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  5. The Spirit of Our Age and the Realities of Our Time: Vienna Five Years Later

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FOCUS March 1998 Volume 11

The Spirit of Our Age and the Realities of Our Time: Vienna Five Years Later

Clarence J. Dias - International Center for Law in Development

Recalling Vienna

The U.N. World Conference on Human Rights (held inVienna) brought together some 7,000 participants comprising government delegates, academics, representatives of treaty-bodies, of national institutions and of more than 800 non-governmental organizations (NGOs)--two-thirds of them working at the grassroots level--(i) to review and assess progress made in the field of human rights since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and (ii) to identify obstacles and ways in which they might be overcome. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (hereafter termed the Vienna Declaration) presented to the international community a common plan for the strengthening of human rights work around the world. In a message to the Conference, the then UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, saluted the meeting for having forged, "a new vision for global action for human rights into the next century".

The Vienna Declaration recommended that the UN Commission on Human Rights annually review the progress towards full implementation of the recommendations contained therein. It also asked the Secretary-General of the UN to invite all States, all organs and agencies of the UN system related to human rights, regional and, as appropriate, national human rights institutions as well as non-governmental organizations, to report to him on progress made in the implementation of the Vienna Declaration on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (in 1998). The Vienna Declaration also requests the Secretary-General of the UN to submit his report on the implementation of the Declaration "to the General Assembly at its fifty-third session, through the Commission on Human Rights and the Economic and Social Commission".

Each of the UN Global Conferences from Rio onwards, envisages a major five-year review. Indeed, the Rio + 5 review (popularly termed Earth Summit II) has concluded only very recently. Earth Summit II is the first global summit so far, which has failed to reach agreement on a final statement and there has been criticism of an unraveling of the consensus reached in Agenda 21 during the Summit and its preparatory process. This cannot be allowed to happen regarding the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. At Vienna, through an arduous process of negotiations, consensus was forged that:

-- All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.

-- The human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights.

-- The promotion and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms must be considered as a priority objective of the United Nations in accordance with its purposes and principles, in particular, the purpose of international cooperation.

-- Enhancement of international cooperation in the field of human rights is essential for the full achievement of the purposes of the United Nations.

-- Democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

It is vital that the Vienna review reiterates the above consensus and treats it as not open for renegotiation. The role of NGOs, worldwide, is crucial to ensure this. It must be clear that what is not up for review is the consensus reached at Vienna. What is up for review includes:

-- States performance in meeting their obligations under the Vienna Declaration.

-- Progress towards the full implementation of the recommendations contained in the Vienna Declaration.

-- The performance of the United Nations system in assuming a more active role in the promotion and protection of human rights as recommended by the Vienna Declaration.

Reviewing Vienna: States Performance

States have made several commitments and undertaken various duties and obligations under the Vienna Declaration. These include:

1. Duties to Eliminate Certain Practices Violative of Human Rights such as:

-- racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance (Section I para 15);

-- apartheid (Section I para 16);

-- terrorism and drug trafficking (Section I para 17);

-- genocide, ethnic cleansing (Section I para 28);

-- systematic rape of women in war situations (Section I para 28);

-- violations of human rights affecting the civilian population during armed conflicts (Section I para 29);

-- gross and systematic violations such as torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment,

summary and arbitrary executions, disappearances,arbitrary detentions, foreign occupation and alien domination, poverty, hunger and other denials of economic, social and cultural rights, religious intolerance, discrimination against women and lack of the rule of law (Section I para 30).

Regarding three of the above practices, racism, torture and enforced disappearances, States have undertaken certain specific obligations under the Vienna Declaration as well.

So far as racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance are concerned, the World Conference appeals to all State-Parties to consider making the declaration under Article 14 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, recognizing the competence of the Committee to receive and consider communications from individuals or groups of individuals claiming to be victims of a violation by that State Party of any of the rights under the Convention. The World Conference also invites all States to put into practice the provisions of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief and urges all governments to enact appropriate legislation, including penal measures, and to establish national institutions to combat racism, xenophobia and intolerance. The World Conference further calls on all States to take immediate measures to combat the practice of ethnic cleansing and to hold individually responsible and accountable, all persons who perpetrate or authorize criminal acts associated with ethnic cleansing.

So far as torture is concerned, the World Conference encourages the speedy ratification of the Convention on Torture and calls upon all States to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur on the question of torture. States are called upon to give universal respect for, and effective implementation of , the Principles of Medical Ethics relevant to the Role of Health Personnel, particularly Physicians, in the Protection of Prisoners and Detainees against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The Vienna Declaration also requires that "States should abrogate legislation leading to impunity for those responsible for grave violations of human rights such as torture, and prosecute such violations".

So far as enforced disappearances are concerned, the World Conference welcomes the General Assembly Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and calls upon all States to take effective legislative, judicial and other measures to prevent, terminate and punish such acts and reaffirms that "it is the duty of all States, under any circumstances, to make investigations whenever there is reason to believe that an enforced disappearance has taken place on a territory under their jurisdiction".

Countries should report on the steps they have taken to eliminate these practices and NGOs could monitor State performance regarding these practices.

2. Duties Regarding the Universal Ratification of Human Rights Treaties.

The World Conference urged the universal ratification of human rights treaties and encouraged all States to accede to these treaties, and to avoid, as far as possible, the resort to reservations. It strongly recommended that a concerted effort be made to encourage and facilitate ratification of such treaties and protocols with the aim of universal acceptance. In consultation with the treaty bodies, the Secretary-General was urged by the World Conference to consider opening a dialogue with States not having acceded to these human rights treaties in order to identify obstacles and to seek ways of overcoming them. The year 1995 was set as the goal for universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the year 2000 for the goal of universal ratification of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

So far as reservations are concerned, the World Conference encourages States to limit the extent of any reservation they make and formulate any reservation as precisely and narrowly as possible, ensuring that no such reservation is incompatible with the object and purpose of the relevant treaty. States should also, regularly, review any reservations with a view to withdrawing them.

Countries should present, in their national reports, the progress they have made since Vienna regarding the ratification of human rights instruments and regarding their incorporation into national law. They should also provide details of any reservations they might have made and the reasons for such reservations.

3. Commitments Regarding National Human Rights Institutions.

The Vienna Declaration stresses that States should eliminate all violations of human rights and their causes, as well as obstacles to the enjoyment of those rights. There is a need for States and international organizations, in cooperation with non-governmental organizations, to create favorable conditions at the national, regional and international levels to ensure the full and effective enjoyment of human rights.

Creating favorable conditions at the national level involves at least three key aspects:

-- Every State should provide an effective framework of remedies to redress human rights grievances or violations. This requires an independent judiciary and legal profession and a system of administration of justice (including law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies) that are in full conformity with applicable standards contained in international human rights instruments.

-- Recognizing the important role of non-governmental organizations in the promotion and protection of human rights, non-governmental organizations should be free to carry out their human rights activities without interference within the framework of national law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

-- Establishment and strengthening of national legislation and national institutions. The World Conference reaffirmed the important and constructive role played by national human rights institutions, in particular, in their advisory capacity to the competent authorities, their role in remedying human rights violations, in dissemination of human rights information, and education in human rights.

Countries should report on their national human right institutions and NGOs can provide an evaluation of the performance of such institutions.

4. Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Special Groups.

The Vienna Declaration calls attention to several groups whose human rights protection and promotion warrant special attention for a variety of reasons. These groups include:

-- people under foreign occupation for whom "effective international measures to guarantee and monitor the implementation of human rights standards should be taken " and "effective legal protection against the violation of their human rights should be provided";

-- women and the girl-child against whom "gender-based violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation" and "all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex" must be eradicated. "The full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life" must be secured;

-- minorities, "the promotion and protection of whose rights" contribute "to the political and social stability of the States in which such persons live";

-- indigenous people whose "unique contribution" "to the development and plurality of society is recognized", "States should ensure the full and free participation of indigenous people in all aspects of society";

-- children whose rights "should be a priority in the United Nations system-wide action on human rights";

-- disabled persons whose "active participation in all aspects of society" and "equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms" should be secured;

-- refugees who are entitled "to the right to seek asylum from persecution as well as the right to return to one's own country";

-- internally-displaced persons whose "voluntary and safe return and rehabilitation" should be ensured;

-- victims of all natural and man-made disasters whose right to humanitarian assistance should be respected;

-- persons belonging to groups which have been rendered vulnerable including migrant workers who are entitled to "the elimination of all forms of discrimination against them" and to "the promotion and protection" of their rights;

-- trade unions. The World Conference supports all measures by the UN and its specialized agencies to ensure the effective promotion and protection of the rights of trade unions and calls upon all States to abide fully by their obligations in this regard;

-- the media for whom freedom and protection should be guaranteed within the framework of national law because of the importance of objective, responsible and impartial information about human rights and humanitarian issues.

Countries, in their national reports for the Vienna + 5 review, should include sections dealing with each of the above special groups and the fulfillment of the State's obligations towards them.

5. Reaffirmation of Human Rights Priorities

The Vienna Declaration singles out four human rights for special recognition and attention:

-- All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status, and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

-- The World Conference reaffirms the right to development, as established in the Declaration on the Right to Development, as a universal and inalienable right and an integral part of fundamental human rights.

-- The human rights of women should be integrated into the mainstream of United Nations system-wide activity.

The World Conference urges the full and equal enjoyment by women of all human rights and that this be a priority for governments and for the United Nations.

-- Everyone has the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.

Each national report should include a section on each of these four rights, describing both progress and obstacles and indicating, where appropriate, its need for advisory services and technical assistance to better realize that right.

The five clusters set out above reflect the priorities contained in the Vienna Declaration. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that they form the basis for the content of national reports prepared by governments or by NGOs for the purpose of the Vienna + 5 review.

(To be continued)