A matter of rights

I apologise to the readers of my column for not writing last fortnight as I was in Geneva presiding over an inter-governmental meeting on the “right to development”. Very few people in India know about this very significant initiative that the Human Rights Council has taken to formalise the Right to Development Declaration of 1986 and work out the methods of its implementation, ultimately moving to an international treaty giving it a legal status. If the international community agrees to the final outcome of this process, it will be a paradigm shift in thinking about economic development.
Development taken as a human right has major implications for the states who recognise it as such and also for international institutions for cooperation between developed and developing countries. A rights-based development implies that all development has to be based on equity, non-discrimination and a participatory transparent process with identified and accountable stakeholders. Equity — the most important characteristic — does not mean immediate assertion of equality of all benefits of development, only that it does not lead to increase in inequality and when benefits are shared with fairness, improving the lots of the poor and vulnerable. Non-discrimination of the development process between different castes and social groups as well as between men and women is another essential characteristic of rights-based development. Added to that is the principle of transparency and accountability so that the duty bearers responsible for delivering development are not only identifiable but also clearly made responsible for taking the appropriate policies.
It means that every individual has entitlement to the right and also has power to enforce compliance of the duty holders, the governments and the corporations responsible for development. Most important is instituting a mechanism of monitoring and evaluation. The recognition of this right would imply formulation of a development policy where all rights can be realised and where the duty bearers are assigned specific responsibilities, so that they can be reprimanded for their failure, rewarded for their success and helped with adjustment policies when required.
The whole emphasis therefore shifts to the process of realising development and the policies that contribute progressively towards that realisation. The objective of development is, of course, a sustained improvement of people’s welfare, the content of which would vary depending upon a country’s existing conditions. In some cases development may mean essentially an improvement in standards of living of the most of the people. In other cases it may mean more education, better health, improved nutrition, sustainable employment and social security. The people of a country choosing a development process should be able to combine different elements of improved welfare. There is no one development that suits all countries. But the process of realising the development in a rights-based manner is unique.
Development must be a realistic process of implementing policies for improving welfare. When a government accepts the right to development it has to accept the responsibility of implementing the policies and enforcing them. When a government is talking about development of the people within its jurisdiction it must be prepared to accept the obligations to its people for fulfilling all human rights. The right to development in its 1986 declaration defines it as fulfilment of all recognised human rights or at least no decline in the enjoyment of any human rights. So a country recognising the right to development is obliged to protect all civil and political rights and violation of any human right would be a violation of the right to development itself.
When a government recognises the right to development of people outside its territorial jurisdiction like the Americans or Europeans recognising the right to development of people of Africa, they take on the responsibility of cooperation with each other and the countries concerned to remove the bottlenecks of development and promote the process of development of the country concerned through trade, technology and financial flows. International cooperation is an essential obligation for all countries recognising the right to development.
If international cooperation fails, a process of consultation and responsibility should help the process of development. If this right is recognised as a treaty, then there will be a treaty body to monitor the responsibility of the different governments. The developing countries have been demanding that the right to development should become like all other rights a subject of binding treaty. The industrial countries have been opposing that on the grounds that it is not very clearly identifiable with stakeholders. For many years they resisted the call of developing countries for a treaty claiming the most important obligation for realising the right to development has to be borne by the concerned state authorities through the fulfilment of all recognised economic and political rights. The situation has significantly changed today, as most industrial countries now recognise their obligation for international cooperation. Even the US is willing to support a process if not leading to a treaty but moving towards a set of binding obligations with some legal protection. That was the breakthrough which was achieved in last week’s Geneva meeting and paved the way towards a legally binding human right treaty.
This has been possible because for the last five years a task force of experts in law, economics and public policy have produced a set of criteria, sub-criteria and indicators, which can be used to measure the progressive realisation of the right. These were applied to different situations of international cooperation for trade, debt negotiations, financial flows, climate change and the supply of drugs to the poor countries. The task force was able to demonstrate the feasibility of such evaluation which will make the obligations of fulfilling the rights clearly identifiable and therefore accountable. In a year or two hopefully it will be possible for that right to development to be an internationally recognised legal right with verifiable obligation.
India has taken a lead in this international consultation, first through the work of its independent expert and through this inter-governmental working group of more than 100 countries to reconcile their views. If the process succeeds, the discourse on development all over the world will change. The world will have to accept the responsibility of implementing the right of equitable development in terms of human rights.

Dr Arjun Sengupta is a Member of Parliament and former Economic Adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi

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