Hannes Richter

Austria Elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council

Hannes Richter
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©UN photo Jean-Marc Ferre´

The protection of human rights is a key component of Austrian foreign policy and Austria has been an emphatic and avowed proponent of the universality of human rights. The Austrian government has long held that human dignity and rights are anchored in all states and cultures, and that every person in the world is entitled to their inalienable rights and freedoms.

Austria has a proud history of supporting organizations and activities that promote the protection of human rights. As a further expression of this commitment, Austria presented its candidacy for membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) for the 2011-2014 term. On May 20, 2011, Austria was elected to serve on the HRC.

The HRC, a subsidiary body of the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly, was established to address human rights violations and to make specific recommendations. The HRC replaced the previous U.N. Commission on Human Rights and is an inter-governmental body within the U.N. system made up of 47 States, who share the responsibility of strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide.

The HRC is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, in the historic Palais Wilson. This building was named after the U.S. President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Woodrow Wilson, who played an important role in the establishment of the League of Nations after World War I. Austria intends to use its membership in the HRC to enhance the global protection and advancement of human rights.

A party to all major international human rights treaties, Austria emphasizes human rights in all areas of its foreign policy. Austria supports the work of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights and actively fosters worldwide improvements in this area. Austria also actively supports human rights issues in the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and by working closely with its partners in the European Union (EU). In the context of the UNESCO, Austria prioritizes human rights education, among others.

Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan famously stated “Humanity will not enjoy security without development, it will not enjoy development without security, and it will not enjoy either without the respect of human rights.” In this sense, Austria continues its efforts to reach the Millennium Development Goals. It also addresses the protection of human rights in all meetings with other states and, in collaboration with its EU partners, intervenes every year in hundreds of cases to protect threatened individuals all over the world.

Austrian embassies worldwide support local human rights activities and promote the rule of law, including projects to prevent violence against women, female genital mutilation, and to facilitate the rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers. Specifically, Austria’s priorities in the HRC include the promotion of the inter-cultural dialogue, freedom of religion, the protection of religious minorities, the promotion of the freedom of the press and the protection of journalists, as well as the promotion of children’s rights and their protection against violence and abuse.

Austria wants to promote these core areas within the Human Rights Council by developing concrete (structural) initiatives that lead to stronger international protection mechanisms for human rights. This will include the strengthening of the role of the European Union in the Human Rights Council, as well as additional initiatives involving other U.N. member states and civil society, thus yielding a stronger Human Rights Council overall.

The Promotion of Children’s Rights The promotion of children’s rights has been at the center of the Austrian human rights portfolio. As a member of the HRC, Austria will work to help develop strategies which will take the best interest of the child into account in all situations. During its membership in the U.N. Security Council, Austria played an important part in improving the work of the U.N. in this particular area.

The protection of civilians in armed conflict is one of Austria’s longstanding priorities within the human rights portfolio. Austria will continue to strive for improvements in this area and promote synergies between the relevant mechanisms of the Human Rights Council and the U.N. Security Council. On the occasion of the 2011 International Children’s Day on September 20, 2011, the Austrian Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger emphasized that, in cooperation with its partners at the United Nations, the U.N. special rapporteurs, and civil society, Austria would concentrate its efforts on the victims of child trafficking and on children in armed conflicts.

He also announced the nomination of Renate Winter, an internationally renowned expert for children’s rights, as a candidate for the Children’s Rights Committee of 2012. During the first meeting of the Human Rights Council in early October, the Austrian delegation filed a resolution on the protection of human rights in the administration of justice, specifically aiming at the protection of the rights of children. Protecting Journalists The protection of journalists and the freedom of the press are also at the top of Austria’s agenda in the Human Rights Council. Attacks against journalists worldwide continue to be on the rise.

In most cases, these attacks are a direct response to critical reporting, in particular on issues like organized crime, drug trafficking, environmental questions, human rights violations, and corruption. Local journalists are particularly vulnerable to such attacks: many are threatened, detained, or forced to leave their country, but it is an increase in the number of targeted killings of journalists that is particularly worrying.

According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, 81% of journalists who lost their lives while on duty were victims of targeted killings. While there are particular risks for journalists reporting from conflict zones, a high percentage of targeted killings occur outside of conflicts. The State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Wolfgang Waldner, clearly stated Austria’s commitment in this regard at the 18th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in September 2011: “From both a human rights perspective as well as a democratic and rule of law point of view, attacks against journalists are an especially deplorable form of violence.

Independent reporting by journalists is an essential requirement for the freedom of the media, which is considered a cornerstone of any democratic state that is based on the rule of law. Important initiatives to strengthen the protection of journalists are already underway, such as at the UNESCO or the OSCE. More needs to be done to consolidate our efforts. The Human Rights Council has an important role to play in this respect.” Freedom of Religion and the Protection of Religious Minorities Austria’s work in multilateral fora on human rights has always been guided by a spirit of cooperation and dialogue. It is the Austrian government’s firm conviction that interreligious tensions or conflicts can only be solved through dialogue and partnership.

In the light of a rising number of incidents involving discrimination and violence against religious minorities, the cultural and religious dialogue remains a key component of Austrian foreign policy and is actively pursued within the HRC, as well as in the General Assembly of the United Nations and within the European Union. The 20-year anniversary of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Minorities in 2012 will be a suitable occasion to foster additional measures regarding the protection of religious minorities. In the coming issues of Austrian Information, we will shift our focus from theory to practice and report on some concrete measures Austria is taking in the field.