Amnesty International’s new general secretary Salil Shetty says poverty and exclusion will continue unchallenged unless human rights take center stage in development policy. Is he right?
If only real life was as simple as word processing. Search and replace, problem solved.
At a talk at the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton on Thursday, a member of the audience explained how, while doing some recent work for a major development agency, he had been told to do a search-and-replace for all references to human rights in policy documents.
It was, he said, a typical example of how human rights were being steadily eradicated from the language of development organizations and donors.
Some governments are threatened by an enforceable, rights-based approach to development as it requires systemic change and infinite capacity.
Amnesty International‘s new secretary general Salil Shetty, who was giving the talk, agreed, pointing out that the topic was also conspicuously absent from the IDS website.
He said that the development world’s quest for results was happening at the expense of rights – an approach that was convenient for governments but detrimental to the world’s poorest – the very people development organizations are trying to reach.
Shetty made that connection explicit, using the example of slum-dwellers. More than a billion people living in slums, he said, are not even included in MDG efforts because the MDG target on slums only commits to improving the lives of 100 million slum-dwellers. Many states are also carrying out mass forced evictions that drive slum dwellers even deeper into poverty.
Shetty’s arguments were persuasive. As long as development and human rights are considered parallel disciplines, he said, we will continue to be faced with the essential contradiction of governments continuing to ignore and violate the human rights of the same people whose lives they have committed to improving under the United Nations millennium development goals framework.
It was a recurrent theme of his speech, which laid out his argument that sustainable progress in development will not be achieved without a recognition of the fundamental role of rights, and how the denial of economic, social and cultural rights will inevitably thwart poverty alleviation efforts.
“A lot of development work is driven by aid and the aid model,” Shetty said after the lecture. “The MDGs have became conflated with foreign aid and this does drive the worlds of development and human rights further apart.
“One of big problems I have had with MDGs generally is that unless they become tied in to enforceability mechanisms it is easy for governments to not deliver. We need the sharp edge of accountability and enforceability that comes from human rights frameworks, which could massively enrich the development discourse.”
He said that as soon as development moved away from simple, measurable targets and tried to deal with issues that involved more complex systemic changes, then the relationship with rights inevitably came into play.
Consider maternal mortality, he said. Countries such as Indonesia have pledged to reduce their high maternal mortality in line with its MDG5 goals, yet continue to ignore women’s sexual and reproductive rights.
“It’s not a sausage line where you can chuck a lot of immunizations in and get improved measles vaccinations at the other end – that’s easy – but anything more complex [like maternal mortality] needs accountability and rule of law and if you don’t have a rights framework there will always be exclusion and marginalization.”
The national and international accountability mechanisms used to apply human rights standards could actually strengthen development efforts by helping the most disadvantaged and excluded to claim their rights and hold their governments to account, he said.
He said this can be achieved in a number of ways:
• Development policy should be more consistent with human rights standards
• Development efforts must address exclusion and discrimination
• By setting and implementing national targets for progress
• By ensuring participation and pressuring governments to respect rights to information, association, and freedom of expression
• By strengthening national and international mechanisms for accountability
• By ensuring international obligations for economic, social and cultural rights
So is Shetty right? Should the development world embed human rights more deeply into its policies and approach?