Right to Development vs. Human Rights-Based Approach to Development: a semantic debate or one with practical implications?

The term “Right to Development” was first proclaimed by a UN General Assembly resolution adopted in 1986. Since the genesis of the term, it has been integrated into several other Charters and Declarations, including the African and Arab Charters on Human Rights as well as the Rio and Vienna Declarations. In Article 1.1 of the Declaration on the Right to Development, the phrase is defined as “an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development…” Article 2 goes on to say, “The human right to development also implies the full realization of the right of peoples self-determination...”

Given these overarching definitions, it seems blatantly apparent that the Right to Development is entirely compatible, if not mutually reinforcing, of the human-rights based approach to development. However, these two ideologies of development -- the human rights-based approach and the right to development -- have been at odds with one another for decades and, in many cases, have widened the schism between global north and global south countries.

In the past 30 years since the term “Right to Development” was introduced to UN frameworks, development has often been linked to poverty. The core of the debate between the two approaches lies in the notion that developed states and international organizations are under obligation to provide development assistance to developing states. It is not that developed nations are unwilling to provide foreign aid to global south countries, but instead that many global north countries emphasize the need for human rights as a prerequisite to sustainable development. This ideology is reflected in the rights-based approach, which incorporates principles of the international human rights system into policies and processes of development.

Additionally, many developing nations insist that political and civil rights cannot be prioritized over economic, social and cultural rights. Thus, development is an integral human right and is often a precondition for other political and civil rights. The disagreement seems to boil down to a which comes first debate -- global south countries contend that development is the foundation of political and civil human rights, while global north countries argue that individual freedoms are essential building blocks for any successful development to take place.

This controversy becomes particularly nuanced and multifaceted when one takes into account the fact that “human rights” is itself an abstract concept, especially given the divergent perspectives, interests and meanings through which the term is understood in countries and regions with differing belief systems. Ultimately, I would argue that development provides the foundation for civil and political rights to advance and, simultaneously, human rights are critical for catalyzing economic progress.

It seems as if the Right to Development approach of the MDG era has shifted to the Human Rights-Based Approach to Development in the ongoing SDG era, leaving many questions unanswered, including: What is the relationship between human rights and development? Can global north and global south states reach a place of agreement with respect to this question? What does the human rights approach to development actually mean and how does it function to promote sustainable human development as well as human rights? Is the controversy between global north and global south states steeped in semantics and rhetoric or are there also practical implications to each framework? As these questions linger in UN spaces, debates remain heated between global north and global south countries, as I will expound on in the following blog post: The Ministerial Declaration Negotiations.

In reality, development is inextricably linked to human rights and global development cannot be achieved without this human-rights based approach. Likewise, human rights cannot be realized until sufficient levels of development are attained. Thus, the right to development and the human-rights based approach to development are mutually interdependent and must be viewed as such.