Comments on the Report by the Independent Expert


This study is the first written by Mr. Sengupta in his capacity as an independent expert and submitted to the Working Group on the Right to Development of the Commission on Human Rights for its session on 13-17 September 1999. Its proclaimed objective is the presentation of an «operational framework», which is described in the first part of the document (paras. 9-35); the rest of the document consists of a reflection on the «right to development» considered as a «right to the process of development» (paras. 36-56) followed by an outline programme for realizing the right to development (paras. 57-80).

In view of the considerable issues at stake in this discussion on the right to development (envisaged as a consolidating concept embracing the whole range of civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights), the comments which follow are offered as a constructive criticism of the text designed to contribute, together with the members of the Working Group, to a speedier and genuine realization of that right.

In our view this discussion, which has now begun within the Commission on Human Rights, will from now on benefit from certain favourable factors, and in particular the following:

Firstly, the choice of the procedure adopted; the «independent expert» is invited to submit a study on the subject for discussion by the Working Group at each session of the latter; this procedure offers the possibility of developing a genuine dialogue on the substance of the issue in which a number of partners and actors in the political debate will take part. Without such a debate, theoretical papers of this type cannot have any practical impact;

Secondly, the fact that this first document proposes a preliminary analytical framework, reasoning in terms of the interdependence between the various objectives and trade-offs between those objectives (for example, between growth and equity); this should enable an overall view to be arrived at which would lead to a political choice of priorities. In fact, the study proposes the immediate application of this analytical framework to three concrete examples: food; primary health care; and primary education.

However, in our opinion this study, and the discussion it proposes at this stage, fall far short of facing up to the real societal issues raised and the requirements they dictate for such a discussion. We take this stand for a number of reasons, which are briefly outlined below. They are:

– Inadequacy of the structural and systemic analysis of the causes and implications of the present situation;
– Failure to take adequately into consideration the collective dimension of the right to development;

The absence of an outline of a political strategy for the genuine promotion of the right to development – or at least the absence of an analysis of the dictates of such a strategy.

1. In the actual functioning of the present day world economy and society the right to development generally is ignored; the specific rights deriving from it – such as the right to food, primary health care and primary education and many other rights which could be placed on an equal footing with those three – are not really respected – not because one particular social group is explicitly determined to cause harm to another group, but primarily because the economic and social system which claims to dominate – and in fact is increasingly dominating – that world economy and society is itself governed by organizational and decision-making principles which are deemed to override all other behaviour criteria in the societies concerned. A description of those principles here is unnecessary; fundamentally they consist of the accumulation of profits, solvent demand and generalized competition.

In the world of today it would be unrealistic to seek to forego widespread application of those principles, which are those of the market economy. Besides, the application of those criteria is not blameworthy in itself; what is blameworthy is their exclusive application and their transformation, on alleged grounds of economic efficiency, into practically the only rule and the absolute priority for the organization of society at the expense of all other considerations of general interest such as desire for equity, security or ecological sustainability.

Consequently, if the Commission on Human Rights takes its task seriously, it cannot fail to enter into a radical critical analysis of the practical effect of those exclusive criteria, not necessarily in order brutally and totally to overturn existing patterns of organization – for in some cases the social cost of such an upheaval might prove greater than the benefits – but at least to appreciate more fully the implications of those criteria for the viability and acceptability of our societies and progressively to promote a less unilateral organization of our economic and social system at both world level and that of the nation-State.
But no trace of any such analysis or proposal is to be found in the framework as defined at present.

2. Turning now to individual rights, and in particular the three examples proposed (food, health, education), it is not difficult to identify, over and above the specific circumstances peculiar to a country or a region, a certain number of structural and systemic factors explaining why those rights are not really respected. They include insufficiency of incomes and access rights for a substantial proportion of the population (and Amartya Sen, for example, has eloquently demonstrated the extent to which that inadequacy is frequently the real cause of famine); competition between subsistence and export crops on the available land; the priority given to cutbacks in social expenditure in the name of budget balance and debt repayment; imports of non-generic medicines; the inadequacy of appropriate medical research because the return it yields is insufficient; and so on.

The same problem will arise if one seeks to face up not only to the causes of the situation criticized here but also the concrete implications of any strategy claiming to ensure priority respect for those individual rights. Emphasis must be placed on the term «priority». Admittedly, in the sphere of general declarations nobody will openly object to respect for those rights; but the real problem is that of knowing what choice will be made when a potential conflict arises between the conditions required for respect of those rights and those required for the application of the criteria of profit, solvency and competition. In other words, everybody will agree that respect for human rights is desirable, and everybody will agree that respect for the market economy is equally desirable; but what will happen when their orientations diverge? Under the rules predominating in the world economy today, there is no doubt what the answer will be.

But again, those implications must be specified and demonstrated with the utmost rigour, and their consequences in terms of political priorities must be ascertained. However, once again, the reference document of the Commission is unexpectedly silent on the subject.

3. There is an even more serious shortcoming. Nobody can question the importance of the three examples selected. However, it must be emphasized that those rights fall within a special category of rights; they are individual rights relating to individual needs. However, the rights of communities considered as such (and not simply as groupings of individuals) are never specifically mentioned. Examples which come to mind include the requirements of collective security or of a State governed by the rule of law; the reduction of inequalities; the curtailment of institutionalized power relationships which enable one social group to exploit another with impunity (right of ownership, rights of capital over labour, rights of creditors); or legitimate demands for autonomy emanating from a social group or from one country in relation to another.

One could mention many more examples; but speaking more generally, in the light of the attempts being made to homogenize the world economy and society for the benefit of a few through the instrument of «globalization», it has become urgent to affirm today the right of communities to choose the specific features of the society they wish to promote. In the present world-wide context this means in particular that, contrary to the conventional rhetoric of international organizations, and in particular the financial and commercial organizations, the possibility of pluralism in the field of development strategies and the right of national communities to make their own development choices must be recognized. There is no single road to development (imitating or catching up on the most advanced countries, or more exactly complying with their requirements); there are several. There are several forms of social progress, and each national community must be able to choose its own with a measure of autonomy. The right to development is also the right of free choice of development.

This pluralism is particularly necessary in the definition and the concrete framing of the objectives of development strategies and of the principal orientations of those strategies. The questions which arise include in particular the relationship between growth and efficiency on the one hand and distribution and equity on the other; between growth and exports on the one hand and respect for the environment on the other; the relationships among exposure to the outside world, the protection of the weakest, respect for cultures and autonomy; and so on.

If one claims to defend human rights and the right to development, one must urgently begin a systematic examination of these collective dimensions and of their requirements. But, once again, they are not mentioned in this document.

4. Finally, the implications of the determinedly political (not technocratic) nature of the choice of such a strategy must be recognized. It will therefore be necessary to examine much more explicitly the conditions under which those rights could be guaranteed and the type of social and political basis which could underpin them.

If it is desired to offer the slightest opening for the implementation of the proposed strategies, then defining their content is not enough. Analysis of the socio-political context in which they are situated, at the level of the nation-State as well as at that of the world community, will also be required. It will therefore be necessary explicitly to envisage a method which will permit an analysis of existing interests, positions and constraints at both international and national levels in order better to identify what is technically, economically, ecologically, socially and politically possible. It is true that an analysis of this kind could not be included in this preliminary document; but the failure even to mention the need for it leaves the impression of a serious lack of realism and even of a gulf between the desires expressed and the conditions under which they are to be fulfilled.

To sum up: what one would like to see in documents of this type – and particularly in the subsequent documents which the independent expert will submit to the Working Group – is not so much a series of general considerations on the importance of the principle of the right to development (at such a general level everyone will be in agreement but no one will be committed), but rather and above all the outline of an approach which would permit identification of existing constraints and necessary choices, and which would be followed by a useful discussion on how to achieve progress in those fields. In particular a beginning should be made on identifying – in relation to both the right to development in general and the three examples selected – the concrete content of conceivable alternative orientations and thus to define the first major options to emerge.

It is in this sense that the task of «implementation» assigned to the Working Group should be understood. But if that is the case, the next studies submitted to the Working Group must go much further than this preliminary study.

Categories Campaigns Economic, Social and Cultural Rights HUMAN RIGHTS Statements
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