Skip to main content

Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Joint World Bank and UN event on human rights and development to commemorate the 70th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Human rights at the World Bank

18 April 2018

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein

Washington, 18 April 2018

Dr Kim,
Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here to celebrate the 70thanniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights together with the World Bank, whose actions are essential to realising the commitments made by States in that Declaration. I thank my dear friend Sandie Okoro for her kind words of introduction, and I also want to express my gratitude for all those among you who are involved in human rights work.

Because many of you are – as the recent “Pathways to Peace” report by the Bank and UN makes very clear. This is a text that is grounded in human rights, and it very amply and expertly demonstrates the cost-effectiveness and urgency of upholding human rights commitments. It calls for us to "do everything we can to help countries avert the outbreak of crises that take a high toll on humanity, undermining institutions and the capacity to achieve peace and development". It asks us to "rededicate ourselves to the UN Charter, with the mandate of Agenda 2030 – protecting and respecting human rights, and ensuring that our assistance goes to those who need it the most".

It tells us that "Prevention should permeate everything we do. It should cut across all pillars of the United Nations’ work, and unite us for more effective delivery."

I thoroughly endorse these goals, as I am sure do you. Human rights objectives are not the exclusive property of my Office. The stale old idea of human rights advocacy as legalistic, sermonising and oblivious to real-world constraints is a vision my Office completely rejects; just as inaccurate – as I hope you will agree – as the notion that economics is a "dismal science" where the rigid application of rules of supply and demand always involves misery.

We human rights workers are realists, engaged in helping States realise their human rights commitments on the ground and in real life. And effective development work – by the World Bank and other institutions – involves living up to many ideals integral to the Universal Declaration: preventing conflict, reducing poverty, and enhancing economic and social rights.

The Sustainable Development Agenda embraces human rights and economics. It very explicitly embodies an integrated vision of development and rights. In fact, I would argue that it is that human rights component which puts the S in the SDGs; and I believe this is the core factor which differentiates the 2030 Agenda from the MDG paradigm.

Because upholding human rights makes for smart economics.

Domestic development processes which uphold justice and the rule of law – measures which combat discrimination of every kind and promote equal opportunities and respect for dignity; governance that is transparent and which serves the people; all the people – these process are more successful, more effective, and create a virtuous cycle of enhanced prosperity in the short, medium and long term.

Research by the World Bank and others has extensively demonstrated the crippling costs of conflict. We know that the vast majority of today's conflicts arise from long-festering grievances grounded in exclusion – in the perception that specific groups are excluded from political participation; from the economic and social benefits of development; and from their rightful access to fundamental services and opportunities. We see, in the many and growing crises around us, that – and here I am again quoting the Pathways to Peace report – "economic development alone is not a guarantee of peace".

Not all human rights violations will lead to outright violence. But even where conflict is avoided, the colossal economic, social and human cost of violations has been repeatedly and very thoroughly demonstrated by multiple authoritative sources. They include, for example, the impact of discrimination, which may eliminate women, ethnic minorities and others from the skilled workforce: excluding people with disabilities can alone cost economies as much as 7% of GDP. Numerous studies have also demonstrated the very damaging impact of inequalities between groups of people on the sustainability of growth.

It is time for us to marry human rights and economics. We need to address inequalities and exclusion. We need to help make national institutions and programmes more inclusive, and help ensure that the voices and goals of all members of society are reflected in policy. We need to put the needs of civil society at the centre of our work, recalling that development, like governance, should be at the service of the people – not the other way round.

And we should do this, not because those are human rights goals – although they are. Not because such measures uphold the Universal Declaration – although they do. But because they make for good economics; sound development; greater and more sustained prosperity. Because they make good business sense.

Preventing human rights violations – and in doing so, preventing conflict – saves lives, and it saves money. It is a short-cut – in fact, the only sustainable path – to a better outcome for our troubled world.

Dear colleagues,

Twenty years ago there was virtually no awareness of the linkages between development and human rights, and very little interaction between our professional communities. Today, we have begun collaborating on issues ranging from social protection policy to governance, conflict prevention, recovery and reintegration, due diligence, labour rights, statistics and economic, trade and investment policy.

This does not mean we are all the same, or that there aren’t tensions between disciplines and professional communities. Every institution must be guided by its own mandate, analysis of opportunities, and comparative advantages.But the more we communicate and act in concert, the more effective our work will be. I would like to see a much closer relationship between human rights and development actors, dismantling barriers to cooperation between us so that we can work together for prevention.

Oftentimes it seems that development actors feel constrained from raising sensitive issues with governments – and by sensitive, what they appear to mean is human rights issues. We in the human rights community are accustomed to advocacy. Together, united by common purpose, our advocacy can be even more effective.

The very powerful monitoring capacity of my Office and other human rights actors could also more fully contribute to risk-assessment by the development community, for better identification and understanding of rising indicators of exclusion and looming violence. This information can help development actors redirect funding to regions whose people are being excluded; help them invest in the education and skills of groups who suffer discrimination – and encourage the development community to set up or support impartial mechanisms to redress grievances before they spiral into uncontrollable violence.

In situations of open conflict, and where there are signs that violence may begin to abate, there is always an urgent need to re-establish development processes which will prevent recurrence. I believe our contributions can be vital to ensuring that development institutions support institutions and measures which build trust; weave a stronger and more inclusive social fabric; and promote justice.

I would like to hear from others now, so I will leave you with this thought: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has weathered many a storm in the past seven decades. Around it, and inspired by its commitments, States have drawn up a tremendous body of useful human rights law, including fundamental treaties which are essential to peace and development. But human rights is not – not only – lawyers' work.

Whether we speak in legal terms, or in the languages of finance, economics, governance or social policy, rights are also your job. The 2030 Agenda is a template for the realisation of human rights – and an area where our strengthened collaboration can produce powerful results.

I thank you.