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Human Rights: The Next 20 Years

Opening remarks by Ms. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the Human Rights Day Event 2013 - Geneva, 5 December 2013

Excellencies, friends,

A very good morning to you all. It gives me great pleasure today to open this Human Rights Day event.

This year, as you know, marks 20 years since a historic document, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, was adopted, leading to the creation of my office – the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

During this event, we will take stock of where we are today in the implementation of its promises, but also try to look forward over the next 20 years. Hopefully what we have done so far will enable us to face the challenges we will face in the future.

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action crystallized the principle that human rights are universal. It committed States to the promotion and protection of all human rights for all people, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems.

In the past two decades, much has been achieved, indeed more than people perhaps realize. The fundamentals for protecting and promoting human rights are largely in place – the firm foundation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is the basis for a strong and growing body of international human rights law and standards, as well as the institutions to interpret the laws, monitor compliance and apply these laws to new and emerging human rights issues.

Today, human rights are increasingly permeating all corners of the work of the United Nations, and that is fundamentally changing the way the UN works with national authorities and the international community.

The key now is to implement the laws and standards to make enjoyment of human rights a reality on the ground. Unfortunately, too often, the political will, and the human and financial resources, to achieve this are lacking.

The 20 years since Vienna have seen many setbacks and a number of tragic failures to prevent atrocities and safeguard human rights. In several instances where deplorable, large-scale violations of international human rights law were occurring, the international community was too slow, too divided, too short-sighted – or just plain inadequate in its response to the warnings of human rights defenders and the cries of victims.

We can and we must do better.

The Vienna Declaration should be viewed as a blueprint for a magnificent construction that is still only half built. It should be viewed as a living document that can and should continue to guide our actions and goals.

I look forward to the panel discussion later this afternoon on building on this vision for an effective human rights system in the next 20 years and beyond.

In any vision for the future, the evolving role of information technology, which is transforming the way we do human rights work, must be taken into account. The World Wide Web, social media and IT innovations are dramatically improving real-time communications and information-sharing. They are also magnifying the voice of human rights defenders, shining a light on abuses, and mobilizing support for various causes in many parts of the world.

I look forward to a lively discussion on human rights and the free flow of information later today.

Of course we have also seen how new technologies are facilitating the violation of human rights, with chilling 21st Century efficiency. A Tweet or a Facebook post by a human rights defender can be enough to land him or her in jail.

It is essential that the space for human rights defenders is doggedly defended, both online and offline. Our first panel today on protecting the space for human rights defenders will, I hope, offer insight and inspiration to States on guaranteeing this important space.

It is also crucial that this space includes those who are frequently excluded from the political, and even economic life, of a State. Women continue to suffer discrimination, violence and persecution. So too do ethnic, racial and religious minorities, and migrants, as well as individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This shows how far we still have to go. Changing and shifting populations, fuelled by rising poverty, refugee movements and volatile global economics, make countering ‘fear of the other’ a priority.

Bridging the equality gap is fundamental to the work of our office and an important topic for every celebration of Human Rights Day, including today, with a panel discussion this morning.

We will also enjoy a musical performance by Salif Keita, himself an individual with albinism, who, like persons with disabilities, knows all too well what it is like to be placed on the margins of society.

On this Human Rights Day, I urge members States to focus on the many recommendations they receive from the UN system and to ensure effective and inclusive participation in drawing up national action plans to bring about real change.

A huge amount of work remains to be done to transform human rights from abstract promises to genuine improvement in the daily lives of all people, especially those who are currently marginalized or excluded.

On our part, the UN Human Rights Office will continue to ensure that we work with national authorities to prevent human rights breaches from occurring. We will continue to be vocal about human rights violations and bring them to the attention of the international community when this is warranted. And we ask that States do their part – the biggest part by far – to ensure that the tragic mistakes of the past are not repeated and that the human rights of all are protected and promoted.

The vision and goals we formulated 20 years ago in Vienna are still valid – and still worth fighting for now, over the next 20 years, and beyond.

Before we begin our first panel discussion on how to better protect the essential space for human rights defenders, allow me to introduce a short video produced by my Office. The video looks back at the human rights successes and failures of the past 20 years and features the views of several familiar personalities on the universality of human rights.

ENDS

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