Rights and goals

The Millennium Declaration of 2000, in which world leaders pledged to reduce extreme poverty by 2015, has a strong human rights component. The United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, a set of time-bound, quantifiable objectives aimed at fulfilling the Declaration's promise, are more purely target-driven. A new OHCHR publication says the Declaration's human rights focus must be re-emphasized if the MDGs are to be achieved in a sustainable manner.

In a Bangladesh slum: Without human rights, there can be no sustainable development - © UN Photo/Kevin BubriskiIn a foreword to Claiming the Millennium Development Goals: A human rights approach, former High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour questions the effectiveness of MDGs which are “disembodied from the human rights context and purposes in the Millennium Declaration.” The OHCHR publication tries to show how the application of human rights standards and practices can help fill critical gaps in activities to achieve the MDGs.

One of the fundamental ideas in the new OHCHR publication is that a rights-based development outlook views people as active claimants of their rights, rather than passive beneficiaries of charitable works or government services.

This activist approach is illustrated in cases where NGOs and civil society groups challenge governments and others in the courts to strike down discriminatory laws. “The rights enshrined in national and international laws and treaties are not automatically enforced, they are realized through the actions of citizens,” says an NGO whose work is highlighted in the publication.

The international community has long supported an integrated vision of development and human rights. Beginning with the 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development, it has repeatedly reaffirmed the inter-related nature of human rights and development.

Global leaders reached an unprecedented consensus on the importance of mainstreaming human rights into national policies when they met at the World Summit of 2005. And in 2007 the General Assembly, while evaluating the effectiveness of its support for national development efforts, recognized that human rights and development, peace and security are interlinked and mutually reinforcing.

Being target-driven, the MDGs emphasize the mobilization of financial resources and technical solutions. The OHCHR publication suggests that MDG-related activities must also work to change the unequal power relations that sustain poverty. This view is supported by the World Bank, which says that in many areas the real barriers to progress on the MDGs lie in the social and political arenas—precisely where the fight for human rights is most intense.

Such an approach would also allay a key concern about the MDGs: that they are not sufficiently focused on the poorest of the poor or on inequality within a country. For instance, the goal of halving poverty is useful as a benchmark, but a human rights focus would add value by helping to ensure that those working towards that goal do not discriminate against communities that have historically suffered from prejudice, and often still do.

Claiming the Millennium Development Goals shows that unless their rights and freedoms are guaranteed, the poor will not be able to force their leaders to deliver on their promises of development.