25 years of the right to development - Achievements and Challenges: Statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Berlin, 24 February 2011

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen,

Before I begin to address you, I would like to say I am particularly pleased to be here. I stood here as the President of the Rwanda Tribunal when this foundation gave us the human rights award. We were then referred to as the other court in Africa. This foundation took notice of our jurisprudence and our work. I feel good to be here wearing the cap of the High Commissioner.

I am very pleased to commemorate with you the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development. I wish to convey my sincere appreciation to the Friedrich Ebert foundation for the excellent cooperation we enjoyed in organizing this important gathering. The Friedrich Ebert foundation has been a leader in the promotion of the realization of the right to development and an active participant in the work of the United Nations in this field as we heard just now.

Hosting this event in Berlin highlights the fact that the right to development matters to all, to developed and to developing countries alike.

The 25th anniversary of the Declaration on the Right to Development brings us all here to reflect on past achievements, the obstacles that were faced and the lessons learned, and to consider the way forward in implementing this crucial human right.

The constituent elements of the right to development are rooted in the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenants of Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as other United Nations instruments.

Through the United Nations Charter, Member States undertook to "promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom" and "to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion." Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights echoes these principles. 

The primary inspiration for the modern articulation of the right to development comes from Judge Keba M’Baye of Senegal, who in 1972 argued that development should be viewed as a right. He was able to secure a General Assembly resolution in 1977 which authorized a study of the issue and resulted ultimately in the adoption, in 1986, of the UN Declaration on the Right to Development, approved by 146 out of the then 159 UN Member States.

The logic of the right to development, as expressed in the Declaration itself, is unassailable: Everyone has the right to participate in, contribute to and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development.  The Declaration sets out the particular requirements of the right to development itself, and, by extension, human rights-based development, and these are the requirements:

·     Putting the human person at the centre of development,
·     To ensuring active and meaningful participation,
·     Securing non-discrimination,
·     Fairly distributing the benefits of development,
·     Respecting self-determination, and sovereignty over natural resources, and
·     Informing all processes that advance other civil, political economic, social and cultural rights.

So as a human right, the right to development enhances accountability by virtue of its universality, by placing implementation responsibilities on individual States, and by requiring effective international cooperation in policies and action for development.

Further, the Declaration identifies those obstacles that frustrate the purpose of international cooperation, such as threats to peace and security, foreign domination and racism in all its forms.

In the past twenty five years, much progress has been achieved in law and practice to give effect to the Declaration. And yet much more needs to be done.

Rampant poverty and stark inequalities that continue to confront the world are affronts to human dignity, and a violation of human rights. According to the latest UNDP Human Development Report, an estimated one-third of the population in 104 developing countries, or about 1.75 billion people, experience multidimensional poverty. More than half live in South Asia. Rates are highest in Sub-Saharan Africa, with significant variation across regions, groups and indigenous peoples. The absolute number of malnourished people—defined by minimal energy consumption — which stood at 850 million in 1980 has now increased to around 1 billion worldwide.

Hard-won development gains have been reversed as a result of the multiple crises of the last few years, including food shortages, climate change and desertification, as well as the global financial crisis and the ensuing recession.  These upheavals undermined the ability of countries to mobilize resources for development, thus making it more difficult to achieve the internationally agreed upon development goals, most notably theMillennium Development Goals.

Even when progress on the MDGs is on track, stigmatized and neglected people, including minorities and people with disabilities, continue to be left behind.

At the same time, democratic deficits and weak governance at the national level, combined with the lack of an enabling international environment for development, continue to prevent full implementation of the right to development.

Let me be clear: Human aspirations for development and well-being can be realized only when there is a solid national and international accountability framework for development that respects equity and social justice as well as human rights.  Such framework includes respect for the rule of law and for universal human rights, democratic participation and good governance. It requires an environment free from want and fear.

Yet, many developing and poor countries lack capacity or face other challenges that prevent them from meeting their primary responsibility for full implementation of human rights, including the right to development.  They need assistance, and they should get it through networks of bilateral or multilateral solidarity.  In turn, such solidarity must produce real and measurable changes on the ground.  Positive change can be achieved through a human rights approach to development cooperation which keeps a focus on those who are likely to be most excluded and discriminated against.  A human rights approach ensures equity and sustainability of development by empowering all people to claim their rights and to be active participants in decisions that affect them, rather than merely being beneficiaries of charity.

Germany has been one of the largest bilateral donors over the past two decades. Its contribution of roughly USD 12 billion in 2009 amounted to approximately 0.35 percent of its Gross National Product (GNP). I note that Germany has committed to achieving the internationally agreed target of 0.7 percent of GNP for Official Development Assistance (ODA) to developing countries by 2015 and I am very hopeful that such targets will be met through credible and measurable steps. 

To best serve these purposes, policy coherence across institutions, including the UN system, is of paramount importance.   We need to overcome the inhibiting polarization of the debate on development that places the developed countries and the developing world on opposing sides.   In an increasingly interdependent world, we need responsible diplomacy and principled global governance based on shared duties and the mutual accountability of both developed and developing countries in a spirit of international cooperation, partnership and solidarity.

The right to development needs to be internalized within societies in all parts of the world. In developing countries as well as among underprivileged groups in developed countries, people must be educated about rights and entitlements.  There must be a shared understanding that abject poverty and stark inequalities undermine the well being of all.

In short, the right to development must be brought much closer to the hearts and minds of people to produce real change in attitudes and actions.

I believe that together we can carry out these responsibilities which will make a real difference in the daily lives of billions around the world who continue to wait in hope for the realization of their right to development.

Before I arrived this morning in Berlin I had meetings with the President of the EU Commission, commissioners and ambassadors of EU countries. I felt how topical this issue was for the people of North Africa who were given development aid and investment. I found it interesting that they saw how important human rights are for their work. I will be watching them very closely to see if that is the case. I particularly enjoyed meeting the EU Commissioner for Development who now sees that all the money they invested could blow up overnight. I regret I cannot stay any longer. But I do regret not listening to the experts. My mandate covers all human rights but it is not possible to be updated on all of it. I would have benefited from the discussions.

I have to apologize that I won’t be able to stay with you for the panel discussion as I have to return earlier than planned to Geneva for a special session of the Human Rights Council on the situation in Libya/the Middle East. My colleague, Mr. Ibrahim Salama, who is heading the division in charge of the treaty bodies and who was the chairperson of the open-ended Working Group on the Right to Development for several years, will represent me.

Let me conclude by stating that there is no doubt that the denial of people’s right to development is one of the root causes fuelling public discontent and popular uprisings first in Tunisia, Egypt, and now in Algeria, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and other countries in North Africa and the Gulf region.

Let us not forget how the current wave of unrest first started. It was triggered by the tragic death of a desperate young man in Tunisia, who set fire to himself because he had lost his livelihood and hope.

Then and now, still, people are taking to the streets because of rampant poverty and inequalities, rising unemployment, a lack of opportunities, and the chronic denial of their economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights. They have no regular channels to express their discontent; they are deprived of the benefits arising from the natural resources of their countries, and they cannot meaningfully participate in the decision-making process to change the situation. These are exactly the kind of issues addressed by the UN Declaration on the Right to Development. The right to development not only helps address these root causes, the Declaration also guides our efforts to find sustainable solutions because it puts people at the very heart of development.

So once again let me wish you well in your deliberations.

Thank you