Q&A on the Declaration on the Right to Development


Question: How is the Declaration on the Right to Development (DDD) a “revolutionary” text and what are its strongest points, which are still relevant today?

Answer: The Declaration on the Right to Development places the human being at the heart of development.

The DDD reflects a completely rethought concept of “development” that challenges the dominant ideology of economic and financial growth and efficiency as the primary goals of “development”. In other words, the SDD is a text that challenges a vision in which human beings, human communities or collectivities are essentially the object of development, mainly material and decided from above. On the contrary, the SDD affirms that the human person – individually and especially collectively – must be at the centre of all economic activity, that he or she must be the subject and not the mere object of development. Furthermore, the SDG states that the objective of development, and the process of achieving it, must be decided by the people themselves and its benefits equitably distributed.

Article 2:

1. The human being is the central subject of development and must therefore be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development.

2. All human beings are individually and collectively responsible for development, taking into account the requirements of full respect for their human rights and fundamental freedoms and their duties to the community, which alone can ensure the full and free development of the human being and which must therefore promote and protect a political, social and economic order conducive to development.

3. States have the right and the duty to formulate appropriate national development policies aimed at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals, based on their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the equitable distribution of the benefits resulting therefrom.

What the term development means is, therefore, subjective and goes to the very essence of democracy, namely the political process by which “the people” express themselves, determine themselves. Namely, the exercise of an inalienable right, that of each people and nation to determine the political, economic, social and cultural system in which it wishes to live, according to its free and sovereign will. Indeed, the 2nd preambular paragraph of the DDD defines development as: “a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process aimed at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the equitable sharing of its benefits.

In other words, states have a responsibility to ensure the effective exercise of the right to development by individuals and human communities. They have an obligation not only to direct their policies towards the constant improvement of the general welfare, but also, as the second paragraph of the preamble indicates, to ensure active, free and meaningful participation in the development of each and every person and the equitable distribution of its benefits.

The “participation” referred to therefore implies more than mere consultation. On some scale, it must be exercised through ownership of the means of production such as land, finance, capital, labour and technology or at least through control over their use.

b) Give full scope to the concept(s) of international cooperation (and solidarity)

As a reminder, the Charter of the United Nations, in its Article 1, paragraph 3 of Chapter I, which defines the aims of the organisation, indicates among these that of : “To achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

and in its paragraph 4, it proclaims that the purpose of the UN is “to be a centre for harmonising the efforts of nations towards these common ends.”

According to the same article, paragraph 2, the Charter also stresses that this international cooperation fundamentally implies “respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”.

The DDD takes up this concept of international cooperation and amplifies it and gives it substance. On reading this declaration, it is clear that, for its promoters, international cooperation, in terms of development and the realisation of the right to development, cannot be reduced to “official development assistance”, far from it, even if it does include it but in a secondary capacity. The idea of ODA only appears in one article, in a short passage: “In addition to the efforts of developing countries, effective international assistance is essential to enable them to sustain comprehensive development. (art. 4, para 2)

The DDD postulates that all states, individually and collectively, adopt as a priority of their international policies the realisation of human rights everywhere and not the “conquest of markets” and victories in “economic warfare”, or even the promotion of international trade at all costs “as an engine for development”, as stated in the MDGs (2005 World Summit Outcome).

According to the DDD, the duties of states in international cooperation are multifaceted:

● “States have the primary responsibility for the creation of national and international conditions favourable to the realisation of the right to development.” (art. 3/1)

● They “have the duty to cooperate with each other in ensuring development and eliminating obstacles to development.”

● [They] “shall exercise their rights and fulfil their duties in such a manner as to promote a new international economic order (…) and to encourage respect for and enjoyment of human rights.” (art. 3/3)

General Assembly Resolution 41/133 on the right to development, adopted at the same time as the Declaration, further defines the objectives of such cooperation:

“The realization of the right to development requires concerted international and national efforts to eliminate economic deprivation, hunger and disease in all regions of the world without discrimination, in accordance with the Declaration and Programme of Action on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order, the International Development Strategy for the Third United Nations Development Decade and the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States.

This is the antithesis of the policies of the WTO, the IMF, the WB…

Unfortunately, Western states remain hostile to the substance of this concept of international cooperation.

c) Advocating disarmament for development

SDG, Article 7

All states shall promote the establishment, maintenance and strengthening of international peace and security and to this end shall make every effort to achieve general and complete disarmament under effective international control and to ensure that the resources released as a result of effective disarmament measures are used for overall development, in particular that of developing countries.

Question: How did the DDD make its way to the UN, why is it still inextricably linked to fundamental changes in the “international economic order” and how can it still inspire responses to the current deep global crisis?

Answer: The SDG is the historical product of a long struggle of the peoples of the Third World for their sovereignty. In this respect, the right to development is, in a way, the logical continuation of the struggle for decolonisation.

The victory of the national liberation struggles had indeed given rise to a new aspiration among the Third World countries, that of playing a specific role, of imposing themselves as an independent force, not aligned internationally, and of implementing a development project based on respect for national sovereignty, territorial integrity and equal sovereignty between states.

And this right to development is a requirement that is inseparable from the call for a New International Economic Order in the same movement.

This problem was discussed at the first meeting of former colonised countries, mainly from Asia and Africa, held in Bandung in 1955.

Following the suggestion of Jawaharlal Nehru (India), Ahmed Soekarno (Indonesia), Zhou Enlai (China), Abdel Gamal Nasser (Egypt), Josip Broz Tito (Yugoslavia) and others, priority was given to this issue.

A proposal was put forward for commercial and financial economic cooperation between them. This was formulated in ten principles, later known as the ‘Ten Bandung Principles’, to: “work towards building common prosperity and welfare for all”.

This programme was then taken up by the Non-Aligned Movement, formally established in 1961 in Belgrade.

At the end of the 1960s, the Non-Aligned Movement turned its attention more specifically to economic issues.

At its Third Conference, held in Lusaka in 1970, it gave this issue detailed and concrete content for the first time, emphasising the notion of self-sufficiency.

It was at the Fourth Conference of Non-Aligned Countries, held in Algiers from 5 to 9 September 1973, that the basic concepts of the NIEO were formulated. The elements of the NIEO included trade and monetary relations, food, sovereignty over natural resources, including the right to nationalise ownership by national law, regulation of transnational corporations, transfer of technology, cooperation between developing countries and between developed and developing countries, the environment, special measures for the least developed countries, conservation and development of national cultures, and a draft charter on the economic rights and duties of states.

In parallel with this movement to elaborate and build political unity on these issues, the struggle to institutionalise the right to development and the NIEO was launched within the UN.

This was obviously a privileged terrain for poor, economically and financially weak Third World countries, which had gained strength in numbers with their accession to political sovereignty at the UN, in this official forum of the international concert.

This issue began to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Non-Aligned Movement advanced step by step, stone by stone. Let us quote the titles of the important texts adopted by the UN that paved this path:

Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (1960)
General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV)

Right of peoples and nations to permanent sovereignty over their natural wealth and resources (1962)
General Assembly resolution 1803 (XVII) of 14 December 1962

International Covenants on Human Rights (1966),
These emphasise the indivisibility of the right to self-determination, in all its aspects, is then also affirmed by stressing that a people, or a nation, which could not freely determine its political status, could hardly determine its economic, social and cultural status, and vice versa.

Then, the 1968 Proclamation of Tehran which recognised the interdependence between international justice and the realisation of human rights:
“The widening gap between economically developed and developing countries is an obstacle to the effective observance of human rights in the international community.”
(art. 12, Proclamation of Teheran, Final Act of the International Conference on Human Rights, Teheran, 22 April to 13 May 1968).

In October 1973, the price of oil rose dramatically from US$3 to US$12. The world disorder appeared more obvious and unjust than ever, with its winners but especially its many losers.

In his opening speech at the 6th Special Session of the UN General Assembly in April 1974, Algerian President Houari Boumedienne criticised it in the following terms: ‘In the eyes of the vast majority of the human race, it presents itself as an order which is as unjust and as outdated as the colonial order from which it derives its origin and substance. Because it is maintained, consolidated and flourishes according to a dynamic that constantly impoverishes the poor and enriches the rich, this economic order constitutes the major obstacle to any chance of development and progress for all the countries of the Third World.

In the wake of this, the GA adopted two international instruments aimed at defining the basic rights and obligations of UN member states in the context of a new international economic order:

the Declaration and Programme of Action on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order
Resolutions 3201 (S-VI) and 3202 (S-VI), adopted by the General Assembly on 1 May 1974

and the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States
Resolution 3281(XXIX), adopted by the General Assembly on 12 December 1974

Then, on 16 December 1977, the General Assembly adopted a new resolution entitled:

Other ways and means within the United Nations system for improving the effective enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms
Resolution 32/130 of 16 December 1977

According to Tamara Kunanayakam’s analysis, this was the founding act of the right to development.

In this resolution, the General Assembly decided that the United Nations system should henceforth approach all matters relating to this field with the understanding that: “the realization of the New International Economic Order is an essential element for the effective promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and that priority should also be given to it.

It also stressed that: “Sustainable progress towards the implementation of human rights requires a rational and effective national and international policy of economic and social development.

Finally, it unambiguously stated that: “all human rights and fundamental freedoms being indivisible and interdependent (…), equal attention and urgent consideration should be given to the realisation, promotion and protection of both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.

All this led, on 4 December 1986, to the adoption of the DDD, which incorporated these various requirements and thus completed the whole edifice of human and peoples’ rights as elaborated in the framework of the United Nations.


Both the establishment of a New International Economic Order and the implementation of the right to development are highly political issues, obviously dependent on power relations.

It has often been said that the DDD is “unenforceable”, but the truth is that no real attempt has ever been made to enforce it, because the forces behind its adoption have never been able to impose its implementation and probably (many) of the elites that now lead the countries that made up this vast movement are no longer really fighting for a NIEO and for the implementation of the DDD, if we look at the substance of the proposal.

Adopted in 1986, the DDD is in a way a child of the “Bandung era”, as Samir Amin puts it, which lasted from 1955 to 1975 or even 1980.

Indeed, the beginning of the 1980s marked the triumph in force of neo-liberalism, which imposed itself gradually but rapidly on a global scale, with the election of Reagan in the USA and Thatcher in the UK as symbolic events, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s.

However, it should be noted here that before this so-called triumph of market-based democracy, there were many violent precedents:

Embargo against Cuba (1962), Suharto’s coup and execution of hundreds of thousands of communists in Indonesia (1965), the overthrow of Allende in Chile by Pinochet and the Chicago boys clique (1973), etc., etc., it would take several hours to narrate them all and the list is not closed since.

Today, the crisis is here. It is global and lasting: financial crisis, ecological crisis, hunger crisis, growing inequalities, unemployment, etc. It is a crisis of capitalism. It is a crisis of capitalism, of imperialism, from which we do not know how we will get out.

Unfortunately, the ideology and neo-liberal policies are still the order of the day at the head of the majority of states.

Will the “emerging” countries, which have gained in strength on the world economic and trade scene, change the situation?

Will South-South cooperation, which is undeniably growing and different from the old Western “cooperation”, open up new avenues? It is probably too early to say.

At the very least, the question remains. In China, for example, inequalities have continued to increase over the same period, which makes one wonder whether there is any real desire to rethink development in a different way…

However, it seems possible to affirm today that the DDD, as a minimum reform of the international system, as an orientation, as a minimum safeguard in the face of the chaos that is taking hold, remains more topical than ever.

Let us make this clear: in truth, like the establishment of a new international economic and financial order, the DDD is nothing more or less than a proposal for minimum reform. But a reform that is indispensable if we do not want the situation to worsen, if inequalities are not to increase, if the market order is not to reign even more over all things in absolute terms, if endless wars are not to take hold, if the environment is not to deteriorate further…

Admittedly, it is a “UN” text and, what is more, a text marked by the search for a consensus at all costs. A consensus which, moreover, was not fully achieved:

As a reminder here, 146 States voted in favour of the Declaration (General Assembly Resolution 41/128, 4 December 1986), eight abstained and only the United States opposed it. The 8 Abstentions: Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Sweden, UK. The Yes Westerners: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain.

But for people, the SDGs can be a source of inspiration and advocacy.

And this is not only true for the South, but is becoming just as relevant for the North (cf. debates led by the “growth objectors”, the “indignant” of all continents, Vía Campesina, etc.). This is a “global” orientation.

It is time to implement it, and it has nothing to do with the scholastic deliberations in which the UN working groups and other task forces have been partially confined.

All the steps taken at the UN, however skilful, useful and necessary they may be, will remain without practical effect if the social movements, the peoples, do not take hold of their future and demand, locally, nationally, regionally, globally (internationally), profound changes in the current world disorder.

And in this struggle for a better future, the DDD remains a major UN text to which they can refer, not only legitimately, but ‘officially’.

On one condition, however: that they refer to its fundamental content, which – and this point will no doubt be addressed in the rest of our debates – cannot, in my view, be translated, flatly and solely, into “criteria”, “sub-criteria”, accompanied or not by “indicators” or others, and be summed up in their possible observation…

Florian Rochat

Categories Articles Right to development
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