Human Rights “Fundamentally Linked to Development,” Say UN Treaty Body Chairs

Last week, the chairpersons of the UN’s ten human rights treaty bodies added their voices to the growing calls for the international community to recognize the intrinsic connection between sustainable development and the rule of law.

Following their annual meeting in New York, the chairpersons issued a public statement, saying:

International human rights law provides standards covering a range of issues from health, education, housing and labour standards to political participation, fundamental freedoms and personal security, administration of justice and non-discrimination. These issues are fundamentally linked to development. As such, we highlight the critical link between development and human rights, including the rights of the most vulnerable groups.

They emphasized how international law—and in particular existing legal obligations on states—should be the starting point for a new development agenda and asserted that “special attention must be paid to tackling broader governance issues such as corruption and enhancing the right to information and adequate remedies.”  

The statement follows the recent publication of a report by the Secretary General’s High Level Panel, which placed the recognition of human rights as one of five transformative shifts required by the international community to achieve fundamental gains in human development over the next fifteen years. Additionally, seventeen independent human rights experts appointed by the General Assembly recently made recommendations of how and why human rights can be properly integrated into the post-2015 framework.

These distinguished figures have all highlighted a key point that increasing numbers of development donors and practitioners are realising: that the absence of human rights from the Millennium Development Goals contributed to the failings and distorting effects of some of those goals. For example, MDG2 called for “universal primary education” without reference to the human right to free and non-discriminatory primary education—already a legal obligation on all states party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In consequence, the rush to ensure more children are enrolled in primary schools has sometimes been accompanied by a corresponding decrease in education quality and greater household expenditure on education.

Moreover, some rights that are fundamental to development were omitted from the MDGs entirely. There is a growing body of evidence that the human rights principles of accountability, transparency, and access to justice are crucial elements of a successful and sustainable development framework. From Sierra Leone to Ecuador to the Philippines multi-stakeholder initiatives have demonstrated the transformative effects of satisfactory and accessible justice, open and accountable governments, universal legal identity, and free access to information.

One reason for the omission of human rights from the MDGs in 2001 was the belief that human rights could not be adequately measured. That belief no longer has merit. Since 2001, member states of the UN are now held to account on human rights in a variety of ways. The chairpersons of the human rights treaty bodies monitor states compliance with international conventions, while the independent Special Rapporteurs have a wide mandate to make independent recommendations on states’ implementation of human rights. With a sufficient grounding in the principles of human rights, the development goals that emerge in 2015 could be included within this robust monitoring framework.

A human rights based approach to development is now widely recognized as essential to the post-2015 goals. More and more people are recognizing that such an approach is achievable and measurable, too.

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