Human Rights and the United Nations
The Charter of the United Nations places the promotion of human rights alongside the maintenance of international peace and security as central goals. To implement this goal the UN Commission on Human Rights was founded in 1946, to be superseded by the UN Human Rights Council as the main UN human rights policy instrument. The first major task of the Commission on Human Rights was to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly. This Declaration has become the central basis for the development of the international human rights system in existence today.
One of the main tasks of the United Nations in the field of human rights and at the same time its most outstanding achievement is the development of international human rights standards. Building on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. the UN has established a set of major international human rights conventions, which have been ratified by a large majority of states. Apart from the two international covenants in 1966 – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – a comprehensive set of conventions has been established on specific human rights themes (racism, women, children, torture, disability) together with human rights monitoring mechanisms.
The Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 gave rise to the establishment of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and strengthened the status of human rights protection within the UN system. At the same time the personnel and resources for human rights protection were increased. Through country offices the High Commissioner for Human Rights supports states in the implementation of international human rights standards in accordance with local requirements and thus improves human rights protection. The strengthening of national human rights institutions and civil society is an important aspect of this work. Human rights are also increasingly taken into account in the work of UN agencies and programmes and in its peace missions.
Austria is particularly dedicated to this integration of human rights in all UN working areas, programmes and activities (mainstreaming). It actively supports the principles of universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights that were highlighted by the international community at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights.
Together with its EU partners, Austria promotes the strengthening of human rights standards and mechanisms within the United Nations and their adaptation to new challenges. This occurs in close cooperation in particular with the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the regular meetings of the Human Rights Council (HRC) and the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly. Both of these forums deal with the state of human rights in the world and the development of additional legal instruments and programmes to promote human rights protection.
UN Human Rights Council (HCR)
On 15 March 2006 the UN General Assembly adopted by a great majority a resolution to establish the Human Rights Council. At the previous negotiations in New York Austria had a key role in its function as EU President in the first half of 2006. On 9 May the initial 47 members of the HRC were elected by the General Assembly. The remaining UN members, international organisations and NGOs participate in the work of the HRC as observers.
The HRC, which meets in Geneva, replaces the Commission on Human Rights as the coordinating body in the UN human rights field. The main concern of Austria and the EU with respect to this reform was that the new Council should be able to meet regularly and at any time to effectively deal with acute human rights crises and hence to make a real contribution to human rights. Regular meetings and a simplified mechanism for convening special meetings are designed to guarantee this.
Apart from thematic human rights questions, the HRC is mandated to deal with specific country situations, particularly in the case of serious and systematic human rights violations. A major improvement over the Commission on Human Rights is the possibility of convening special meetings in the case of serious and systematic human rights violations, analysing the situation and establishing investigation missions. In particularly serious cases a member of the HRC can also be suspended. The Universal Periodic Review permits a regular comprehensive review of the human rights situation of all states and also answers the criticism of selectivity.
Thematic or country-related resolutions by the HRC can make a great contribution to heightening awareness, focusing on sensitive issues and strengthening international human rights standards. The effect that the focus on specific situations has on the government concerned should not be underestimated. NGOs also play an important role in this respect: they have a major influence on the work of the HRC, publicise the results of this work, put pressure through public opinion on politicians and help to bring about changes in this way.
Work in the first year of the HRC’s existence was devoted to the development of its institutions. The commitment of Austria and the EU will be aimed now at ensuring that these new institutions work effectively. The start of the Universal Periodic Review in spring 2008 is an important step. Austria is due to undergo this comprehensive human rights review in 2011.
Austria can look back on a long history of active participation in the Commission on Human Rights. It is currently an observer in the HRC. Thematic Austrian focuses include in particular the human rights of internally displaced persons; the rights of minorities, and human rights in the administration of justice, especially juvenile jurisdiction. Austria regular introduces resolutions on these topics.
Apart from the HRC, the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly continues to play an important role in the treatment of human rights questions and situations.