On July 14 and 15, GROW had the opportunity to attend, as an observer, the Third Annual High-Level Conference on the Global State of Human Rights, organised by the Global Campus of Human Rights, a global network of universities providing human rights education to young professionals, in partnership with RightLivelihood, and co-hosted by the UNESCO office in Venice.

The conference featured prominent panellists and touched upon topics like the legacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, the identification of forward-looking strategies for the advancement of human rights, the identification of the interlinkages between conflict, the environment and the rights of future generations and, finally, on the novel challenges posed by the development of artificial intelligence to the human rights framework.

GROW is grateful to have had the opportunity to take part in such an inspiring event and to forward its inquiries on the nature and scope of the Conference to Manfred Nowak, Austrian human rights lawyer who notably served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and current Secretary General of the Global Campus of Human Rights. 

Photo Manfred Nowak at the Third Annual Hugh-Level Conference on the Global State of Human Rights, by the Global Campus of Human Rights

Read our interview below:

75 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is a need to assess the efficiency of the human rights framework, but also its limitations, to address the lessons learned and build on them to move forward. Could you identify the main breakdowns of the global human rights system and the reasons for such failures in protecting individual and collective rights?

In my opinion, the founding principles of the human rights system, as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are as valid as 75 years ago. On the basis of the UDHR, the international community has gradually established a comprehensive legally binding universal and regional normative framework of individual and collective human rights. This remains the only universally binding value system of our time. Nevertheless, human rights have always been violated on a massive scale in all world regions, whether during the Cold War or thereafter. What is new, however, is that the pillars of the post-WWII architecture (prohibition of war, eradication of poverty, protection of human rights as well as multilateral cooperation as a universally agreed tool of addressing and solving crises and challenges) are increasingly put in question by major powers, such as the US, the Russian Federation, and China. In my opinion, the main signs of the breakdown of the post-WWII architecture, such as wars of aggression, a high level of violence by governments and non-State actors (organised crime, armed groups, extremist and terrorist movements, mercenaries and private security and military companies), dramatic economic inequality and social injustice, a trend towards populism, fascism and autocracy, the migration and refugee crisis as well as the climate and environmental crisis and threats posed to human rights and human dignity by digitalization and artificial intelligence are all interrelated. If I were to identify one major root cause of all these interrelated crises and challenges, I would mention the neoliberal economic policies (privatisation, deregulation, and minimising the role of States in favour of transnational corporations and global financial markets), which have since the 1970s gradually changed the global economic, political and social environment.

How does this conference situate itself in the wider context of the advancement of human rights? In which ways can it build upon past achievements of the human rights system, and how can it become a stepping stone for further developments?

This third high-level “Venice Conference on the Global State of Human Rights” takes place in 2023, a year in which we commemorate 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and 30 years of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA). The UDHR was a reaction to two world wars, the world economic crisis of 1929, the rise of fascism, and the Holocaust and symbolises a historical synthesis between different human rights concepts. The VDPA is the universally agreed outcome document of the 2nd World Conference on Human Rights and, using a short window of opportunity after the end of the Cold War, reaffirmed the universality, equality, interdependence, and interrelatedness of all human rights. It established the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and laid the ground for a new world order based upon human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and social justice. However, instead of celebrating the victory of democracy over autocracy, the US and other Western countries primarily celebrated the victory of capitalism over communism and even strengthened globalisation driven by neoliberal economic policies, which led to a steep increase in economic inequality and many other related crises. 30 years after the Vienna World Conference is the right time to look back at past achievements and to draw the lessons from the failures of the last 30 years in order to change the world “Towards a New Era of Human Rights”. Rather than waiting for another World War, the international community should take the enormous current challenges as a reason and stepping stone for realising and accepting that we can save our planet and survival only if we all join forces and work together in addressing the root causes of the current multiple crises. Since human rights are the foundation for both peace and sustainable development, human rights must play a major role in this global reorientation.

The UNESCO building hosts today’s conference and the performance of the Human Rights Band. How does culture contribute to advancing human rights worldwide? Can art bridge the gaps among cultures and understandings of what human rights are?

One of the objectives of the Global Campus of Human Rights is to strengthen the link between culture, the arts (cinema, visual arts, theatre, performance, music, literature, etc.), and human rights. The arts have a much broader audience than the “human rights bubble” to spread the messages of human rights. Many artists feel that at a time of insecurity and major crises, they would like to use their artistic skills to contribute to changing the public awareness necessary to solve such crises and challenges. On the other hand, artists as human rights defenders are also increasingly under pressure from autocratic governments and need the international human rights community to defend their human rights.

How does the conference plan to disseminate the insights and discussions from the panel discussions to a wider audience and ensure they have an impact beyond the event itself?

Our Conference has a Rapporteur, who will summarise the main findings and conclusions to be distributed widely, including by social media, as our final “Venice Statement”. In addition, the well-known journalist and founder of Democracy Now, Amy Goodman, will moderate the panel discussion on Friday and will report on the outcomes of the Saturday Conference to a wider audience worldwide.

As a student-led organisation, GROW believes in the necessity to convey the vision of the youth on human rights issues into political decision-making. How do you think institutions and governments could move forward to guarantee full and representative participation of the actors of tomorrow’s world in today’s political context?

The active participation of children and young people in all decisions that directly concern them is one of the key principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Global Campus of Human Rights, in partnership with Right Livelihood, has been for a number of years mainstreaming children’s rights into our regional Master programs and other activities. More recently, we established a Child Leadership Team, composed of children from all regions, to advise us on our activities and priorities. If we look at the main topics of our Conference, namely climate justice and artificial intelligence, then we realize that children, young people, and future generations are more threatened by these challenges than older generations. Rather than telling children and young people what they should do, we prefer to listen to young people, learn from them how they address these issues, and  support them in their human rights activism and movement building.