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Dawn of a human rights revolution

  • 28 June 2013

Twenty 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