Why a convention on the right to development?


During its 20th session, held in Geneva from April 29 to May 3, the Intergovernmental Working Group of the UN Human Rights Council discussed the content and scope of the future legally-binding international instrument on the right to development.

Historical review

As a reminder, the right to development derives from the Declaration on the Right to Development, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1986, with only one opposing member (United States). Although they later joined the consensus in 1993 at the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna, the two expert working groups set up for the implementation of this right were a failure1. In 1998, the former Human Rights Commission, the precursor to the current Human Rights Council, decided to establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group to accomplish this task2.

Thirty-three years after its adoption, it is clear that the Declaration is still not implemented and that all attempts in the Intergovernmental Working Group to this end have been hampered for twenty years by the Western States. This is why countries of the South, together in the Non-Aligned Movement, have taken the initiative of entrusting the Working Group with the elaboration of “a draft legally binding instrument on the right to development”3.

It should be recalled once more, as we have stated on many occasions, that the concepts of development, development aid or economic growth should not be confused with the right to development4.

Position of the States

Continuing their attacks on the multilateral system, the United States left the Human Rights Council last year (June 2018) and no longer participates in the work of the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Right to Development.

Japan clearly opposed the development of a legally binding international instrument on the right to development, threatening to leave the Working Group.

The European Union, while participating in the work of the Working Group, opposes the Sustainable Development Goals to the right to development.

Made up of more than 120 states, the non-aligned movement mainly includes the countries of the South. It is this movement that advocates, with the notable support of China, the adoption of a legally binding international instrument on the right to development and is the main actor of the Working Group.

The challenges

As mentioned above, for the European Union, the Sustainable Development Goals are preferable to the right to development. What do we mean by this?

Firstly, presented as the solution to all the ills of society (poverty, famine, discrimination, health, education, etc.), the Sustainable Development Goals are only “Goals”. There is therefore no way to compel states to commit to their implementation.

Secondly, the Sustainable Development Goals do not challenge the current economic and trade policies that are at the root of poor development. Indeed, you need only look at the dizzying growth of inequalities in the world. Moreover, year after year, the figures from specialized UN agencies remain alarming: the number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition is close to one billion; double that do not have access to drinking water and/or adequate housing; 4.5 billion are deprived of “safely managed sanitary facilities”; more than 60% of the 3.3 billion people work in the informal sector and do not have job security … This shows, if need be, the obvious failure of the development model in place for several decades.

Thirdly, states rely on the private sector (read: transnational corporations) to achieve these goals. Yet the problems posed by most of these entities, motivated solely by immediate and maximum gains, are aplenty. Starting with the lack of respect for human rights, standards on labour and the environment. Furthermore, to maximize profits and avoid prosecution, transnational corporations resort to complex legal arrangements, making it difficult to trace the chain of accountability. Worse yet, these entities have become a threat to democracy, state sovereignty and the right of peoples to decide their future5.

Fourth, it is a safe bet that the Sustainable Development Goals will not be attained much like the Millennium Goals if there is no radical change in neo-liberal policies in force.6

Five, so-called “development” aid from the North is linked. In other words, what is given with one hand is taken from the other, without necessarily corresponding to the needs of the populations concerned.

In this context, the right to development, apart from the fact that it is a recognized human right, establishes an alternative approach. Indeed, this right is not limited to the economic field, but also includes social, cultural and political development. Individuals and peoples are both the subject of this right and the central actors in shaping policies and programs for its realization. The right to self-determination and the sovereignty of peoples over their resources and their future, which are essential conditions for the very existence of any community, are at the heart of the right to development.


As we have just seen, although at a majority in the United Nations, the non-aligned movement faces opposition from Western states and their allies. The negotiations on this crucial issue are predicted to be tough. There are also real risks that the future binding instrument will be devoid of actual content in the interests of consensus. One might also wonder if this is a good time for such negotiations, given the rise of reactionary political parties and/or governments around the world. That said, if we consider that the struggle for the rights and the development of peoples is permanent, there is no respite. It is also expected that the adoption of a binding instrument in this area will not only lead States to cooperate in good faith, but also to stop creating obstacles to the right to development by adopting unfair international economic and trade rules.

1 For further information, please refer to the publication “The right to development”, Melik Özden, ed. CETIM, Geneva, June 2007, available in three languages ​​(French, English and Spanish) and downloadable free of charge here.

2 See resolution 1998/72, adopted without a vote on 22 April 1998.

3 See Resolution 39/9 of the Human Rights Council, adopted on 27 September 2018 by 30 votes in favour, 12 against and 5 abstentions.

5 For further information and analysis, see “Transnational corporations’ impunity”, Melik Özden, ed. CETIM, Geneva, March 2016, available in three languages ​​(French, English and Spanish) and downloadable free of charge here.

6 In this regard, refer to the book “Quel développement? Quelle coopération internationale?”, Tamara Kunanayakan et al., Co-publication CETIM, CRID, CNCD, Geneva, 2007.

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