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The Right to Development: Where to From Here?

14 April 2004

Address delivered by Dr Margot Salomon, MRG Legal Standards Officer at an expert meeting organized by Franciscans International at the Palais des Nations, Geneva

I was asked to remark on the future of the right to development and my first thought was that the future of the right to development is in fact upon us.

I say this with a tempered optimism and not without frustration at the current deplorable state of global poverty.

So why is the future now:

Institutionally various UN bodies and agencies are seized of the issue and making headway:

1. The Working Group has reached a consensus on the conclusions and recommendations of its 5th session (something it failed to achieve at its 4th session) including calling on the Commission to establish an expert high-level task force to strengthen the global partnership for development through outcome oriented dialogue with high-level representatives of the international financial institutions (IFIs) and World Trade Organization (WTO).

  • Is there a risk that the experts will not be independent, yes.
  • Is there a risk that junior representatives with no authority will be sent to represent, for example, the WTO as we saw at the high-level seminar a few weeks ago, yes.
  • Is it possible this task force will have little effect in modifying internal functions and the meeting of external duties of the MLIs that influence the current global economic system – a global system that has 48% of the world’s people living in poverty – yes.
  • But for the UN in general and the Working Group on the Right To Development in particular this is called success and every little bit counts.

2. Another UN institutional advance is that the Sub-Commission has a 2 year mandate to report on the issue (1), and the OHCHR has commissioned a range of expert studies to inform the Sub-Commission’s work.

  • Now two years is a long time to wait when you have no access to clean drinking water;
  • It is a long time to wait when you are a woman who has defied maternal mortality odds and now you and your babies have no access to life saving drugs that are abundant in the North;
  • And it represents an eternity when you have been forcibly evicted from your indigenous lands and the preservation of your culture indeed the preservation of what makes your people distinct is being irreversible quashed;
  • But through this mandate the Sub-Commission may well contribute to providing specific means and methods of furthering the right to development.

3. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its practice note on Poverty Reduction and Human Rights distributed yesterday in the Commission is aimed at providing practical steps to guide UNDP programming. It includes a section on the RTD, which emphasizes the normative framework provided by the Declaration on the Right to Development (DRD) and highlights the importance attached to process as well as outcome in their work – one of the key elements behind the RTD.

4. The International Financial Institutions (IFIs).

For many of us the IFIs are moving too slowly in integrating human rights both implicitly and explicitly. Too slowly in fully embracing the concept of economic growth in its instrumental role, too slow in recognizing the realization of human rights as the means and end of development.

At the conference on Human Rights and Development convened by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU and the Ethical Globalization Initiative a few weeks ago James Wolfensohn, the President of the World Bank, gave the opening address. Indeed, many World Bank staffers were present. This is a success. Small, too little, so very late, but perhaps providing a glimpse of the future.

The future of RTD can also be seen on the degree of consensus recently achieved around key issues that inform the discourse and structure responses and ultimately policies.

  • Consensus on the fact that poverty is human rights denied and reflective of human rights violations on a massive scale;
  • That poverty is not defined exclusively or even primarily on the basis of income but is multidimensional, characterized by chronic deprivation of resources, choices, capabilities, security and power (3).
  • That the realization of the right to development requires an enabling environment both nationally and internationally; that one without the other is insufficient and that change and improvements in the form of, for example, development cooperation, the creation of an equitable international economic environment and domestic poverty reduction strategies are mutually reinforcing or mutually destructive. The right to development is a right suited to an era characterized by interdependence.

Having said this, my final suggestion will be that the future of the right to development lies with the most marginalized. For example,

Within the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) process none of the 48 recommended indicators for assessing progress towards the MDGs require the collection of disaggregated data on the progress of minority groups. As such should the MDGs be achieved, the national averages would say nothing as to whether minorities have benefited equally which is unlikely due to their marginalized positions in society and the discrimination they face in the realization of their rights.

So, despite being among the poorest, minorities and indigenous peoples may not be included in the one half of the people lifted from extreme poverty by 2015.

Regarding Goal 7, Ensuring environmental sustainability: Minorities and indigenous peoples are often displaced in the name of ‘development’. They are generally not consulted on development projects that might displace them and receive little or no compensation as a result. Such strategies may actually contribute to further impoverishment of these groups or cause displacement (a common by-product of dam construction, for example 4) to urban slums, thus lowering the chances of achieving the MDGs on housing and safe water. Forced displacement has also been used as a means of improving access to social services; there is a risk that similar strategies will be used in the name of achieving the MDGs for these groups.

Movement towards the achievement of the MDGs can only happen if we explicitly target minorities and indigenous peoples and ensure their rights are realized within addressing the MDGs and its relation to the right to development – the first issue for analysis and recommendations by the WG’s possible Task Force (5).

I attended a conference recently at which one of the speakers remarked that the problem with the right to development is that is has failed to capture the public imagination. If we look at the failure to realize the right to development where it counts, on the ground, the speaker may well have had a point. But I would like to think that finally the human right to development and its normative guidance has begun to concentrate minds.

Dr Margot Salomon


  1. ‘Requests the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights to prepare a concept document establishing options for the implementation of the right to development and their feasibility, inter alia an international legal standard of a binding nature, guidelines on the implementation of the right to development and principles for development partnership, based on the Declaration on the Right to Development, including issues which any such instrument might address, for submission to the Commission at its sixty-first session for its consideration and determination of the feasibility of those options.’ CHR Res. 2003/83.
  2. Human Rights and Development: Towards Mutual Reinforcement, 1 March 2004.
  3. ‘In the light of the International Bill of Rights, poverty may be defined as a human condition characterized by sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. While acknowledging that there is no universally accepted definition, the Committee endorses this multi-dimensional understanding of poverty, which reflects the indivisible and interdependent nature of all human rights.’ CESCR Statement on Poverty, UN Doc. E/C.12/2001/10 (2001).
  4. Mustaq Gadi et al, Unheard Indigenous Voices: The Kihals in Pakistan, London: Minority Rights Group International, 2003.
  5. Conclusions and Recommendations, 5th session of the Open-Ended Working Group on the Right to Development, 2004.