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UN Commemorates the Anniversary of the Right to Development by Emphasizing People-centred Development

arton3632According to Craig Mokhiber of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “decades of unchecked economic and environmental pillage led, in rapid succession, to a climate crisis, a food crisis, a financial crisis, an energy crisis, a fuel crisis and, ultimately, a human rights crisis.” The solution to this global crisis lies not in resource management but in the reconstruction of political will, Mr. Mokhiber continued, at a panel discussion he chaired on 5 December in New York entitled “People at the centre: Human rights in global economics and development.”

The event, organized by OHCHR, celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Declaration on the Right to Development adopted by the General Assemblyresolution 41/128on 4 December 1986. Mr. Mokhiber’s opening remarks provided a rather disillusioning assessment of human rights in the last decades. “Human rights were increasingly on the losing end of national and international policy, trumped by resurgent archaic notions of State security, the xenophobic politics of border control, the sacred idol of free markets,” he stressed.

In this vein, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University argued that attention has been diverted from long-term challenges, such as global warming and human rights, in favour of short-term economic issues. Mr. Stiglitz cited several exceptions to this trend, however, where important State bodies have invoked human rights to ensure decent standards of living for its citizens. For example, the Indian Supreme Court committed to human rights by holding that children have a right to nutrition and all citizens have a right to breathe fresh air.

Mr. Stiglitz also pointed to the favouring of economic rights (property rights, mobility of capital rights, intellectual property rights, etc.) over political-civil rights and the neglect of the human rights framework in general in the prioritizing of corporate interest over human welfare. He concluded by stating that GDP is an insufficient measure of development and success, citing his reportMismeasuring our lives.

Mr. Mokhiber linked Mr. Stiglitz’s remarks to the global protest movement and mass demonstrations in Tunis, Cairo, Madrid, and New York advocating for human rights (dignity) and development (jobs).

Radhika Balakrishnan of Rutgers University spoke on the flaws of neoliberal economic policy and its focus on generating economic growth at the expense of social rights. She stressed the need to assess economics in terms of human rights, through an ethical lens. In her concluding remarks, she advocated for the erasure of the artificial division between the human rights community and the economic perspective.

Echoing Ms. Balakrishnan’s last remark, Steven Marks of Harvard University also pointed out the gap between economic development and human rights. He mentioned the G20 meetings’ lack of “clear reference to the human person at the center of development” and over-focus on GDP. Challenging Mr. Mokhiber’s argument on the lack of political will, Mr. Marks argued that political will in fact impedes real change in the implementation of development policies. In his conclusion, Mr. Marks suggested that monitoring of the right to development should be led by civil society, rather than by governments.

James Thuo Gathii of Albany Law School and Philip Alston of New York University made similar remarks on the adverse effects of some agreements. Mr. Gathii spoke on the proliferation of treaties and agreements and their negative impact on human rights. Human rights, he stated, should be central and legally-binding in investment and trade agreements.

Mr. Alston’s comments touched on the role of human rights and their impact in relation to global economics. He cited Article 28 of theUniversal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates that “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” Mr. Alston, however, shared his disappointment in what he viewed as the lack of implementation of this statement since the Declaration was issued.

Penelope Andrews of the City University of New York focused on women’s rights in South Africa. She argued that constitutional claims can help foster women’s rights and can lead to government policies that are beneficial for women. These policies, however, are insufficient if not accompanied by change in policy, culture, and corresponding political will towards implementation, Ms. Andrews concluded.

A representative from China addressed the implied opinions of some panellists that China is developing by repressing human rights. She argued that the Chinese governmentraised the poverty standardand therefore allowed more of their citizens to benefit from social security, thereby protecting their right to development.

Mr. Mokhiber concluded the panel by quoting High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay’s statement that: “Political leaders seem to have forgotten that health care, education, housing, and the fair administration of justice are not commodities for sale to the few, but rather rights to which all are entitled without discrimination. Anything we do in the name of economic policy or development should be designed to advance these rights and, at the very least, should do nothing to undermine their realization.”

To watch the full webcast of the panel discussion, clickhere.

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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