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FOCUS June 1998 Volume 12

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

Clarence J. Dias - International Center for Law in Development

(Editor's Note: The following is the second part of the article begun in FOCUS March 1998 issue.)

Reviewing Vienna: UN System Performance

The World Conference recommended that the UN assume a more active role in the promotion and protection of human rights and made various suggestions regarding increased UN system coordination, technical cooperation and strengthening implementation and monitoring mechanisms within the UN. No review of the progress since Vienna would be complete, therefore, without progress reports from various parts of the UN system on those subjects.

1. Increased Coordination on Human Rights within the UN system

The World Conference stressed that UN human rights organs should improve their coordination, efficiency and effectiveness. All UN organs, bodies and specialized agencies, whose activities deal with human rights, were urged to cooperate in order to strengthen, rationalize and streamline their activities, avoiding unnecessary duplication. The UN Centre for Human Rights was urged to play an important role in coordinating system-wide attention for human rights and the World Conference recommended the creation of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights whose mandate would include system-wide coordination. The World Conference also made several specific recommendations regarding coordination:

--All regional organizations and prominent international and regional finance and development institutions were called upon to assess the impact of their policies and programs on the enjoyment of human rights.

--Human rights officers should be assigned, if and when necessary, to regional offices of the UN to disseminate information and offer training and other technical assistance in the field of human rights upon the request of concerned States.

--Human rights training should be organized for international civil servants who are assigned to work relating to human rights.

--The importance of the role of human rights components in specific arrangements concerning some peacekeeping operations should be recognized.

--The need to ensure that human and financial resources are available to carry out human rights activities was recognized and the Secretary-General was urged "to take immediate steps to increase substantially the resources for the human rights programme from within the existing and future regular budget of the UN." He was also urged "to take urgent steps to seek increased extra-budgetary resources."

--The importance of strengthening the UN Centre for Human Rights was also stressed by the World Conference.

It is important that the relevant bodies of the UN present detailed and specific reports as to the progress regarding the above recommendations.

2. Cooperation, Development and Strengthening of Human Rights

The World Conference recommended that priority be given to national and international action to promote democracy, development and human rights. It therefore recommended that a comprehensive program be established within the UN (coordinated by the Centre for Human Rights) to help States strengthen and build national institutions relating to human rights. Providing technical assistance, advisory services programs would include electoral assistance, assistance to strengthen the rule of law, the administration of justice, real and effective participation of the people in the decision-making processes and promotion of freedom of expression. It would include assistance on specific human rights issues such as the preparation of reports under specific human rights treaties as well as for the drawing up and implementation of comprehensive national action plans for the promotion and protection of human rights and building or strengthening national human rights institutions such as human rights commissions.

In order to achieve this, the World Conference recommended "an enhanced programme of advisory services and technical assistance" with extra-budgetary, voluntary funding expanded substantially. Strict and transparent management rules would be applied and there would be regular and periodic program and project evaluations. The Centre for Human Rights was also asked "in particular, to organize, at least once a year informational meetings open to all Member States and organizations directly involved in these projects and programmes." The World Conference also made two further specific recommendations in this regard:

--Each State should "consider the desirability of drawing up a national action plan identifying steps whereby that State would improve the promotion and protection of human rights."

--The UN Secretary-General was requested "to submit proposals to the UN General Assembly containing alternatives for the establishment, structure, operational modalities and funding of the proposed programme."

These initiatives should be carefully examined during the Vienna + 5 review, otherwise they are in danger of being rendered ineffective by default.

3. Strengthening the UN's Implementation and Monitoring Methods

The World Conference recognized the need to strengthen the implementation and monitoring of human rights at all levels: national, regional and international. Accordingly, at the national level, it urged States to ratify human rights instruments without reservations, accept all "optional communications procedures," incorporate the international standards into national law and strengthen national structures of implementation, monitoring and enforcement, including the provisions of timely and effective redress and remedy to the victims of human rights violations.

At the regional level, the World Conference recommended the building and strengthening of regional human rights mechanisms and strengthening cooperation between national institutions, including the convening of periodic meetings.

At the international level, the World Conference made many recommendations system-wide within the UN:

--It recommended the International Law Commission to continue its work on an international criminal court.

--It welcomed the convening of emergency sessions of the Commission on Human Rights and urged "that other ways of responding to acute violations of human rights be considered by the relevant organs of the UN system."

--It recommended that the Commission on Human Rights "examine the possibility for better implementation of existing human rights instruments."

--It recommended "continued work on the improvement of the functioning, including the monitoring tasks, of the treaty bodies" and urged the meetings of the chairpersons of the treaty bodies "to continue to take steps aimed at coordinating the multiple reporting requirements and guidelines for preparing State reports under the respective human rights conventions."

--It urged better coordination between the existing human rights treaty bodies, the various thematic and country mechanisms and procedures, experts and working groups "with a view to promoting greater efficiency and effectiveness."

4. Continuing Adaptation of the UN Human Rights Machinery

The World Conference recognized "the necessity for a continuing adaptation of the UN's human rights machinery to the current and future needs in the promotion and protection of human rights." Accordingly, it made a number of very specific recommendations which should not be lost sight of including:

--The adoption of Optional Protocols to the Convention on Torture, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and by the Commission on the Status of Women.

--The withdrawal of reservations to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In the case of the latter, it specifically asks the CEDAW Committee "to continue its review of reservations to the Convention" and urges States to withdraw their reservations.

--To strengthen the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, additional approaches should be examined such as a system of indicators to measure progress in the realization of the rights set out in the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

--As far as Special Rapporteurs are concerned, it welcomed the creation of the Special Rapporteur on Racism and has successfully urged the creation of a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.

--As far as Working Groups are concerned:

--it has urged the renewal and updating of the mandate of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations; and

--it has urged the Working Group on the Right to Development to "promptly formulate, for early consideration by the United Nations General Assembly, comprehensive and effective measures to eliminate obstacles to the implementation and realization of the Declaration on the Right to Development and recommending ways and means towards the realization of the right to development by all States."

--As far as Declarations are concerned, the World Conference successfully urged the General Assembly to adopt the Draft Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and has urged the similar adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It recommends the speedy completion and adoption of the draft declaration on the right and responsibility of individuals, groups and organs of society to promote and protect universally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.

--The World Conference called upon the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council "to adopt the draft standard rules on the equalization of opportunities for persons with disabilities."

--The World Conference recommended "that matters relating to human rights and the situation of children be regularly reviewed and monitored by all relevant organs and mechanisms of the United Nations system and by the supervisory bodies of the specialized agencies in accordance with their mandates.

--As far as Decades are concerned, the World Conference successfully urged the General Assembly to declare a Decade on Human Rights Education and a Decade of the World's Indigenous People within the framework of which it asks that "the establishment of a permanent forum for indigenous people in the UN system should be considered."

--As far as funding for human rights activities is concerned, the World Conference has supported the concept of a Voluntary Fund for the programs of action of both of the above Decades and also of the Decade for Action to Combat Racism Discrimination. It also strongly supports voluntary funding of an enhanced program of technical cooperation to be undertaken by the UN Center for Human Rights.

In his speech to the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, the then Secretary-General of the UN, Boutros Boutros-Ghali stated that:

The goals of the Conference faithfully reflect the following key questions:

What progress has been made in the field of human rights since the Universal Declaration of 1948?

What are the obstacles and how are they to be overcome?

How can implementation of human rights instruments be enhanced?

How effective are the methods and mechanisms established by the United Nations?

What financial resources should be allocated for the United Nations to protect human rights?

And, at a deeper level, what are the links between goals pursued by the United Nations and human rights, including the link between development and the enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights?

It is imperative that these goals be kept firmly in sight during the Vienna + 5 review.

The Realities of Our Times

The Vienna Declaration, in its preamble, invokes "the spirit of our age and the realities of our time which call upon the United Nations to rededicate themselves to the global task of promoting and protecting all human rights and fundamental freedoms so as to secure full and universal enjoyment of these rights." Next year, when the Vienna review takes place amidst the celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is important not to lose sight of some stark, sobering human rights realities of our time.

Two of these realities, racism and the virulence of patriarchy, were part of the reality addressed by Vienna. They remain with us five years later, perhaps even more so than before. Ethnic conflicts and other conflicts labeled as ethnic are ubiquitous today. The Vatican finds strange bedfellows from Jeddah and Jakarta to Managua and Beijing in its attempt to turn the clock back on women's human rights. And there are other realities as well, of more recent vintage. There are the twin trends of the diminishing capacity of States to protect the human rights of their peoples accompanied by the astonishing growth of power of multinational and national corporations. National sovereignty is being eroded, with crucial areas of decision-making taking place less within our governments and more within international institutions of trade, investment, finance and development. Globalization of the world economy has been achieved through the global spread of policies of privatization and deregulation. This has enhanced the already considerable power of large corporations. But this increase in power has been accompanied by a decrease, rather than an increase in corporate accountability. Unless transnational corporations; international organizations of trade, investment, finance and development; and regional economic groupings such as NAFTA, APEC and the EU are held accountable to human rights standards, we will be witnessing a "golden handshake" to human rights and the right to be human. We must approach the Vienna review with not only a sense of rededication but also with a sense of urgency. Otherwise, as the century closes, we will be witness to "the spirit of our age" being betrayed by "the realities of our times!"


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