Towards a human rights agenda for the 21st century

Speech held by Morten Kjaerum at the 20th anniversary of World Human Rights Conference, 28 June, Vienna

Ladies and gentlemen,

It has been 20 years, and we can already say: The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA) and Action Plan were tremendous achievements. It has boosted the development of human rights worldwide. Notwithstanding the fact that we face serious and grave human rights challenges also today, overall we have moved on tremendously. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go:

Today, in times of crisis, we run a high risk that these achievements fall victim to rising extreme tendencies and budget cuts.

I. However, there is one notable difference to former crises: today we have institutions that raise people’s awareness of their rights and sensitise them to violations of these rights; today we have institutions that monitor the implementation of human rights; and today we have institutions that can make binding decisions on human rights violations. These guardians of rights range from National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), treaty monitoring bodies at the UN and regional level, to national and international courts.

Given the sheer volume of work, the UN cannot shoulder this burden alone. This underlines the importance of regional mechanisms, in Africa, the Americas, the larger Europe or the European Union. Not to forget the importance of sub-regional entities such as the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).

Regional mechanisms fulfil important tasks and should be strengthened. But the work does not end there: we must focus on the states who are, after all, mainly responsible for human rights. This is why National Human Rights Institutions are so important. This is why the Vienna Declaration called for such NHRIs. And indeed we have come a long way. In the early 1990ies, there were only 5 NHRIs worldwide. Today there are well over 100. This is a clear indicator of the progress the last 20 years. Today there are many other institutions at the national level protecting particular human rights such as child ombudsinstitutions, data protection institutions, equality bodies and many more. All added up we deal with a considerable landscape of human rights bodies. The challenge for the coming years is to ensure that they join-up and that we ensure that they reach out effectively to the most vulnerable persons in our societies.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to add one more layer: When talking about states, often the human rights discussion stops at central government. However, most human rights violations occur locally, where people live. For me, this is one of the main challenges for the 21st century: to address human rights violations where they happen – locally.

Concretely, this means that there has to be a coherent joined-up approach to human rights. This means translating international obligations of nations to rules of engagement of the public institutions on the ground. This can be via the police, but also the social worker, the teacher, the city clerk or the nurse in a public hospital.

 

II. Let me address another point of cardinal importance: One of the challenges in the human rights debate is that individual human rights violations are comparably easy to identify and recognise. It is however tremendously difficult to assess the development of human rights on a larger scale.

Let’s take the example of the VDPA and the AP. Even if a country adopts a National Human Rights Action plan - how can we evaluate its success? Decision-makers who acted to improve the human rights situation in their member states need to be able to assess the impact of these measures. When they take decisions that affect their citizens’ human rights, they should have a proper factual basis for these decisions.

The bottom line is: there is a clear and huge need for human rights’ data, and for indicators to measure progress. This would increase objectivity and comparability of human rights worldwide. Hopefully, this would contribute to depoliticising the human rights discourse, which would help our common cause on all levels.

In the EU, FRA has gained considerable expertise in collecting data and providing evidence-based advice to Member States and EU institutions. Take the situation of Roma, which we work on with UNDP and the World Bank. We not only collect data on employment, education, housing and health, but we also collect promising practices in the member states. And we found that the common denominator of all promising practices was that they involved the people concerned.

 

III. This brings me to my third and last challenge: To improve fundamental rights you need to involve the people concerned. They know their problems best and often the solution or ways forward. For sustainable solutions, civil society and citizens must be involved in the practical implementation of human rights. Civil society organisations are in considerable difficulties in many places and need to be supported and strengthened.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I conclude:

  • In the last 20 years we have travelled far, but there is still a long way to go.
  • We have many more institutions watching over human rights than ever before. However, their independence still needs strengthening.
  • We need to address human rights violations where they occur – locally.
  • Data on human rights and progress indicators are key to evidence-based policy making.
  • And last and certainly not least: citizens and civil society need to be fully involved, for a sustainable future.

Thank you.