The Right to Development and least developed countries

For the millions of men, women and children living in the least developed countries (LDCs), development is one of the most urgent of human rights imperatives. Development is a human right for all individuals and peoples. The formulation of development as a right is based on the idea that it is not merely an equivalent to economic growth.

What is a 'least developed country'?

Least developed countries are low-income countries confronting severe structural impediments to sustainable development. They are highly vulnerable to economic and environmental shocks and have low levels of human assets.

There are currently 46 countries on the list of LDCs which is reviewed every three years by the Committee for Development (CDP), based on the following criteria:

(a) their gross national income per capita;
(b) their position on the human assets index; and
(c) their position on the economic and environmental vulnerability index.

For a country to graduate from the list of LDCs, it must meet two criteria at the established graduation threshold at two consecutive reviews. Two countries graduated between 1971 and 2011. Since the Programme of Action for the Least Developed Countries was adopted by the United Nations in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2011, three countries have graduated. Five more are scheduled to graduate by 2024. A total of fifteen countries have met the graduation criteria since 2011, signalling important progress, although short of the adopted aim of enabling half the number of least developed countries to meet the graduation criteria by 2020.


OHCHR has country offices in most of the least developed countries, where it supports them to:

  • implement the recommendations of international human rights mechanisms;
  • advance sustainable development through human rights;
  • prevent violations and strengthen human rights protection, including in situations of conflict and insecurity;
  • enhance equality and counter discrimination;
  • strengthen the rule of law and accountability for human rights violations; and
  • enhance participation and protect civic space

LDCs are demonstrating increasing commitment to respecting and promoting human rights. Out of 46 LDCs,

  • 40 ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR);
  • 40 ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR );
  • 41 ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD );
  • 45 ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW);
  • 47 ratified the Convention on the Right of the Child (CRC);
  • 40 ratified the Convention against Torture (CAT);
  • 17 ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families;
  • 13 ratified the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance;
  • 42 ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

There remain critical deficits in LDCs not only in terms of development but also in the areas of human rights, democracy, the rule of law and citizen empowerment, particularly with regard to women and marginalised groups.

Read more about the LDCs in the 2020 High Commissioner’s report to the Human Rights Council on the right to development, A/HRC/45/21 and in this summary of recommendations by OHCHR.

Rights at the core of the new Programme of Action for LDCs

At the fifth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries in Doha in 2022, a new 10-year programme of action for the LDCs will be adopted. Having assessed the existing Programme of Action for the Least Developed Countries, the Secretary-General has identified six key areas for action:

(a) harnessing fully the potential of new technologies for the least developed countries and preventing a deepening of the technological divide;
(b) reaching sustainable debt levels in all the least developed countries;
(c) addressing challenges resulting from high rates of urban growth while optimizing opportunities;
(d) according special focus to young people, especially girls, ensuring they acquire the skills needed to realize their aspirations;
(e) addressing bottlenecks in implementing the Sendai Framework and national adaptation plans; and
(f) stepping up support for the smooth transition of graduating countries.

These will contribute to the fair distribution of the benefits of development to all least developed countries and their peoples, in line with the Declaration on the Right to Development.


2022: The 5th UN LDC conference

The General Assembly decided to convene the Fifth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries from 23 to 27 January 2022 in Doha, Qatar. It will adopt a new 10-year programme of action for the least developed countries, which will be essential to realising the right to development in these countries.

In preparation, OHCHR is advocating for the right of individuals and peoples from the least developed countries to meaningfully participate in and contribute to the elaboration of the new programme of action. OHCHR is raising awareness about human rights capacity-building challenges and the importance of the right to development in the new programme. The guidelines on the effective implementation of the right to participate in public affairs at the international level can help the organisers of the Conference to consider the priorities of the least developed countries and their populations.

OHCHR jointly organized with UN Women a side event to the first meeting of the Preparatory Committee of the UN LDC 5 entitled "Realizing human rights and gender equality in least developed countries: Contributions to the LDC5 Conference "

OHCHR participated in the Asia-Pacific Regional Review Meeting on the Implementation of the Istanbul Programme of Action in Preparation for the Fifth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (UNLDC-5). The Office contributed to the meeting’s discussions with interventions in the following:

Session 2: Supporting our climate, recovery from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and building a resilient society against future shocks

Session 5: Structural transformation and resilient infrastructure for sustained economic growth, poverty alleviation and decent work for all

Session 6: Social and human development and good governance at all levels

Session 7: Road to Doha: an ambitious agenda for the next decade through reinvigorated and innovative financing for development of the Asia-Pacific LDCs

Special session on harnessing science, technology and innovation to support structural transformation and LDC graduation by the Technology Bank for the Least Developed Countries

2011: Adopting the Istanbul Programme of Action at the 4th UN LDC conference

The Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC-IV) took place from 9 to 13 May 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey, and adopted the Istanbul Declaration and Programme of Action for LDCs for the decade of 2011-2020 (IPOA).

Compared to the Brussels Programme of Action for the decade 2001-2010, the IPOA has an increased number of references to human rights including the right to development and, for the first time, the right to food, the right to health, sexual and reproductive health, as well as a new section on "Gender equality and empowerment of women". Apart from the Introduction, all parts of the IPOA contain references to human rights.
Under the IPOA, the LDCs are required to:

  • promote and respect all internationally recognised human rights, including the right to development;
  • strengthen good governance, the rule of law, human rights, gender equality and empowerment of women, and democratic participation, including by enhancing the role of parliaments;
  • take steps to realise the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including sexual and reproductive health;
  • achieve equal access of women and girls to education, basic services, health care, economic opportunities;
  • accelerate efforts to promote women’s rights and gender equality, including women with disabilities;
  • establish and continue implementing national development plans to take account of the needs of women and girls;
  • provide women and girls with full access to education and training, basic services, health care and economic opportunities, including ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, financial services and social protection;
  • strengthen support to maternal health and increase access to family planning resources for women, men and young people;
  • take resolute action against violence, abuse and discrimination to ensure that women and girls have the full enjoyment of all human rights and can attain the highest living standards possible and equal participation in the economic, social and political life of their communities;
  • strengthen the role of relevant national mechanisms and scale up resources for gender equality and empowerment of women;
  • promote effective representation and participation of women in all spheres of decision-making, including the political process at all levels.

Development partners are requested to support the LDCs in their implementation of the above tasks.