When Women Became Human: 25th Anniversary of Vienna Conference

Women’s rights are human rights!  Sounds like common sense?  This wasn’t always the case, and even today, the very notion that women have equal rights, dignity and value as men remains highly contested.   The Vienna Tribunal was a huge turning point in transnational feminist organizing, laying the groundwork for today’s women’s human rights activism. This is our history, we must know it, share it, and protect this legacy from both ongoing and new challenges to women’s human rights facing us today.

Twenty-five years ago, women from around the world vowed to make their voices heard at the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria, held from 14 to 25 June, 1993, organizing locally, regionally, and internationally to hold a parallel tribunal on violence against women in order to influence the UN World Conference to fully recognize women’s rights as human rights.  Influence it they did, leading to the first formal recognition that women’s rights are human rights, and leading to the creation of the first UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.  Not only was this outcome a gamechanger for advocacy using human rights and the UN human rights system, but it was a huge victory demonstrating the power and importance of transnational feminist organizing.  United, women’s voices could not be ignored.

Learn more about Vienna with a fabulous resource launched to share some of this history by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership to celebrate this milestone here

At the WHRI, we have undertaken a documentation process of the contributions of Latin American feminists to the entire Vienna process, which will be launched later this year.

Below follows the contribution of WHRI Co-founder Alda Facio to CWGL’s timeline, reflecting on her experience organizing for and during the Vienna Tribunal.  Let us celebrate this victory, learn from it, and draw strength for combating the new challenges and backlash to women’s human rights in our time.

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Twenty-five Years a Human
Alda Facio – Costa Rica

(Written for the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), June 2018)

When a world conference on human rights was announced for 1993, I was elated.  I had been using a human rights approach in my feminist activism in Latin America for almost a decade and thought that this conference would give activists another opportunity to work beyond national borders to promote women´s rights. As can be imagined, not all women´s organizations were on board as they worried that declaring women´s rights as human rights would undermine the specificity of women´s needs and interests and malestream human rights NGOs did not want to dilute (read pollute) the content of human rights with women´s issues.  But for those of us who had already been using a human rights framework in our feminist struggles, it became clear that connecting our work to the coming conference was important.  One strategy was to create an activity that would allow for hundreds to participate:  a petition drive. Translated into twenty-five languages and circulated in over 120 countries, the petition called upon governments at the Vienna World Conference to address women’s human rights in all conference proceedings.  By the time the petition drive was completed, more than half a million signatures were gathered  and this was accomplished in a time before email or any other electronic communication existed.

Before and during the conference, those of us who worked in the organization of the regional tribunals as well as on the Vienna Tribunal on Violations of Women´s Human Rights used these tribunals to illustrate that the treatment or understanding by the malestream human rights doctrine of abuses against women were gender-biased and excluded a large spectrum of women’s rights violations.  This strategy allowed us to challenge the public-private distinction that had been a defining feature of human rights theory and practice up to that time and gave us further arguments to convince malestream activist that violence against women, as well as other abuses, were in fact a human rights violation even when perpetuated by non-state actors in the private sphere.

As the planning for the regional meetings began, we were told that smaller meetings convened by NGOs would be officially designated as “satellite meetings” for the World conference. This was exciting news indeed!

At a meeting held at the CWGL, we discussed the benefits of organizing a satellite conference on women’s rights as human rights before or during the official regional prepcoms.   In the LAC region, which would be the site of the second regional prepcom, we immediately set out to organize a satellite conference.   Entitled “La Nuestra” the first women’s satellite conference was held in December 1992 with fifty women’s groups participating from most countries in the LAC region. “La Nuestra” agreed to a nineteen-point program for presentation at the January 1993 official LAC Regional meeting. The results of La Nuestra were shared at the NGO Forum preceding the government convocation in January and then shared again with women’s NGOs from other regional groups.  This 19-point document set the tone and content for the global advocacy efforts leading to the World Conference.  The concluding document of the “La Nuestra” calls on the regional conference to recognize women’s rights as human rights; declares violence against women to be a violation of human rights; calls for the appointment of a special rapporteur on violence against women; calls for a communications procedure for CEDAW as well as other mechanisms to receive complaints and calls on States and others to take action on violations of women’s human rights. It also urges new measures on the rights and needs of women with disabilities, indigenous women, women of color, and all others who are discriminated against on ethnic, cultural or any other ground. Finally, it called for the conference to adopt specific resolutions on human rights and to call for new instruments on trafficking and sexual exploitation.

After many smaller and several satellite conferences, the World Conference adopted the Vienna Declaration on 25th June twenty-five years ago. Although the achievements for women are many, the one I love to highlight is the fact that this World Conference declared that “Women’s rights are human rights”.  This meant a paradigm shift: not only did it expand the concept of the “universality” of human rights, but it transformed the legal concept of “human being” which in turn had an immense impact on legal doctrine and legislation, but more importantly, it changed how women understood ourselves. I have always contended that if before that date the rights of women were not human rights, we cannot help but infer that women were not “human” in international human rights law.  For me, the most important achievement in Vienna was our inclusion in the human community.  Therefore, on the 25th of June,  I will be celebrating 25 years since I became human!