Human rights, and specifically women’s rights, have become an increasingly significant part of the United Nations (UN) agenda. Since its inception, the UN has developed human rights frameworks and built implementation mechanisms to ensure that Member States are held accountable to their commitments and obligations to realize, “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”(United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights/UDHR). The language of women’s equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex was delineated in the UN Charter in 1945 and continues to be a central discussion point in the maintenance of peace, the development framework, and humanitarian affairs.
Twenty years ago, as the Cold War ended and apartheid was dismantled in South Africa, a historic United Nations World Conference on Human Rights was held in Vienna. In the lead up to this 1993 conference, preparatory meetings were convened and participants debated issues related to the role of state sovereignty and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and whether new or strengthened human rights instruments for the UN were possible. The Vienna Conference was only the second global conference to focus exclusively on human rights, the first was the International Conference on Human Rights held in Teheran in 1968, which marked the twentieth anniversary of the UDHR.
The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA), which was adopted by 171 Member States, affirmed human rights as a universal standard as well as emphasized the indivisible, interdependent, inter-related nature of human rights, specifically in response to the civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights divide.
The VDPA took new steps to promote and protect the rights of women and children, noting “the human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights,” identifying “the full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life…and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex” as priority objectives (paragraph 18) and created a new mechanism, a Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women; and quite significantly called for the establishment of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The VDPA drew connections between the right to development, democracy and human rights; and the link between poverty and human rights as relating to development and social exclusion. Issues of state accountability, transparency, and participation became key to the process to facilitate the realization of human rights.