The Right to Development at 30 Years
Martin Khor is the Executive Director of the South Centre, based in Geneva
GENEVA, Sep 23 2016 (IPS) – It’s had a very useful if sometimes controversial past and it will have great relevance for many more years ahead. That’s the sense one has about the Declaration on the Right to Development as it is commemorated 30 years after its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly in 1986.
Three decades ago, the Declaration “broke new ground in the struggle for greater freedom, equality and justice,” remarked the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, at a session of the Human Rights Council on 15 June, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Declaration.
The right to development has had great resonance among people all over the world, especially in developing countries. Even the term itself “the right to development” carries a great sense and weight of meaning and of hope.
In the past three decades it has been invoked numerous times in international negotiations. The right to development is a major component of the Rio Principles endorsed by the 1992 Earth Summit, and most recently it was included in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change of 2015.
It is fitting to recall some of the important elements of this right to development. It is human and people centered. It is an inalienable human right , where every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to and enjoy development in which all rights and freedoms can be fully realized . The human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of development.
It gives responsibility to each state to get its act together to take measures to get its people’s right to development fulfilled. But it also places great importance to the international arena, giving a responsibility to all countries to cooperate internationally and especially to assist the developing countries.
The right to development is also practical. The Declaration makes it a duty for governments to work towards the realisation of the right to development. It recognises that there are national and international obstacles to the realisation of this right and calls on all parties to eliminate these obstacles.
It is thus useful to identify some of the present key global issues that have relevance to the right to development, or that constitute obstacles to its realisation, and to take steps to address them.
Firstly is the crisis in the global economy. The economic sluggishness in developed countries has had adverse impact on developing economies, with lower commodity prices and falling export earnings affecting their economic and social development.. Many economies face the havoc of volatility in the inflow and outflow of funds, due to absence of controls over speculative capital, and fluctuations in their currency levels due to the lack of a global mechanism to stabilise currencies.
Several countries are facing or are on the brink of another external debt crisis. There is for them an absence of an international sovereign debt restructuring mechanism, and countries that undertake their own debt workout may well become victims of vulture funds.
All these problems make it difficult for developing countries to maintain their development momentum, and constitute obstacles to realising the right to development.
Second is the challenge of formulating and implementing appropriate development strategies. This includes getting policies right in boosting agricultural production, farmers’ incomes and food security; and climbing the ladder from labour intensive to higher technology industries and overcoming the middle-income trap. There is also the imperative to provide social services such as healthcare, education, water supply, lighting and transport, and developing financial and commercial services.
For many countries, development policy-making has been made more difficult due to premature liberalisation resulting from loan conditionality and trade and investment agreements which severely constrain their policy space. Policies used by other countries when they were developing may no longer be available due to conditionality or international agreements.
Recently, there has been a crisis of legitimacy over investment agreements that contain the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) system, which enable foreign investors to take cases against host governments, taking advantage of imbalanced provisions and shortcomings in the arbitration system. The cases taken up not only cost countries a lot in monetary compensation payments but also put a chill on the formulation of policies and regulations. A review of these conditionalities and trade and investmemt agreements, taking account of their effects on the right to development, would be useful.
Thirdly, climate change has become an existential problem for the human race. It is an outstanding example of environmental constraints to development and the right to development.
In 2014 the Assestment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed that the world has to limit its release of Greenhouse Gases to only release another 1,000 billion tonnes if there is to be a reasonable chance of avoiding global warming of 2 degree Celsius, and anything above that level would cause a devastating disaster. Global emissions are running at 50 billion tonnes a year. Within two decades the atmospheric space would be filled up. Therefore there is an imperative to cut global emissions as sharply and quickly as possible.
The Paris Agreement of December 2015 was a success in multilateral deal making. But it is not environmentally ambitious enough, nor did it generate any confidence that the commitment for transfers of finance and technology to developing countries will be met. There is a danger of that the burdens of adjustment will be passed on to the developing and poor countries. How to equitably share the costs of urgent environmental action which should also be economically feasible is the major climate change challenge that will impact seriously on the right to development.
Fourthly is another existential problem — the crisis of anti-microbial resistance and the dangers of a post-antibiotic age. Many diseases are becoming increasingly difficult to treat because bacteria have become more and more resistant to anti-microbials. Some strains of bacteria are now resistant to multiple antibiotics and a few have become pan resistant – resistant to all antibiotics. The WHO Director General has warned that every anitibiotic ever developed is at risk of becoming useless. She added that: “A post-antibiotic era means in effect an end to modern medicine as we know it. Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.”
Actions are needed to reduce the over-use and wrong use of antibiotics including control over unethical marketing of drugs, control of the use of antibiotics in livestock, to educate the public and discover new antibiotics. The World Health Assembly (WHA) in 2015 adopted a global plan of action to address anti-microbial resistance but the challenge is in the implementation. Developing countries require funds to enforce the measures as well as technology such as microscopes and diagnostic tools; they also need to have access to existing and new antibiotics at affordable prices; and people worldwide need to be protected from anti-microbial resistance if life expectancy is to be maintained.
Finally there are major challenges in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs include very ambitious and idealistic goals and targets, but there are obstacles to fulfilling them.
For example, Goal 3 is “to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” One of the targets is to achieve universal health coverage, that no one should be denied treatment because they cannot afford it. But this will remain an unfulfilled noble aim unless governments address the controversial issue of how to finance public health measures..
The problem is compounded when medicines are priced beyond the reach of the poor and the middle class. The treatment for HIV AIDS became more widespread and affordable only when generics were made available at cheaper prices, for example $60 a patient a year today, compared to the prices of original drugs of $10,000, and millions of lives have been saved.
Some of the new medicines, for example for Hepatitis C and cancers, are unaffordable even in rich countries and thus not provided through their national health service. They will certainly be out of the reach of patients in developing countries unless generic versions are made available through the use of flexibilities in the global patent regime, such as the non-granting of patents and compulsory licenses.
The interconnecting issues of patents, over pricing of original drugs, and the need to make generic drugs more available, are relevant to the implementation of SDGs, universal health coverage, and the realisation of the right to health and the right to development.
The examples above of pressing global problems show there is a long way to go before we make progress on social and economic development, while protecting the environment. The principles and instruments associated with the Right to Development can shine a bright light on the way forward. The Declaration adopted 30 years ago continues to have great relevance, if only we make full use of it.