“We, heads of State and Government, … are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want.”
UN Millennium Declaration

Right to Development

Development is a Human Right

An expert discussion in commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Right to Development

People at the Centre: Human Rights in Global Economics and Development

5 December 2011, UN Headquarters, NY

Political leaders seem to have forgotten that health care, education, housing, and the fair administration of justice are not commodities for sale to the few, but rather rights to which all are entitled without discrimination. Anything we do in the name of economic policy or development should be designed to advance these rights and, at the very least, should do nothing to undermine their realization.”  -- Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights

New York, December 2011-- There is something familiar about the demands painted on the banners of the demonstrators in Tunis and Cairo, Ramallah and Damascus, Madrid and London, Santiago and New York.

It is more than just the universal quality of their messages, or the universal urgency of their calls.  It is the substance of the messages - dignity, justice, participation, freedom—that resonate with such a familiar refrain.   

And so they should.  These messages have been codified in UN human rights instruments for more than six decades.        

Already in 1945, the United Nations was founded on behalf of “the peoples” of the world “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women […] and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”

Three years later, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights identified the securing of freedom from fear and want as the central mandate of governance, listed the full litany of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights to which all are entitled without discrimination, and promised “a social and international order in which all of these rights and freedoms can be fully realized.” 

And twenty-five years ago, on 4 December 1986, the UN Declaration on the Right to Development set forth the elements of this right, guaranteeing to everyone “the right to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development.” 

The Declaration put people at the centre of development (rather than governments, markets, corporations, banks, international institutions, or donors), and it set the objectives of development not as growth or investment, but rather as the full realization of all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. It set the parameters for human rights-sensitive development processes, with an emphasis on non-discrimination, people’s participation, fair distribution of benefits, and respect for self-determination and democratic sovereignty over natural wealth and resources. 

And already a quarter of a century ago, the Declaration called for cooperation to reform the international economic order to create the necessary conditions for the realization of the right to development.        
And yet, something happened along the way.  Governments breached their positive obligations to protect and fulfill these human rights.  Failures in democratic governance left powerful economic actors under-regulated and unaccountable. Corruption siphoned off essential development resources.  Social expenditures shrunk.  Unemployment numbers peaked.  And millions more were thrown into poverty.   Effective international cooperation faltered under the weight of narrow notions of national self-interest and short-sighted objectives.

Human rights were increasingly on the losing end of national and international policy, trumped by resurgent archaic notions of state security, the xenophobic politics of border control, the sacred idol of free markets. 

In the end, decades of unchecked economic and environmental pillage led, in rapid succession, to a climate crisis, a food crisis, a financial crisis, an energy crisis, a fuel crisis and, ultimately, a human rights crisis. 

Of course, this was never principally about a shortage of resources.  Rather, at its core, it is a failure of political will.  Indeed, throughout this period, military expenditures continued to grow, and corporate compensation ballooned to unprecedented levels.  In a single year, a staggering $18 trillion was mobilized to bail out banks, dwarfing the $2 trillion total mobilized in over a half-century of aid.

Today, 2.7 billion people struggle to survive on less than two dollars per day.  Every 3.6 seconds, someone somewhere dies of starvation--- most often a helpless child under the age of five.  More than 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.  And over a billion people have no access to safe drinking water. 

Perhaps most worryingly of all, many of the solutions put forward by the world’s politicians in the face of the crisis show little willingness to address the fundamentals at the root of these problems, and often even mirror the policies that created the crises in the first place.  Debt and austerity for developing countries and struggling economies, deregulation and impunity for private sector actors, shrinking social programs at home, and shrinking foreign aid abroad.

Twenty-five years after the adoption of the Declaration on the Right to Development, the time has come to give serious attention to human rights-based approaches, with a focus on  active, free and meaningful participation, higher levels of accountability, non-discrimination and attention to vulnerability, the political and economic empowerment of people, fair distribution, and an explicit linkage to international human rights norms and standards, as well as effective international cooperation. 

In the wake of the failure of the dominant economic models of centuries past, is there now space to raise such fundamental questions?  What would happen if governments more faithfully implemented their positive obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the full range of human rights, if human rights-based policy coherence governed international aid and trade and investment, and if ensuring equality and freedom from fear and want were pursued as aggressively as markets and growth?  Is it true, as the signs in Tahrir Square and on Wall Street declare, that another way is possible?   And, if so, what would it look like?

To explore these questions, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights convened a panel of eminent experts, to lead an interactive discussion at United Nations Headquarters in New York.

  • Moderator: Craig Mokhiber, Chief of Development and Economic and Social Issues, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
  • Keynote: Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate, Professor, Columbia University
  • Philip Alston, Professor, New York University
  • Radhika Balakrishnan, Professor, Rutgers University
  • James Thuo Gathii, Professor, Albany Law School
  • Penny Andrews, Professor, City University of New York

See webcast


25th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the RTD









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