Reflecting on the Vienna Declaration 20 Years Later

Last week, human rights defenders and the United Nations commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action and the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights with parallel international conferences reflecting on advances in human rights over the past two decades. Though not legally binding itself, the Vienna Declaration reiterated basic civil, political, and economic freedoms enshrined in prior instruments of the international human rights framework, and rallied the international community to make greater efforts to respect, protect, and promote human rights.

Vienna Declaration and Program of Action

Among the Vienna Declaration’s primary objectives, UN Member States at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights “[r]ecogniz[ed] that the activities of the United Nations in the field of human rights should be rationalized and enhanced in order to strengthen the United Nations machinery in this field and to further the objectives of universal respect for observance of international human rights standards.” Towards this end, the Vienna Declaration proposed the establishment of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which the UN General Assembly then created in December 1993.

Also of particular importance, the Vienna Declaration reaffirmed the need for increased focus on economic and social rights, stating that “extreme poverty constitutes a violation of human dignity” requiring “urgent steps.” It also asserted that a “lack of development may not be invoked to justify the abridgement of internationally recognized human rights,” and that “States should cooperate with each other in ensuring development and eliminating obstacles to development.” The Vienna Declaration further called on UN agencies and Member States to specifically “examine ways and means to promote and protect” the rights of marginalized groups, particularly indigenous people, migrant workers, women, and children.

This identified need for sustainable, equitable development has persisted as an ongoing challenge, both in terms of countries accepting responsibility for development-based economic rights, and the realization of those rights. Now twenty years later, civil society and the UN organized two parallel conferences marking the “Vienna+20” anniversary both celebrated and assessed the international community’s progress towards realizing the Vienna Declaration’s vision and identified aspects of the remaining work needed to fully realize the goal of human rights for all.

Vienna+20 Civil Society Organizations Conference

Section I, Paragraph 38 of the Vienna Declaration recognized “the important role of non-governmental organizations in the promotion of all human rights and in humanitarian activities at national, regional and international levels.” Embracing this responsibility, civil society actors reaffirmed their role in defending and promoting human rights at an independently organized Vienna+20 CSO Conference in Vienna on June 25 and 26, 2013. Championing the “primacy of human rights,” the conference addressed recent challenges to human rights, such as austerity measures in governments’ economic policies and the ever growing economic and political influence of transnational corporations.

The conference workshops and panel discussions led up to the over 140 participants adopting a Vienna+20 CSO Declaration that emphasized the need for human rights defenders to be protected and free from discrimination.  The Vienna+20 CSO Declaration also called for the United Nation to organize a 2018 World Conference on Human Rights that should be equally open to UN Member States, civil society organizations, and independent human rights defenders.

Vienna+20: High Level Conference on Human Rights

On June 27 and 28, 2013, immediately after the parallel Vienna+20 CSO Conference, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Austrian government co-hosted the Vienna+20: High Level Conference on Human Rights.  The roughly 100 participants included UN representatives, regional and national human rights institutions, invited human rights defenders, and representatives from UN Member States.  Three working groups evaluated how the human rights regime might be strengthened in terms of the rule of law, women in public and political life, and development and human rights. As the UN Secretary General remarked at the conference’s opening, the High Level Conference presented an “opportunity to reflect on commitments made over the years and to ask what actions we must take – now – to implement them fully.”

In a statement before the High Level Conference, the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, contextualized the Vienna Declaration and the work that lay ahead.  She described the Vienna Declaration and the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights as “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 also highlighted the significant work that must still be done, noting frankly that “we have failed to build on the foundations of the [Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action]” and that “[t]he 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.”