Human rights campaigners believe that the global economy would be less dysfunctional if the needs of the poor were more closely aligned with their rights. UN bodies and international aid agencies have always been encouraged to express their roles as fulfilling entitlements of the poor rather than compassion.
For example, a rights-based approach to household food security would overcome the current absurdity that hunger is caused not by shortage of food but by the inability of poor families to purchase enough to meet their basic needs.
Ensuring that gender considerations are taken into account in development programmes is a fundamental component of rights-based development. Equality and Development, the World Bank’s World Development Report 2012, explains at length why the exclusion of women from economic activity is a missed opportunity for development.
A rights-based approach also draws greater attention to the responsibility of governments for honouring their international legal commitments to social and economic rights.
It is a poor advertisement for the 21st century that, despite the strength of these arguments, supported in law, over 750 million people remain below the international poverty line and a similar number below the hunger threshold. Access to contraception remains far from comprehensive with 214 million women in developing countries unable to obtain the family planning services they desire.
The Universal Declaration itself bears some responsibility for disappointing progress towards development goals consistent with universal rights. It acknowledged that social and economic rights are dependent on the “resources of each State,” implying that these rights in poorer countries might be achieved only by “progressive realisation” over time.
Imprecise language adopted in the Articles on social and economic rights has caused further difficulties. For example, the extremes of wealth and inequality of recent decades have highlighted the subjectivity of the Article which asserts that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”
Different countries have very different interpretations of what this basic standard of living should be. The 1986 UN Declaration on the Right to Development introduced a more dynamic approach by calling for “national development policies that aim at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals.”
Nevertheless, the two-speed approach to absolute rights found its way into a number of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the core strategic tool for global poverty reduction for the period 2000-2015. For example, the first MDG aimed merely to halve, rather than eradicate, the rate of poverty by 2015. The rights of half of the world’s poor were put on hold.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) covering the period 2016-2030 have very significantly restored respect for rights-based development. In seeking to eliminate poverty and hunger, embracing the slogan “leave no one behind”, the SDGs respect the vision of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The expectation that every country will report progress by reference to 169 targets, the majority of which relate in some way to human rights, introduces a strong element of accountability into the international human development agenda.
Focused government accountability inspires ordinary households to learn that poverty reduction and respect for livelihoods are enforceable rights, not favours, an important step towards political consciousness and participation in policymaking.
more Human Rights briefings (updated March 2018)
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
International Human Rights Law
Women’s Rights in International Law
Human Rights Law Enforcement
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