the universal periodic review had created a positive system for identifying concerns.  The Council had improved over the years in the face of serious human rights violations in Libya and Syria.  He said it was “not able to move quickly in the Security Council”, but the results achieved by the commission of inquiry on Syria were the “basis for assessing by the international community”.  Finally, the Council’s special procedures provided a record on human rights situations around the world, which increased understanding.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.