The Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC-IV) 9-13 May, 2011, Istanbul, Turkey

No real development without human rights

By Navi Pillay

According to the latest UN Human Development Report, the number of malnourished people in the world increased from 850 million in 1980 to 1 billion worldwide today. There are few statistics that are more disappointing than this. Despite the technological revolutions of the past three decades, widening poverty gaps, food shortages, economic crises and armed conflicts continue to plague individuals in many parts of the world – and most painfully those living in the 48 least developed countries (LDCs).
When one speaks of development, the language used is most frequently that of economists, but let us pause for a minute and think about what the main goals of economic development ought to be. Development should be about access to opportunities towards the constant improvement of human wellbeing, about guaranteeing the right to a life of dignity and freedom – freedom from want, freedom from fear and the freedom to flourish. Indeed, development is a right, and it is high-time the language of human rights and a focus on human beings forms the core of discussions on development in LDCs.

Once every ten years, the international community gathers for a conference to address the key issues facing LDCs. This week, the Fourth UN Conference on LDCs in Istanbul takes place against the backdrop of much unrest in the Middle East and North Africa region. There is no doubt that the denial of people’s right to development is one of the root causes that sparked off this unrest. People have been 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, 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, which turns 25 years old this year.

The right to development embodies the human rights principles of equality, non-discrimination, participation, transparency and accountability as well as international cooperation. Some of the basic requirements of the UN Declaration are plainly: to put people at the centre of development; to ensure free, active and meaningful participation; to fairly distribute the benefits of development; and to respect self-determination and sovereignty over natural resources.

My message to the LDCs Conference is clear: human rights and the right to development must be at the core of development policy. The right to development should be at the heart of a strengthened global partnership for development and guide global strategy to meet new challenges. It empowers everyone to realize their potential, irrespective of personal differences, irrelevant to geographic demarcations and indifferent to economic classifications.

Realizing the right to development advances more than just human rights. It mandates the rule of law and good governance, especially eradication of corruption, at the domestic level. It applies globally including to the Millennium Development Goals, aid, trade, investment, debt, finance, agriculture, technology transfer, intellectual property and access to medicines, climate change, and institutional reform.   

Development strategies that focus on economic growth alone have permitted increased poverty and inequality, malnourishment and unemployment, and threats like environmental degradation.  Poor people, women, children, minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees and persons with disabilities are often left behind. We must realize the aspirations of those living at the margins of their own societies - and of the global community.  

Economic growth aligned with the right to development will help realize the UN Charter’s vision for a world in larger freedom, founded on peace, development and human rights.

LDCs straddle the jaggered terrain between a history of hardship and an abundance of hope as the ‘next wave’ economies for globalization, often blessed with rich reserves of natural resources and untapped human capital, including the energy of a youthful workforce. A rights-based approach to development will draw on and nurture this hope.  An approach of neglect and disdain for human rights can only result in the frustration and instability we are seeing in so many countries in recent months.

Navi Pillay is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

10 May 2011