Human Rights 20 Years After Vienna

By Aaron Rhodes and Jacob Mchangama

Hamburg and Copenhagen - The World Conference on Human Rights took place just over 20 years ago, on 14-23 June 1993. The resulting "Vienna Declaration and Program of Action" has given form and content to the subsequent development of international human rights. In February, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay hailed the Declaration as "the most significant overarching human rights document produced in the last quarter century. It crystalized the underlying principles that human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated."

Ms. Pillay made reference to the context of the Conference, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. She said that by equating social and economic rights with civil and political rights, "The Conference succeeded in breaching a second wall that had divided States over the previous decades."

With these references, she alluded to the highly political nature of the Vienna Declaration, which was crafted to reflect a no longer bi-polar world. The Conference occurred during one of the most fluid and chaotic moments in recent history. The world community was being whipsawed between good and bad news, and confronted with problems for which there was no playbook. On the heels of momentous changes that engendered both euphoria and disorientation, bloody ethnic nationalist conflicts broke out that astonished the international community with their violence and called forth an image of a world unraveling into chaos after having been held together by the East-West military stalemate. At the same time, Western nations felt flush, anticipating a "peace dividend" from the end of military confrontation with the Soviet Union. The world was seeking a "New World Order," a term coined by George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev.

The notion of a New World Order whetted expectations of the role the UN could play in forging peace and respect for human rights, as well as dealing with starvation, poverty, racial and ethnic discrimination, intolerance and xenophobia, brutality against woman and minorities, and political oppression. It would do so under the banner of indivisibility and the associated doctrine of the equality of all human rights. International human rights were re-tooled as an ambitious, inclusive compromise to reconcile old antagonisms and solve new problems. A centralized UN mechanism would take responsibility for "coordinating" and promoting actions on behalf of an expanded human rights agenda and monitoring compliance with international standards and law.

Twenty years on, it is appropriate to examine the results of decisions taken in this over-heated context. Ending a vivid debate on these issues, world leaders and human rights activists put aside long-standing and reasoned reservations about the doctrine of the indivisibility and equality of human rights, which holds that fundamental freedoms cannot be enjoyed without governments guaranteeing social and economic rights, and that the two sets of rights should be adjudicated in a like manner. Indivisibility had been promoted by communist regimes in order to justify restricting political freedoms, and by poor Third World states that sought debt relief and transfers from the developed world with the claim that such assistance was necessary if their citizens were to enjoy freedom.

At a "High Level Expert Conference" in Vienna on 27-28 June to commemorate the World Conference, speaker after speaker, UN officials and human rights leaders from civil society, paid homage to the "paradigmatic shift" that it had brought about, mainly by establishing the indivisibility of human rights as an undisputed principle. They spoke of an expansive, "post-2015" human rights agenda, including a "fully integrated human rights approach" to development, climate change, and the regulation of transnational corporations.

Indivisibility, however, does not hold up to logical or empirical scrutiny as a legal doctrine. The rapidly rising living standards of the growing Chinese middle class are hardly based on any meaningful "rights based" approach. And China's development certainly does not demonstrate any "indivisibility" as the new prosperity enjoyed by hundreds of millions of Chinese is not matched by even the most basic liberties.

Many of the issues addressed under the umbrella of indivisibility such as poverty, climate change and disease are certainly of fundamental global importance and require international cooperation. But the matrix of human rights is ill equipped to deal with these issues in any meaningful sense. In fact, the increasing focus on indivisibility works to shield illiberal states that want economic development without challenges to their own authority, and rely on an inflated definition of human rights to deflect criticism of their repressive measures. This unfortunate syndrome is vividly on display when such states are examined under the UN's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. Typically, they pack their presentations with claims about how their social assistance programs demonstrate fidelity to human rights principles; their authoritarian allies in turn praise these policies. The discussion of egregious violations of fundamental liberties like executions without friar trials, torture, and the denial of civil and political rights, is relegated to an increasingly restricted place in the UPR dialogues.

Thanks to the doctrine of indivisibility, an impression is thus left that a state like Iran, which stones women to death for alleged marital infidelity and executes gay people, has a laudable human rights record. Indivisibility has hollowed out the concept of human rights, leaving a moral void in which there is no basis for making a distinction between freedom from torture and rent subsidies.

The World Conference rightly focused on a number of groups whose members' human rights were vulnerable, including women, "national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, " indigenous people, migrant workers, children, and the disabled. But rather than insisting that the individual rights of members of these groups be protected under existing conventions, the Conference ushered in an era of "group rights." A form of "human rights tribalism" has followed, fracturing the concept of universality the World Conference had affirmed.

This weakening attachment to universality has in turn led to a proliferation of new treaties that duplicate existing protections and saddle states with excessive reporting requirements and in some cases contradictory obligations. International human rights law has become a maze accessible only to a technocratic elite. Lawyers groups, nongovernmental organizations and UN officials are now pushing for a new human rights treaty to protect the rights of the elderly, a treaty considered duplicative by many who think those rights can be protected by closer compliance with obligations imposed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But the UN has identified an "Open-ended Working Group" to "identify gaps" and "consider the feasibility of further instruments," a bureaucratic juggernaut that will be politically dangerous to oppose.

The diplomats meeting in Vienna not only embraced an expansive concept of human rights vulnerable to political exploitation, but also vowed to "mainstream" human rights. Thanks to decisions taken in Vienna, the body of human rights continues to spread into more and more spheres of international relations, with the only certain outcome being that in the long run, the importance of any human right will be very low indeed. In reflecting about the legacy of the World Conference, this process deserves urgent attention.

Aaron Rhodes is a founder of the Freedom Rights Project and former Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. Jacob Mchangama is a founder and managing director of the Freedom Rights Project, and director of legal affairs at the Danish think tank CEPOS.