For information only – not an official document

10 December 2023

Remarks by Under-Secretary-General Melissa Fleming

Vienna Human Rights Conference

“From the Universal Declaration 1948 to the Human Rights Cities of Today”

City Hall, Vienna

As prepared for delivery

It is my great honour to be with you this afternoon.

As we mark this very special Human Rights Day.

And celebrate a landmark anniversary.

On this day, seventy-five years ago, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It remains a historic achievement, for all peoples, and all nations.

Back then, in 1948, still reeling from the horrors of World War Two, the international community came together to forge a roadmap for a better future.

The authors of the declaration were driven by a far-sighted ambition:

A world in which all societies are equal, and just.

In which fundamental freedoms are upheld.

And all humans are granted the same opportunities and rights.

The Universal Declaration laid out, for the first time, the rights inherited by every human being at birth.

The rights to life, liberty, and security.

To equality before the law and to freedom of expression.

To seek asylum, to work,

To access healthcare, education, and many more.

The authors made it crystal clear:

These rights are inherent to all human beings.

Regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.

These rights are universal, indivisible, and inalienable.

The Universal Declaration lays great emphasis on the equal dignity and worth of every person.

We need look no further than Article 1 to understand its power.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

That statement is as progressive and urgent today as it was 75 years ago.

That’s because, while the signing of the Universal Declaration is undoubtedly a landmark historical achievement, to be commemorated with pride.

It is also so much more than that.

This document, and the promise it contains, is alive today.

It is urgently needed by every human being whose rights are being violated at this very moment.

By the woman living her days in fear of an abusive partner.

By the journalist hunted for speaking truth to power.

By the refugee who has fled violence only to get stuck on an inhospitable border.

By those attacked in acts of terror and those held hostage.

By civilians running from bombs, facing hunger and disease. Whose lives are about to be lost as collateral damage.

And by all the unheard millions, suffering hate, and injustice in all corners of the world.

For these people, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not history.

The rights enshrined within it are not mere words – they mean something to people: Again, that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

My job at the UN is to communicate about these rights, and about the state of the world.

A world that is in a human rights crisis.

Authoritarianism is on the march, and democracy is in peril.

A quarter of the earth’s population now lives in areas of war and conflict, with devastating impacts on millions of lives and livelihoods.

Humanitarian needs and forced displacement stand at record highs.

The shadow of nuclear war looms large once again over the world stage.

And the climate emergency races on unchecked. Even as climate disasters grow more frequent, more expensive, and more deadly.

For many people, in many places, life is getting harder.

Even those living in relative peace are struggling.

Inequality is dividing the world and societies into haves and have nots.

The cost of living continues to rise. Hunger is common.

Day by day, life on society’s edges is growing less certain, more dangerous, and more complex.

The marginalized – women and girls, minority groups, refugees, migrants, and indigenous communities – suffer the most.

All this means our blueprint for a better world is in trouble.

The COVID-19 pandemic set us back across the board.

Derailing progress on all the Sustainable Development Goals.

And voices for change are at the same time struggling to make themselves heard.

Disinformation, conspiracy theories, and hate are poisoning our information ecosystems,

And fuelling distrust in public institutions.

Making peace harder to keep, pandemics harder to tame, and climate change harder to address.

And while the age of social media has also progressed the cause of human rights,

Helping grassroots movements organize and giving voice to the oppressed.

The ability for anyone to communicate almost anything without guardrails makes human rights worse.

Algorithms that prioritize engagement have turned extremist views mainstream,

Normalizing antisemitism, racism, and other hate speech.

This is polarizing societies, targeting the marginalized and stigmatizing the displaced.

In extreme cases, we have seen digital platforms abused to fuel violence.

All too often, grave human rights violations occur without consequences for the perpetrators.

Yet the world cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

Rights violations reverberate across borders, and across generations.

Whenever and wherever rights are violated, all of us are placed under greater risk.

The stakes for humanity are already sky high.

So on this landmark anniversary, it is time for us refocus our vision for a better world.

A world in which rivals resolve disputes peacefully and put an end to the horrors of conflict.

A world in which nations come together to solve problems and tackle challenges.

And strive collectively to improve lives across the globe.

Delivering humanitarian aid, combating disease, and bringing peace, progress, and justice for all.

We already have our blueprints in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN Charter.

Those in turn are the foundation for the Sustainable Development Goals – the SDGs. And soon for a new Pact for the Future, to be agreed in September at the UN’s Summit for the Future.

These shared set of norms and values form the common language that nations and individuals can rally around:

These are our guardrails for policy.

Our blueprint for collective action.

And our roadmap for the path ahead.

By embracing the principles of freedom, equality, and justice for all, we can overcome insurmountable challenges.

To build a world in which no one is left behind.

This idea is not wishful thinking.

It has been tried and tested over the past 75 years.

The Universal Declaration now forms the foundation of countless international, national, and local laws and policies.

And has inspired further struggles for stronger protection of people everywhere.

Among the UN’s greatest achievements is the comprehensive body of human rights law.

A unique universal and internationally protected code, to which all nations can subscribe, and all people aspire.

It lays down obligations for governments,

To promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

And to uphold protections for vulnerable groups.

We can achieve astonishing progress when we act in concert.

That spirit brought the international community back to the negotiating table thirty years ago, at the end of the Cold War.

In June 1993, the UN invited representatives from 171 nations, here, to Vienna.

For the World Conference on Human Rights – the largest human rights gathering to date.

At its heart, that landmark conference had a simple and urgent aim:

To get the world to recommit to human rights, and to multilateralism.

To the Universal Declaration, and to the UN Charter.

The attendees – and I know some of them are here with us today – did just that.

The resulting agreement, the Vienna Declaration, was a truly historic achievement,

That saw the whole world pledge to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms.

And establish a new framework of planning, dialogue, and cooperation to promote and protect human rights at all levels.

The Vienna declaration took bold steps forward for the rights of women, children, and indigenous peoples,

Urging three groundbreaking actions:

Supporting the creation of a new mechanism - a Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women.

Urging the rapid ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

And paving the way for two International Decades of the World's Indigenous People.

But one of the Vienna Declaration’s most important legacies was establishing a new human rights machinery at the global level.

By adapting and strengthening the UN to better promote and protect human rights.

The conference paved the way for the establishment of a new role, a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Seated within the UN Secretariat, and now headed by Volker Türk of Austria, this office, OHCHR, also known as UN Human Rights,

is responsible to protect and promote the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration.

And to deliver on its promise of dignity, equality, and freedom for all.

It does this in three main ways.

Speaking out against human rights violations worldwide.

Supporting governments to fulfil human rights obligations.

And developing responses to urgent human rights challenges.

What’s more, the OHCHR acts as the principal focal point,

Of all human rights research, education, and advocacy for the whole world.

Ladies and gentlemen, we believe that human rights are the catalyst to all progress.

We know this because we have seen it in practice,

In the three decades since the Vienna Declaration

We have seen improvements in the rights of women, children, and indigenous people.

The abolition of the death penalty in many countries.

And many other landmark achievements.

But there is much more work to do.

So we are joining forces with human rights defenders, states, and partners.

As well as youth, civil society, business, and communities.

To build a positive force for change.

One that strengthens even further the architecture of human rights and multilateralism.

To foster initiatives, laws and institutions that uphold human rights.

We want to see a global economy that works for everyone.

And an end to structures and models that fuel division, inequality, and instability.

And fosters leadership that restores and builds trust within societies.

We need a renewal of the social contract between government and people.

By taking steps towards just and sustainable development.

We want to see integrity restored to our information ecosystems.

And steps to ensure existing and emerging technologies serve the greater public good.

In all these struggles we owe a huge debt of gratitude.

To the many courageous human rights defenders raising their voices on behalf of the vulnerable.

In the spirit of the Universal Declaration.

After all, human rights are enjoyed, violated, and upheld, not by only states or institutions, but by individual human beings.

Human rights are fought, lost, and won at the community level.

That’s why, as we seek to raise awareness and spur action on human rights.

We strive to bring human rights onto the level of everyday lived experience.

And demonstrate their relevance to people from all walks of life.

Cities are great allies in these efforts.

And the worldwide Human Rights Cities network is a key instrument.

That’s why I can think of no better place to mark these milestone anniversaries than here, in the heart of this wonderful city of Vienna.

A city that has been beacon for human rights for many decades.

On both the global and the hyperlocal level.

These lasting contributions were formalized in 2014, when Vienna was officially designated a Human Rights City.

The City Council pledged to promote awareness and action on human rights in all parts of society.

A mission it has pursued at every opportunity.

Including public celebrations this summer to mark 30 years since the Vienna Declaration.

These efforts to raise awareness of human rights have borne fruit.

And have been on display in the warm welcome shown to refugees fleeing violence.

Back in 2015, while I was working for the UN Refugee Agency, I witnessed the best of humanity from ordinary citizens here in Vienna.

Who offered help to refugees seeking protection in Europe, from Syria and Afghanistan.

Similar scenes played out in 2022, when Vienna welcomed tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the horror of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

In these moments, of spontaneous human connection, of kindness and generosity to strangers, human rights are so much more than an historic document.

They are the essence of humanity.

So, as we mark these landmark anniversaries, and celebrate our historic achievements.

Let’s do so in that spirit of humanity.

And with the same commitment to diplomacy, peace, and progress,

Shown by the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Vienna Declaration.

Let’s make this the legacy of these milestone celebrations:

To return to our ambition for a better world with renewed hope and vigour.

To work together for a more sustainable, just, and prosperous world.

We all have the power to breathe new life into that promise.

To give true meaning to the words: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

The time for human rights is now.

Now, more than ever.

Thank you.

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