Integrating human rights in development and in the economic sphere

Relevance of the issue

Recent events, such as the Arab uprisings and the global financial crisis, have clearly reinforced the interdependence of human rights, development and peace and security; the three fundamental pillars of the UN and the cornerstones of its Charter. These events demonstrated that economic growth in the absence of adequate measures to promote inclusive and participatory development is unsustainable. Indeed, an absence of accountability and the rule of law in the economic sphere, inequality, corruption, mismanagement of public resources, austerity measures and conditionalities continue to trigger civil unrest in many parts of the world, which in turn undermine the sustainability of long-term development and growth. Early warning signs of impending and imminent conflicts and the collapse of States are rooted in the continuing denial of fundamental rights in the economic, social and cultural spheres. Unless addressed, the underlying causes of gaps in the development and the economic sphere lead to repetitive cycles of violations, shrinking democratic spaces, entrenched discrimination and a blatant disregard for the rule of law.

Women and children search for cans to sell in Timor-Leste. © UN Photo/Martine Perret
Women and children search for cans to sell in Timor-Leste.
© UN Photo/Martine Perret

The financial crisis and increasing competition for ownership and control of natural resources have, in many places, translated into a serious denial of access to employment, education, health, social security, food, housing, water and other basic necessities. They have also resulted in unprecedented flows of migrants and refugees. In such instances, women, children, indigenous peoples, migrants and members of disadvantaged and marginalized groups disproportionately suffer. This is exacerbated by manifestations of discrimination and extremism. Moreover, the crises have often resulted in serious violations of civil and political rights when those excluded from the national development agendas protest against their long-standing abuse and discrimination. Their call for a fair share of the pie and for dismantling structures of inequality is often met with force by those whose power and status quo are threatened.

These issues point to a misalignment between the scope and impact of economic forces and actors, on the one hand, and the political will and ability of States to meet their human rights obligations by protecting against human rights abuses, on the other. Changing patterns in international foreign investment and the increasingly powerful role of new economic entities present new challenges, including with regard to corporate compliance, accountability and the responsibility to respect human rights.

Policies and programmes relevant to the exploitation of natural resources and to the access and delivery of basic social services and goods, such as health care, education, water, sanitation and housing, are frequently pursued by States without sufficient recognition of their corresponding human rights obligations and responsibilities. Specifically, States often fail to comply with their obligation to formulate development policies on the basis of the active, free and meaningful participation of their populations. Limited awareness among actors regarding the standards applicable to business enterprises further impedes the effective prevention and mitigation of any negative impact on human rights due to business activities. Globalized systems, such as international financial markets and trade, are run without human rights safeguards. Among the factors behind the 2007-2008 food crisis was the speculation in food commodities, triggered by an influx in the international markets of investments fleeing the housing crisis. Sharp hikes in food prices were further exacerbated by export bans adopted by food-exporting countries. The absence of human rights safeguards resulted in serious food insecurity and hunger, particularly in food-importing poor countries.

The world was unprepared to pre-empt or rapidly respond to the negative fallout of the 2008 global financial crisis. Bailouts for financial institutions, often followed by austerity measures, constituted the prevailing policy response to the crisis, a response which was disproportionately felt by marginalized groups and migrants. Austerity measures were implemented with limited political resistance in spite of a growing body of evidence that they threatened both human rights and long-term economic growth. The crisis revealed systemic flaws in the international monetary and financial architecture, including a lack of accountability for regulators and financial institutions.

Since their adoption at the Millennium Summit in 2000, the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have raised the profile of poverty as an issue of international concern. However, a number of human rights gaps have been identified in both their design and implementation. As such, the MDGs deviated from aspirations and fundamental principles of the 2000 Millennium Declaration, which they were meant to realize. These gaps include lack of thematic balance with a disregard for civil and political rights in areas such as personal security, administration of justice and political participation; poor specification, especially in relation to their qualitative aspects and non-alignment of global goals, targets and indicators with human rights treaty standards; inappropriate adaptation of global goals to national contexts; failure to address discrimination and increasing inequalities; weak accountability for both process and outcomes; and non-participatory processes and disregard for process aspects in general.

In the face of current challenges, the post-2015 development agenda offers a key opportunity to strongly advocate for the broad-based inclusion of human rights principles of transparency, accountability, participation, non-discrimination and human rights policy coherence within the trade, investment, economic, regulatory and development spheres. In an increasingly globalized world, international cooperation must be improved to facilitate compliance with human rights obligations and responsibilities and the effective mobilization of maximum available resources for the realization of human rights.

OHCHR expected contribution

Integrating human rights in development and in the economic sphere
  • Rights-holders meaningfully participate in the design and monitoring of public policies, budgets and development projects particularly affecting their human rights, especially their rights to food, housing, water and sanitation, and their access to natural resources such as land
  • Civil society, in particular youth and women, increasingly advocate for and claim their rights; and protect themselves more effectively from reprisals

  • Increased use of national protection system by rights-holders, especially through strategic litigation on economic, social and cultural rights

  • Constitutions, laws and policies increasingly protect human rights, especially land and housing rights and with particular attention to non-discrimination and gender equality, in the context of development and exploitation of natural resources

  • Increased use of anti-discrimination and equality standards by judges and prosecutors


  • Increased ratification of international human rights instruments and review of reservations


  • National mechanisms provide for effective implementation of business and human rights standards by States and the private sector, including remedies for human rights abuses

  • Mechanisms and initiatives are adopted to increase human rights protection in contexts of conflict, violence and insecurity


  • Increased representation of marginalized and discriminated groups in State institutions and decision-making bodies


  • Increased number and diversity of rights-holders, and of NHRIs and civil society actors acting on their behalf, making use of UN and regional human rights mechanisms and bodies


  • Increased compliance and engagement of Member States with international human rights mechanisms


  • Advances in the progressive development of international and regional human rights law in areas relevant to the thematic priorities


  • Human rights are integrated in the formulation of and follow-up to the post-2015 development agenda

  • Global, regional, and national actors increasingly integrate international human rights principles and standards, including the right to development, in their development, finance, trade and investment policies


  • Human rights standards and principles are integrated into UN development frameworks and the work of UN agencies, particularly on housing, water, sanitation and land

  • The protection of human rights is an integral part of the international community’s preparedness, response and recovery efforts in the context of humanitarian crises and is effectively integrated in the mandates, policies and actions of United Nations peacekeeping operations and special political missions

By 2017, OHCHR expects to have contributed to the achievement of the results outlined on the table above. OHCHR will pursue these behavioural, institutional and legislative changes in cooperation with relevant partners and using the different strategic tools at its disposal (see Part I on OHCHR’s Theory of Change). It is expected that if achieved, these results will contribute to improving the duty-bearers’ compliance with their international human rights obligations and to the rights-holders’ ability to claim their rights, and thereby to integrating human rights in development and in the economic sphere. To illustrate the interrelated nature of the Thematic Strategies, the table shows all the results to which OHCHR is planning to contribute in this area, including relevant results from other strategies which can be identified as follows: Mechanisms Strategy; Discrimination Strategy; Rule of Law Strategy; Democracy Strategy; Violence Strategy.

OHCHR added value

Focus areas

  • Right to Development
  • Post-2015 development agenda
  • Land, water and sanitation and housing rights
  • Business and human rights
  • Public policies and budget processes
  • Social and cultural rights

OHCHR’s mandate, its independence, and expertise in applying the human rights standards contained in instruments as the International Bill of Rights, the Declaration on the Right to Development and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, renders it a uniquely authoritative advocate for the integration of human rights standards and principles in development and economic policies. Most recently, OHCHR has contributed to the development of the first global normative framework on business and human rights, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

While several United Nations agencies and organizations are well equipped to undertake work on economic or development dimensions, it should be emphasized that OHCHR, as the repository of the international human rights norms and standards, is the only UN entity explicitly mandated to provide guidance on human rights and promote their integration in all programmes and policies of the United Nations system. Consequently, the OHCHR is often viewed by its partners as a “conscience-keeper” as the world moves forward with its development and economic agendas. Further, the Office is well-placed to provide a human rights counter-balance to an international discourse which defines “megatrends,” such as migration, as anonymous economic phenomena, and instead highlights the human processes and impacts of those phenomena.

Growing recognition of the connections between human rights, economic growth, equality and development has opened the door for OHCHR’s participation in policy discussions and triggered increasing demands by Member States and the wider UN system for technical assistance with the integration of human rights in development, poverty reduction and economic strategies. This has become particularly evident during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process during which Member States are increasingly accepting recommendations related
to these issues.

As a result of OHCHR’s work, human rights standards are progressively integrated into global policy documents, national development policies, UN Development Assistance Frameworks (UNDAFs) and international development planning. The Office has a track record of active and strategic engagement in global conferences, General Assembly agendas and inter-agency mechanisms, and has succeeded in significantly changing policies to increase system-wide policy coherence and increased human rights accountability. The Secretary-General’s Task Team on the Post-2015 Development Agenda indicated that human rights is one of three fundamental principles on which the agenda must be built. The Office has a major role to play in ensuring that the post-2015 development agenda provides a sustainable, meaningful, universal and balanced framework addressing freedom from fear and freedom from want for all, without discrimination. Human rights have also been firmly integrated in the Rio +20  outcome documents and the General Assembly’s Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review. Moreover, the landmark Declaration of the second High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development was firmly human rights-based.

OHCHR is the principal advocate for human rights within the UN system where it chairs and leads the work of the United Nations Development Group’s Human Rights Mainstreaming Mechanism and coleads several thematic inter-agency coordination mechanisms, including on migration. Furthermore, with active contributions from OHCHR, UN entities working in sectors such as food, housing and water, have begun to address responsible governance of global systems. For example, a UN system-wide coordination mechanism (High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Crisis), which includes the World Bank, International Financial Institutions and the World Trade Organization, recognized the role of  international trade and markets in the 2008 food crisis and agreed that international trade reforms should contribute to the realization of internationally agreed human rights. As a result, a monitoring and early warning mechanism on food commodities in international markets has been established. The UN human rights mechanisms have played an important role in this achievement by issuing guidance on how to safeguard human rights in the context of international trade and investment agreements.

The periodic and public character of the review of the human rights situation conducted by the human rights mechanisms, which OHCHR supports, allows for timely inputs, follow-up and monitoring, creating a useful avenue for engagement with governments and other development partners. In addition, OHCHR’s extensive network of field presences, strongly positions it to advocate for and support the implementation of the guidance and recommendations issued by these mechanisms and to integrate them into national development plans or policies. The Office works with relevant human rights mechanisms to bring together businesses, States, civil society organizations, international organizations and other relevant stakeholders to make meaningful progress toward increased awareness and implementation of human rights standards.

Consultation with the Wirrárika indigenous population in Mexico. OHCHR promotes and supports the establishment of mechanisms for meaningful consultation and participation of affected groups in development projects and the exploitation of natural resources. © OHCHR/Mexico
Consultation with the Wirrárika indigenous population in Mexico. OHCHR promotes
and supports the establishment of mechanisms for meaningful consultation and participation of affected groups in development projects and the exploitation of
natural resources.
© OHCHR/Mexico

The Office builds on the human rights standards and principles and its accumulated experience to develop policy frameworks, interpretative guidance and capacity-building and training tools for relevant stakeholders. In recent years, OHCHR has developed expert knowledge and materials relevant to development and economic issues, such as: the content and monitoring of economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR), including the scope and content of these rights as they apply to migrants in an irregular situation; the development and use of human rights indicators; human rights-based assessments of the MDG process and of political and economic policies and accountability in the post-2015 development agenda; the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and human rights-based approaches (HRBA) in development programming and budget processes. The increasing engagement of all UN human rights mechanisms with economic and development issues will build knowledge and capacity for the application of human rights in those areas.

OHCHR has developed considerable experience in highlighting the human rights dimensions and impact of economic activities and policies, including austerity measures, both globally and in specific country settings. In this context, the Office clarifies and increases awareness of the human rights responsibilities of business actors, the human rights implications of national budget planning and implementation and the obligation to devote maximum available resources to the realization of economic, social and cultural rights.

Five years after the onset of the financial crisis, OHCHR is better prepared and well placed to advocate for rights-based reforms related to financial regulation and economic policies and to galvanize political will for meaningful changes that will prevent future crises. A stronger global partnership for development founded on the right to development and greater human rights policy coherence in the economic, trade, investment and financial sectors could have prevented or mitigated the crisis and must be points of emphasis in OHCHR’s future work, including with regards to the post-2015 development agenda.

For more information about how OHCHR intends to contribute to the changes outlined in this page, please see the complete text, which is contained in the OHCHR Management Plan 2014-2017.