International meeting

‘Vienna at 20: Renewing strategies for economic and social justice’ Geneva, 29 – 30 May 2013

This summary report can be accessed in pdf format here. The agenda is available here. For a list of participants, see here.

Cephas Lumina, UN Independent Expert on the Effects of Foreign Debt, addresses the meeting on the role of the Special Procedures in advancing understanding and scrutiny of ESC rights

Cephas Lumina, UN Independent Expert on the Effects of Foreign Debt, addresses the meeting on the role of the Special Procedures in advancing understanding and scrutiny of ESC rights

On 29 and 30 May 2013 the Center for Economic and Social Rights, together with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights and the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, hosted a meeting in Geneva to reflect on progress made over the past two decades in implementing the landmark commitments on economic, social and cultural rights (ESC rights) made at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, and enshrined in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA). The Center—the first international NGO founded specifically to defend and promote these rights, which also marks its 20th anniversary this year—hosted the meeting in order to prompt a critical assessment of how far we have come as a movement in ending the comparative neglect of ESC rights, and in addressing persistent and new obstacles to their fulfillment. The meeting aimed to ‘re-vision Vienna’, sketching out elements of a forward-looking agenda for promoting economic and social justice through the transformative power of human rights, in light of the challenges faced by the global human rights movement in today’s markedly changed economic and geopolitical context.

The meeting brought together leading figures from the fields of ESC rights advocacy, activism and practice working in different settings worldwide. Its eight sessions were framed around three aspects of the VDPA of particular significance for ESC rights: the recognition of the role human rights should play in shaping sustainable economic and development policy; the commitment to tackle the injustice of inequality, including its socio-economic dimensions; and the emphasis on meeting the challenges of implementing, monitoring and enforcing ESC rights. Each session began with short presentations from speakers, who addressed the significance of Vienna for their topic, outlined trends observed over the last two decades, and proposed ways in which contemporary challenges could be addressed more effectively. The outcomes of the meeting will be reflected in an anniversary publication to be issued at the end of 2013 (see below). This short note draws out some of the key themes that emerged from the presentations and discussions.

Human rights and development in the 21st century global economy

The VDPA was a historic step forward in articulating the links between human rights and development, describing extreme poverty as a violation of human dignity and setting out human wellbeing as a central goal of development. Speakers focused on the increasing recognition that human rights should play a central role in shaping economic and development policy, in the contexts of the Millennium Development Goals and debates about the post-2015 development framework, the global financial crisis, and climate change. All noted that there have been huge conceptual advances, in terms of defining how potentially abstract human rights norms specifically relate to development, economic and environmental policies. Increasing clarity in the articulation of environmental rights and of states’ extraterritorial obligations, are two achievements in this regard. But translating rhetorical commitments to human rights into concrete changes in development, economic and environmental policies and, in turn, impact on the ground, has proved difficult. It requires challenging an enduring development ideology that prioritizes private sector-led economic growth and the persistent hold of neo-classical economics in mainstream global policy-making. This is particularly so in light of shifting global power dynamics. Speakers discussed how the realities of globalization—the rise in the comparative power of non-state actors, the increasing interdependence of states’ actions and their effects beyond borders, and the emergence of new geo-political powers—present new challenges for securing accountability for ESC rights deprivations. A key theme in the discussions was the increasing pressure on the human rights community to ‘sell’ human rights to various actors and, as such, participants discussed how to more constructively reconceptualize this idea that human rights must ‘add value’. In particular, participants suggested focusing less on finding empirical proof of the impact of human rights. Instead, human rights activists should focus more on boldly and credibly communicating the value of human rights intrinsically, and as an accountability tool that can mitigate reputational risks faced by state and non-state actors.
Inequality as injustice – the evolution of equality struggles since Vienna

The VDP was also a “charter for equality”, with states committing to tackling entrenched patterns of discrimination and marginalization faced by different groups. Speakers critically examined advances in implementing these commitments and the role of human rights in combating different forms of economic and social inequality and exclusion, including those faced by women, people with disabilities, indigenous and LGBT people. They also reflected on the ways in which social movements representing these communities have sought to claim ESC rights.

Pregs Govender from the South African Human Rights Commission, discusses the role of NHRIs in tackling inequality

Pregs Govender from the South African Human Rights Commission, discusses the role of NHRIs in tackling inequality

For women’s rights and LGBT rights activists, the trend over the past 20 years has been to move from an advocacy agenda focused narrowly on combating violence—which opened the door to examining rights violations experienced in the private realm—towards one more broadly geared towards social transformation through ESC rights. On the other hand, few disability groups saw themselves as human rights groups until recently. While the learning curve has been steep, disability rights activists have made great strides in advancing the indivisibility of ESC rights and civil and political rights, as reflected in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In the discussion, participants reflected on the extent to which different communities can learn from one another’s approaches to fighting for substantive equality. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities explicitly spells out what a lot of earlier agreements hint at in terms of requirements for participation and monitoring, which can be applicable for other groups, for example. Nevertheless, participants noted that while the human rights framework emphasizes intersectionality and interdependence, international laws and mechanisms are generally ‘single-issue’, which can create a barrier for working together more.

Towards implementation – monitoring and enforcement

Finally, the VDPA presented a blueprint for the implementation and enforcement of human rights nationally and internationally; it called on states to incorporate human rights standards into domestic laws and policies, draw up national action plans, establish national human rights institutions (NHRIs), and made several proposals for strengthening the regional and international human rights architecture. The second day of the meeting focused on challenges of monitoring and enforcing ESC rights. Presenters took stock of how the ESC rights focus of international institutions and mechanisms has evolved since Vienna, including the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Right (OHCHR); the treaty bodies; the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Human Rights Council’s special procedures mandate holders. The sixth session discussed the common and distinct challenges facing regional human rights systems in Africa, the Americas and Europe in addressing ESC rights through their reporting and complaints functions. Presenters introduced different avenues for redress for human rights violations at the national level, with a particular emphasis on judicial enforcement through litigation, as well as the evolving role of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) with regard to ESC rights. A common theme was the need for more effective synergy between various human rights mechanisms—horizontally (between different mechanisms at the same level), as well as vertically (between the national, regional, international levels). It was suggested that bridging the gaps between differently placed mechanisms was particularly important for ensuring that their decisions and recommendations actually get implemented. For example, a court may grant a ‘dialogic’ remedy, which requires the government to propose remedial plans, and then vest an NHRI with the authority to monitor progress on the implementation of those plans.

Re-visioning Vienna – advancing economic and social rights advocacy

In connection with the theme of implementation, the meeting also took stock of progress and challenges in civil society efforts to advance ESC rights claims. Presenters discussed the interplay between national, regional and international human rights mechanisms and social mobilization, grassroots organizing and advocacy by international NGOs. It was noted that the most successful advocacy campaigns link legal action with public mobilization and are grounded in the everyday lived experiences of affected communities.

Bruce Porter, Director of the Social Rights Advocacy Centre in Canada, shares a panel with the Magdalena Sepulveda, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

Bruce Porter, Director of the Social Rights Advocacy Centre in Canada, shares a panel with the Magdalena Sepulveda, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

The importance of making ESC rights accessible to actors who don’t necessarily see themselves as human rights defenders—such as trade unions, community groups, doctors, teachers, urban planners—was also stressed in the discussions. At the same time, it shouldn’t be assumed that focusing on legal remedies will alienate the grassroots. Access to justice is a critical win; without understanding that ESC rights require access to justice, the indivisibility of different categories of rights cannot be reflected in practice. The presentations concluded with a reflection on the paradigm shift that the Vienna World Conference represented in terms of making the international human rights framework more responsive to the experience of groups such as women which had not benefitted equally from its protection, and more permeable to the demands of social movements representing these groups. However, several participants voiced concerns that the space for social movements to defend ESC rights had contracted significantly over the last decade, first with the war on terror and the rise of fundamentalism and more recently with the economic crisis. The movement is at a clear crossroads and needs to take stock and respond to this changing context. It was seen as essential to both fight fragmentation and diversify strategies. The human rights community needs to refocus its energy on amplifying its voice, not drowning one another out. There was strong enthusiasm for creating spaces for strategizing on how to do this, with an emphasis on intersectionality across identity, social factors and rights.


The meeting in Geneva was one of a series of events held in 2013 to celebrate twenty years of ESC rights advocacy since the Vienna World Conference and to take stock of challenges still facing the human rights movement in making these rights a reality:

  • In February 2013, CESR co-hosted a panel event with New York University’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, which brought together leading figures from the human rights movement—all of whom have contributed to CESR’s work over the course of its history—to explore whether human rights had made a tangible difference to the lives of those facing poverty and deprivation.
  • In June 2013, CESR joined forces with FIAN International and ten other partners to co-organize a series of activities as part of Vienna+20 Action Week, which included a conference of more than 140 civil society activists. CESR convened two of the conference’s discussions, on Austerity, Macroeconomic Policies and Financial Regulation and on Human Rights in the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, helping to shape a set of recommendations to states on these issues for inclusion in the Vienna+20 CSO Declaration.
  • In October 2013, CESR will participate in a daylong symposium organized by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership to discuss human rights 20 years after the World Conference, which seeks to engage stakeholders on challenges and opportunities for the realization of human rights in the 21st century.

The insights and experiences shared at these various events, along with the reflections and think pieces from other leaders in the human rights community, will be distilled into a forthcoming publication and short documentary video to mark CESR’s own twentieth anniversary. It is our hope that the publication and documentary, which will draw on CESR’s two decades as a leading voice for ESC rights, will serve as a resource for the broader human rights movement to build a renewed strategic vision to achieve economic and social justice through human rights.

Policy and Power

Reflecting on key global policy trends shaping the future economic and social agenda, including changing power dynamics resulting from the emergence of new actors and governance structures, and the role of human rights in transforming these.

Inequality as Injustice

Analyzing how discrimination and marginalization compound the economic and social rights abuses faced by women, indigenous people, the poor, people with disabilities, etc, and the role of social movements representing these communities in combating them.

Means and Methods

Taking stock of successes in advancing economic and social rights claims through various avenues – from litigation to grassroots mobilization – and strategizing to support these struggles through innovative human rights tools, while also ensuring that such instruments are placed in the hands of those who need them most.

Looking Ahead

Identifying key elements of an economic and social rights advocacy agenda for the coming decades, one that takes forward the legacy of the Vienna commitments and adapts it to meet the challenges of our time.