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Human Rights after Rio+20: failure is not an option


The Rio+20 conference on Sustainable Development was originally intended to achieve consensus on a framework for sustainable and just global development. As the conference draws to a conclusion in the eponymous Brazilian city, the only consensus in evidence is that the international community has once again failed to reach a meaningful agreement, despite the critical importance of the event for current and future generations.

‘The Future We Want’ was the slogan on banners promoting the meeting, but the resulting outcome document is unlikely to deliver anything on this worthy promise. The agreement appears to have sacrificed a swathe of key human rights and social justice concerns, prompting former High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson to brand it a ‘failure of leadership’. While commitments to certain economic and social rights, including food, water, education and health were ‘reaffirmed’ in the document, language on the critical issues of transparency and accountability is far too weak to ensure these affirmations translate into meaningful change. References to freedom of speech and association have meanwhile been omitted altogether.

Disagreement between various countries over how the costs of sustainable development should be borne, and by whom, has effectively blocked agreement on a more ambitious plan that could provide for the needs of the current generation, without undermining the ability of future generations to provide for their needs too. Against a backdrop of multiple crises, widening inequality and potentially catastrophic environmental degradation, the international community faces a moral and political imperative to find a way past this deadlock. Indeed, as UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon recently warned, the world runs the risk of sabotaging its future if it does not rise to this challenge.

The agreement hammered out in Rio does not mark the end of the road, however. As the dust settles on what has been a largely disappointing event from the point of view of social justice advocates, governments at the meeting have at least committed to creating a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs). If this new framework is to succeed in shifting the world onto a fairer and more sustainable development path, it is of fundamental importance that it be grounded in human rights.

Past experience has made it abundantly clear that the failure to include human rights norms and principles into international development frameworks can lead to the most fundamental rights of vulnerable groups being undermined rather than promoted. Development-induced pollution of air, soil and water resources all too often leads to people’s rights to health, housing, food, water and even life being put at risk. CESR’s work in countries such as Ecuador has illustrated the devastating impact irresponsible business activities can have on both human rights and the environment. Indigenous peoples’ land rights are often trampled on in the rush to exploit resources, while forced evictions are carried out to clear the ground for infrastructure projects and biofuel production displaces traditional agriculture, thereby threatening the right to food.

The integration of human rights norms and standards into development plans can not only avert such lamentable outcomes, but also ensure that the fruits of development are more fairly distributed while also protecting the environment. Proper participation mechanisms, in accordance with the provisions of international human rights law, can be incorporated into both the design and implementation of development plans and policies so as to ensure these efforts serve to protect and fulfill the rights of ordinary people.

In an age when economic crisis is being used as a pretext in many countries to cut the types of social spending and development cooperation needed to meet the Millennium Development Goals, decision-makers should remember that international human rights law mandates them to deploy the maximum of available resources for the fulfillment of economic and social rights. This includes the generation of resources, through progressive taxation and whatever other means may be available, and the fullest possible international cooperation by both donor and recipient states. It is likewise imperative that existing aid promises be fulfilled.

Operationalizing the principles of equality and non-discrimination in development policy can likewise guarantee that economic progress serves to protect vulnerable sectors and diminish the disparities in our society, rather than exacerbate them. Given that rising inequality both within and between countries was one of the key contributory factors to the global economic crisis, the importance of tackling this issue cannot be understated. Entrenched inequality is not only a moral question - it is also represents an economic blight as it manifests in a dearth of opportunities which in turn translates into the wasting of our most valuable resource: people.

Moreover, the standards that form the human rights framework apply to states not only in their domestic policy-making, but also through their international interactions and their membership of international governance institutions.

It is to be hoped that the weakness of the document that has emerged from last week’s negotiations in Rio will be compensated by a more meaningful set of “SDGs”. The process of designing these goals, that will get underway at the UN General Assembly in September, may have determinative influence on the future course of global development, and thereby on the lives and wellbeing of people everywhere. With the deadline for the MDGs just a few years away, and dialogue on a new set of objectives already in full swing, the SDGs will also serve as a crucial precursor to further development negotiations at a pivotal moment in our collective evolution. Amidst warnings from a panel of Nobel laureates, ministers and scientists that a business-as-usual approach may “trigger abrupt and irreversible changes with catastrophic outcomes for human societies and life as we know it,” our leaders should be fully aware of the magnitude of the responsibility they shoulder. It is not only our future, but also that of coming generations, that is at stake.