Reclaiming the Right to Development and Sustainability

Posted on 5 October 2011

5 October 2011 

UN Social Forum 
Geneva, Switzerland
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development. Adopted by General Assembly resolution 41/128 of 4 December 1986, this Declaration defines such right 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, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized." (Article 1)
At the time of its adoption, many saw in this Declaration an outstanding political instrument and considered it a milestone in a decade and a half of struggles by developing countries for a New International Economic Order (NIEO).
It’s a fairly comprehensive articulation of economic, social and cultural rights as well as political rights. It recognizes the collective rights of peoples, not just individual rights of persons. While the human person is identified as the ultimate beneficiary (right-holder), the RTD can nevertheless be invoked both by individuals and by peoples.  And most significantly, it clearly recognizes the collective obligation of all states to create a just and equitable international environment for the realisation of the right to development. 
The RTD thus imposes obligations both on individual states - to ensure equal and adequate access to essential resources - and on the international community - to promote fair development policies and effective international cooperation.
From a civil society perspective, one can conceive of a comprehensive and multi-faceted development advocacy campaign around the concept of the RTD.  Even today a wide range of peoples' issues can be linked to this overarching theme -- poverty-eradication, food sovereignty, ecological/climate justice, national sovereignty, and so on.  Such a campaign can be advanced at the national level and the international level.
It can target national governments, regional bodies and international institutions including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO); transnational corporations (TNCs) and other transnational actors – to hold them to account as duty-bearers.  It has the potential of providing a unifying platform for disparate international campaigns on aid, debt, trade, finance, and other issues related to development.  And it has broad appeal and large mobilizing potential even among decision-makers because it builds upon a universally accepted covenant and an ongoing official political process. 
And yet 25 years since the adoption of the Declaration of the RTD these potentials remain unrealized. 
In many ways, this is the same fate that has befallen another outstanding political declaration whose 20th anniversary shall be commemorated next year – the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.  This declaration affirmed the RTD but also builds on it. 
Principle 3 of the Rio declaration states that, “The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.” 
It identifies the three integral and mutually reinforcing pillars of sustainable development as economic prosperity, social equity, and environmental protection.  It recognized the need for international cooperation
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