Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Dawn of a human rights revolution


Diversely coloured hands behind barbed wire fenceTwenty years ago this month, I was privileged to attend the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. The conference was designed to catch the wave of change generated by the end of the Cold War and surf it to the beach of a new global consensus on human rights. It was the largest ever gathering on human rights. It demonstrated the extraordinary growth in civil society organisations across the world and their collective influence, and addressed some of the major ideological and organisational challenges affecting the UN human rights system.

The romantics among us also felt that Vienna's reputation for music and the finer things of life made it the perfect place to create something inspiring and lasting.

The conference has receded into history. Opinions on its success at the time varied from euphoric to cautious. The French declared the Vienna Declaration that came out of the conference to be a 'human rights revolution' and 'a triumphant 20th century legacy to the 21st century'. NGOs said it was 'above our fears but below our hopes'.

Looking back on it now, I believe Vienna made a lasting and fundamental contribution, and represents a turning point in the defence of the international system that was set up following World War II to uphold and promote the rights of the most vulnerable. It was not perfect nor a quick fix. Human rights violations continue in many parts of the world. But by rebuffing the two principal threats that at the time were threatening the fundamentals of the system, it maintained the stability, unity and consensus that the system required to be more effective.

The first threat had its origins in the power struggle between the socialist and capitalist systems. The Cold War not only divided Berlin. It divided human rights into two politicised and hostile camps. Socialist nations championed social and economic rights over the civil and political rights prioritised by capitalist nations, and some on both sides used human rights as a proxy battleground. For example, Cuba criticised poverty in the US while the US criticised political repression in Cuba. Such point scoring made no difference to the suffering of ordinary people.

The Conference rejected this demarcation of boundaries. It declared, after hearing the views of over 170 governments, that the holistic character of human beings and human development necessitated that human rights were indivisible, complementary and interdependent. In case anyone thinks this is just empty talk, it should be noted that Foreign Affairs in Canberra said before the conference that it never discussed economic rights in its policy considerations, but now Australia's aid program mainstreams all human rights.

The second threat was articulated most forcibly in our Asia-Pacific region. It increased the challenge to the system by adding a North-South dimension to the East-West split. China and some newly affluent nations in Asia like Soeharto's Indonesia, Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad's Malaysia argued that civil and political freedoms should wait until their societies reached a level of development comparable to western nations, and that Asians had a different concept of human rights.

The Vienna Declaration rejected this relativist notion of human rights and reaffirmed the classic concepts found in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It declared that cultural and other differences could not justify derogation and that human rights are universal, and are the intrinsic entitlements of all human beings regardless of geography, faith, politics, gender or race. This was a major triumph for Asian and Pacific NGOs who'd caucused in Bangkok prior to the conference and made it clear that governments espousing those views didn't speak for them.

The benefits of this reaffirmed consensus are obvious for those in our society who are vulnerable to discrimination on grounds such as gender, race and disability, not to mention new democracies like Timor-Leste and Indonesia, which have now embraced the international human rights system in total.

The conference failed to deal with north-south inequality, debt and the democratisation of development, and to get undertakings that would ensure universal ratification of key human rights instruments. Nor did it adopt measures to establish an International Criminal Court, a High Commissioner for Human Rights and more donor aid for human rights. However, these proposals were workshopped at the conference and have since been implemented.

The conference acknowledged the vital role of NGOs, and that human rights are the legitimate concern of the international community. These too represented indirect rebuffs to the revisionist states that Asia-Pacific NGOs had confronted in Bangkok.

As delegates dispersed from Vienna, I learned that Austrian TV had prepared a short video of the conference. It was dedicated to the NGOs who had fought the good fight. 'You are the conscience of the world', it said. They were right. But it's one thing to be a conscience in the relatively cordial and secure surrounds of a congress centre in Vienna and an altogether different and more difficult thing to play that role in a repressive society. The memory of Vienna will be sullied if we do not look after NGOs in those circumstances around the world.


Pat Walsh headshotPat Walsh AM is a human rights advocate and author. He attended both the Vienna world conference and the Asia-Pacific preparatory conference in Bangkok.

Hands image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Pat Walsh, Vienna, human rights



submit a comment

Existing comments

When Frank Brennan was in Adelaide chairing Rudd's human rights meetings I asked a question - the refugee convention is part of domestic law yet we throw it in the bin, why would anyone trust that the parliament would uphold any human rights ever"" The committee was set up, they have found many human rights abuses by parliamentary laws passed for single parents and refugees but what has happened? Both were barely reported and nothing changed, they were ignored. http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate_Committees?url=humanrights_ctte/reports/2013/9_2013/index.htm

Marilyn | 27 June 2013  

Dawn of a human rights revolution : yes indeed...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwHOAbOQX4A

A Human | 01 July 2013  

Why was the video entitled Pope’s Mass: Encounter Jesus through the poor, sick, marginalized recently posted on http://www.stcanice.org.au/wordpress/?p=1596, and the following comment on another page, where the encounter with Jesus through the poor the sick and marginalized, was again emphasized, in the piece.“Who is my brother? Who is my sister?”, http://www.stcanice.org.au/wordpress/?p=752, was not?.. “It is all very well to dress in red- as many priests do, but to live the wounds of Christ, as many TG people live - without being offered a sincere helping hand, from a Christian community, is altogether another story. As I have not found any helpful links in regards to help being offered to TG people in Sydney, on this web thus far, I am wondering if restoring serenity, selfrespect the appreciation of oneself as a person—a being with human dignity and human rights, faith in God and human kindness, in the most vulnerable in our society, is truly at the heart of your community? Providing advice, by posting helpful Christian links on your site, in regards to employment- health and other, would enable TG people to feel embraced by Him, the Christ you preach we must embrace and perhaps feel welcomed enough, as God’s children, to join you at the Eucharistic table. Because to speak of 'brothers' and 'sisters', God's children in Christ, is meaningless, unless those most vulnerable in our society are loved, invited and welcomed as such. Moreover, words such as 'hospitality' and 'acceptance' should nowadays be replaced with ’unconditional love' and ' a profound desire to sincerely help'. As those most vulnerable, including TG people in society are too shy to ask for this deep form of love and much needed help”--- It seems to me, we have a Jesuit Pope, and yet a Jesuit church, refuses to acknowledge and to put into practice his words. James 1:22-25

Mark | 08 July 2013  

There is a lot of talk in this country about ‘compassion’ ( mercy ) at the moment. But what does compassion, really mean? Most Bible translations use the English ‘compassion’ (literally meaning, ‘to suffer alongside’) to translate several different words in the Bible – none of which has so simple a meaning. The Greek word translated ‘moved with compassion’ is splagchnizomai, literally meaning ‘to be moved in one’s innards’ – either the bowels or the organs within the rib-cage. It is an expression of the most visceral, physical response to the needs and suffering of others. When Jesus hears the plea of the blind men ( Matthew 9 : 27 ) to have their sight restored, he is moved in his viscera. But when we see Jesus profoundly moved here, he does not stop with feelings. He acts, decisively and firmly to address the need that he sees, and heals both men there and then. Compassion in the Bible is a verb, not a noun – like love, it only means anything if it leads to decisive action..."I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” Twice in Matthew when Jesus was being told He or his disciples were not “doing” the right thing under the law, Jesus made the above statement.

Game Theory | 09 July 2013  

Similar Articles

Obama no 'wuss' but at what cost to Syria?

  • Evan Ellis
  • 17 June 2013

Alluding to his own military style intervention in Kosovo, Bill Clinton warned Obama not to look like a 'wuss' on Syria. Still, Obama's decision to start providing arms to Syrian rebels is an enormous risk. Australia's history of state interventions to tackle Indigenous disadvantage provide surprisingly apt criteria for evaluating the decision.