What does «defending the right to development» mean nowadays?

Human Rights Commission

Statement on the Working Group on the Rights to Development. Joint written statement submitted by CETIM and AAJ.


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At this beginning of the 21st Century, we are confronted with an unprecedented growth in inequalities and a spectacular increase in the gap between the advanced countries and those of the Third World. The world’s richest 20% now get 86% of the world’s GDP, while the poorest 20% get 1%. The income of the world’s two hundred richest people doubled between 1994 and 1996 to over a trillion dollars. The world’s three richest people have assets greater than the combined output of the 48 poorest countries. The result is not only acute social and political tensions but a rise in armed conflicts and foreign military aggression against sovereign states, bringing the world to the brink of a third world war.

Financial liberalization is generating an uneven pattern of capitalist growth, creating ever more widespread and more destructive financial crises and events. The damage caused by falling commodity prices, massive debt repayment, and the legacies of colonialism has received increasing attention because of the dire poverty and the deteriorating situation in Africa. In Latin America, after the ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s, profit recovery of the 1990s has been at the expense of the region’s masses.

The US and the EU are using the events of September 11 in New York and Washington to explain the current global economic crisis and to justify, as the solution, yet further trade and financial liberalization. But the crisis did not begin on September 11, although, owing to its depth, these events may have accelerated it.

Today, faced with the risk of barbarism, how can we not but pose the question of alternatives to ultra-liberal ‘globalization’? To do so, we must return to the validity of the principles underlying the Declaration on the Right to Development , and to the proposals and recommendations contained therein.

Despite the evidence, the US and its Western allies have refused to recognize “the failure throughout the planet of their dogmas, but they persevere with an arrogance, which calls the lie to their opportunistic rhetoric on the fight against poverty.” Within the framework of the WTO negotiations, the powerful countries on the world’s political scene have rejected the repeated appeals of Third World countries, in Singapore, in Seattle, in Doha, to undertake an evaluation of the current trade system.

It is understandable then that the US and its Western allies reject the relevance of the Declaration on the Right to Development, and question its validity. Such a stand would make sense only if its proponents could also demonstrate that the Declaration has, in fact, been implemented and has failed to bring about well-being for all subjects of the Declaration – the individual, the people and the state – particularly in developing countries.

Meanwhile, attempts are underway to undermine this right in various ways – by re-interpreting its content; by introducing notions, such as ‘good governance’, that serve the global objectives of those advancing them but have no legal validity because there is no agreement on what the term signifies; by equating democracy with free markets; by compartmentalizing the different aspects of this right, in violation of article 9, which provides that “all the aspects of the right to development set forth in the present Declaration are indivisible and interdependent and each of them should be considered in the context of the whole.”

There is nothing more false and misleading than equating democracy with free markets. If by democracy is meant discussion and debate among equal human beings making a free choice of a project for a collective future, then the unilateral imposition of market rules on individuals and peoples is the antithesis of democracy.

The market, as defined by contemporary neoliberals, where “free and equal partners” act in a deregulated space, is pure fiction, as is the belief that the free market is a condition for the existence of other liberties. In fact, market function inevitably leads to battles of wills and power struggles, which the strongest usually win. The crux of the matter, then, is by whom and for whose benefit the market is regulated .

Today, it is controlled, in an opaque and unilateral manner, by the heavy-handed hegemonic power of a few hundred oligopolies whose sole, rational objective is to defend their own short-term interests. This is far from the principles of equality, representation and solidarity implied in our idea of democracy. Confining democracy to politics, then excluding economics from its sphere of action, at a time when markets have taken over (almost) every area of human activity, amounts to emptying democracy of its substance.

In fact, the target of the attacks is two basic principles of international law, anchored in the charter of the United Nations and fundamental to the right to development. They are the right of peoples to self-determination and national sovereignty, with its international corollary, sovereign equality. Their respect will enable the subjects of this right freely to determine the kind of society in which they want to live, to formulate national policies without external interference and in accordance with their own interests and needs, and to exercise sovereign control over the means necessary to achieve these objectives.

“Washington Consensus”, “global governance” and gunboats with fundamentalist fervor

Any honest assessment of reality shows that the present crisis, with its spectacular increase in financial speculation, turbulence and endemic instability, stems from conscious policies unilaterally imposed with a fundamentalist fervor by the United States and its Western allies, with the sole aim of furthering the interests of their finance capital and transnational corporations. William Tabbs, professor of economics at Queens College and professor of political science at the City University of New York, points out that “the best explanation of the economic crises of the last decades of the 20th Century is the pressures for financial opening exerted by the US, which are as effective as the gunboats of an earlier age. For those countries that experience severe crisis, there is an immediate correlation between surrendering control over their financial sector and the ensuing crises… Soon after countries give up their autonomy in monetary and currency policies and open their financial markets to foreign investors they experience crisis.”

Policy reorientation at the end of the 1970s, with the development of monetarism and neoliberalism, led to a rethinking of the economic role of the state while recasting the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank into stronger instruments of ‘global governance.’ The financial crises of the 1980s and 1990s in Latin America and Asia, and their problems with debt repayment, increased the ability of international capital to force domestic restructuring on economies that had been attempting alternative development paths.

Operating within the terms of the ‘Washington Consensus’, structural adjustment programs and harsh conditions have resulted in the subordination of domestic policies. Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs describes the nature of the power wielded by the IMF, at the end of the 20th Century, in about half of the developing world outside of China and India: “…the IMF is an all-too-constant presence, almost a surrogate government in financial matters. Not unlike the days when the British Empire placed senior officials directly into the Egyptian and Ottoman ministries, the IMF is insinuated into the inner sanctums of nearly 75 developing country governments around the world – countries with a combined population of some 1.4 billion.” And the IMF, he reminds us, is not neutral; it is “the instrument by which the US Treasury intervenes in developing countries.” The third instrument of global governance, WTO, equipped with the authority to sanction, provides the framework for deregulation and re-regulation in favor of corporate penetration into national economies.

In the 1990s, transnational capital undertook several initiatives through the agency of the US government in order to impose a ‘new constitutionalism’ on the world community. From the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI), governments have been asked to allow capital the right to freely invest anywhere, in any sector of a local economy, and to roll back existing restrictions on capital. Similar, for Africa, is the “Africa Growth and Opportunity Act”, dubbed “Africa Recolonization Act” by Jesse Jackson, Jr., which President Clinton signed into law as Title 1 of the US Trade and Development Act . African countries’ access to US markets will be considered in a favorable light only if their governments accept conditions that benefit foreign investors. Africa has emerged as the most exploited region of the international system, despite repeated recommendations of the United Nations that Africa receive priority. Although it is customary to refer to Africa as being “excluded” from the international economy, it continues to be pillaged, its workers exploited, with a brutality characteristic of the global capitalist system.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, foreign interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states has taken on more overt political and military forms, increasingly so in the past decade, severely affecting the ability of countries to meet the legitimate development demands of their peoples. Unilateral US sanctions and embargoes led by the USA today affect 21 countries, all developing countries ! In Iraq alone over half a million children are estimated to die each year as a result of such sanctions. The list of countries subjected to US bombings has continued to grow since the adoption of the 1986 Declaration; Libya in 1986, Iran in 1987, Panama in 1989, Irak from 1990 to the present, Kuwait in 1991, Somalia in 1993, Bosnia from 1994-1995, Sudan in 1998, Afghanistan in 1998, Yugoslavia in 1999, Afghanistan today…

These wars are not prosecuted to liberate oppressed nations and peoples but to gain control over their natural resources and their lands, and to create an environment in which the Western transnational corporations can freely operate. Subjugating Afghanistan is vital to US strategic interest in gaining control over the colossal oil and gas resources to which this country gives access. The countries of the Caspian Sea region possess an estimated 200 billion barrels of oil and comparable reserves of natural gas. The region’s wealth includes coal, copper, tungsten, zinc, iron, uranium, gold. The US corporation Chevron, alone, has invested US$ 20 billion in Kazakhstan. Gas resources in Turkmenistan represent 10% of the world reserves.

The last decade has witnessed three US-led wars of aggression, with the UN providing legitimacy and actively participating. These wars must be seen in the broader context of a new world political orientation – particularly as conceived in function of the collapse of the Soviet Union – described by the terms «globalization» and «New World Order». With no more ‘communist threat’, new justifications are required for interventions and the perpetuation of NATO – ‘insurgency’, ‘terrorism’, and ‘rogue states’ are invoked and, more cynically ‘human rights’, ‘humanitarian interventions’. NATO has been transformed from a European defensive alliance into a rapid deployment force for military intervention in sovereign countries whose internal policies clash with US interests. The Clinton Doctrine, claiming the right and responsibility to intervene wherever “our interests are at stake” and where “we could make a difference,” was perhaps the most far-reaching and ambitious policy announced by an American president since the Vietnam War. It suggested that bombing Yugoslavia would be only one of a series of recurring “power projections” (as the Pentagon calls its global policing), or threats of force. Afghanistan is the most recent but certainly not the last in the series.

Continued relevance and validity of the Declaration on the Right to Development

A frank, dispassionate appraisal of the catastrophic spread of poverty, as reflected in the reports of the United Nations, the global conferences, and even the international financial institutions and major participants in the world economy, should impress upon on this Working Group the urgency of stopping and reversing this process and embarking upon a new path, yet untried, based on the Declaration. The Declaration on the Right to Development is the first and only international document to provide an overall definition of development: «a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims 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 distribution of benefits resulting therefrom.» It is also the sole international instrument that reflects, in a condensed form, the most widely accepted approach to the normative content of this right.

General Assembly resolution 41/133 on “the Right to Development”, adopted together with the Declaration, attempts to specify the objectives: “the achievement of the right to development requires a concerted international and national effort to eliminate economic deprivation, hunger and disease in all parts of the world without discrimination in accordance with Declaration and the Program of Action on a New International Economic Order, the International Development Strategy for the Third UN Development Decade and the Charter on the Economic Rights and Duties of States.” “To this end,” paragraph 2 states, “international cooperation should aim at maintenance of stable and sustained economic growth with simultaneous action to increase concessional assistance to developing countries, build world food security, resolve the debt burden, eliminate trade barriers, promote monetary stability and enhance scientific and technological cooperation.”

The US position that there can be no right to development in international law is fallacious and even legally untenable. In April 1987, Nagendra Singh, President of the International Court of Justice, pointed out during a speech at the Vrige Universiteit (Free University, Amsterdam) that this right unquestionably exists, that it is based on the fundamental principles of the UN Charter, particularly those concerning the sovereign development of states, non-discrimination, interdependence and international cooperation.

Professor Rais A. Touzmohammadov shares this view: “The normative aspect of the content of the right to development is, of course, connected to those aspects that make it legally binding. It would be wrong to categorically reject the normative character of this right just because there is no appropriate multilateral treaty. In addition to the sources of the right to development, there are now a number of aspects of the right to development that come under the category of customary law.” He cites as examples bilateral intergovernmental agreements regarding development assistance, the assistance granted by the UN and its specialized agencies. He draws our attention to practical efforts undertaken by the UN, such as development strategies programs; the founding and development of an entire system of central bodies (the General Assembly, ECOSOC and the Trusteeship Council) and auxiliary ones (of which there are more than 20), as well as of specialized development agencies.

The Declaration defines the right to development as “an inalienable human right,” by which is meant that the right not only belongs to each of its three subjects – the individual, the people and the state – but is also an integral part of the overall system of individual and peoples’ rights.

The legal sources of the right to development are both normative (legally binding) and declarative (“soft”). First, underlying the Declaration are those goals and principles of the UN Charter that provide for the implementation of international cooperation in the area of international economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems, as well as in the sphere of promoting and developing respect for human rights and the fundamental freedoms of all, regardless of race, sex, language or religion. Sovereign equality and self-determination, two of the basic principles of international law, are also fundamental to the right to development. Accordingly, the opening articles of the International Covenant on Human Rights adopted in 1966 provide that all peoples should be able to “freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development,” and that “all peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources.” The latter is of fundamental significance for the right to development, for it underpins one of the bases of implementation.

Other legally binding instruments include the 1978 Vienna Convention on Succession of States in Respect of Treaties, which confirms that international law upholds the principle endorsing the inalienable sovereignty of every people and every state over their natural wealth and resources; the 1983 Convention on Succession of States in Respect of State Property, Archives and Debts, which stipulates that, “Agreements concluded between the predecessor State and the newly independent State shall not infringe the principle of the permanent sovereignty of every people over its wealth and natural resources.” ]

Another source, cited in the Declaration on the Right to Development, is the Declaration on Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in Accordance with the Charter, adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in 1970 as the authoritative interpretation of the UN Charter. It states that it is “the duty of States to refrain in their international relations from military, political, economic or any other form of coercion aimed against the political independence or territorial integrity of any State,” then, using language taken from the Declaration on Non-Intervention, declares such economic measures to be in violation of international law.”

Among the multilateral international “soft-law” acts directly concerned with the right to development, three historic documents adopted by the UN in 1974 stand out in particular: the Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order, the UN Program of Action on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order, and the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States.


It is a matter of urgency that the international community learn the lessons of the past and pay the consequences of the present crisis. The number of failed states in the world, and the deteriorated conditions of others, which, despite following IMF-approved policies have not seen their economies grow, attest to the limits of the model. Today, we can state with certainty that if we continue these policies, the crisis will continue, accelerate and deepen.

The Working Group should call for a total re-evaluation of current development policies, taking as its basis the definition provided within the framework of the Declaration. Such an approach must necessarily lead to a rupture with a system that has caused or aggravated existing social inequalities, with its concomitant malnutrition, sickness, destruction and mayhem, in short, untold human suffering.

Such a break in turn will mean the elimination of all forms of unilateralism, conditionality, sanctions, embargoes, military aggression and neo-colonialism. These, along with concepts such as ‘good governance’, reflecting political conditionality, must be replaced by respect for the free and sovereign choice of peoples to determine their economic, political, and social systems, in accordance with the historical and cultural specificities of each people and nation. Free and informed popular participation, as provided for in the Declaration, is the necessary condition for the exercise of the right to self-determination. However, to attain their development goals, states must freely exercise control over the means of production; over their natural wealth and resources, over their financial capital (which is fleeing in a reverse flow from the South to the North), over their human capital and intelligence (the costs of whose education they have borne and of which they are being bled through the ‘brain-drain’), and over their technology. They must also be able to guarantee their security and territorial integrity.

Continuing the present course will only aggravate what is already a catastrophe for the majority of the world’s population. The very credibility of the United Nations, the multilateral system, is itself at stake and, today, depends on its capacity and will to say ‘No!’ to policies and practices of the advanced capitalist countries that have brought suffering to the peoples of developing countries and their states. If the United Nations proves to be incapable of drawing the obvious conclusions, then it will no longer serve its purpose.

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