Do human rights come first?

After a period of relative silence, rights are once again at the front and centre of development debates. In the UK, NGOs and activists welcomed Jim Murphy's first speech as Shadow Secretary of State for International Development last week, in which he suggested that human rights will be central to Labour's revitalised strategy for investing Britain's 0.7 per cent of GDP commitment to aid. He committed to creating a new Human Rights unit in DFID headed by a senior official and to tougher aid conditions based on human rights performance.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in his latest book Bill Easterly suggests that if only Gates and other funders would prioritise people's rights over technical solutions delivered by the engineers we could unlock the true potential of development.   

Meanwhile in the global post-2015 debates, some are asking that the new framework does justice to the rights agenda — unlike the Millennium Development Goals, which paid no attention to human rights and political freedoms.  

What should we make of this rights renaissance? I have mixed feelings and a sense of discomfort.

Firstly, let me be clear: I care deeply about human rights.

Unlike its many critics, I believe that the spirit and the political project of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is still alive and well today, and I believe that the international legal framework — combined with national laws, protection mechanisms and legal channels for ensuring the protection of and respect for rights — is an asset for humanity.

I am, however, less sure that this actually provides a sufficiently good basis for the formulation of development policies.

First off, I have become increasingly sceptical of the meaning and value of 'rights based approaches' to development, what Jim Murphy calls 'rights respecting development'. Enabling people to realise their rights is a desirable outcome of development, and an international commitment on this would be positive.

There are very concrete examples where the normative power of rights combined with concrete constitutional arrangements has made a significant difference in people's lives, such as India's right to information and rural employment guarantee acts or the provision on economic and social rights in the South African and Columbian constitutions.

I'm not convinced, however, that there is something distinctive about 'doing development' from a rights perspective? There's nothing inherently 'anti rights' in technical approaches to development — and indeed, engineers and experts can contribute to realising people's rights, as Owen Barder recently argued.  

The problem with technical fixes is not so much that they don't prioritise rights as that they overlook the domestic institutional as well as political dynamics that determine development outcomes.

'Rights based approaches' tend not to help in that respect either, because they are based on idealistic rather than realistic, evidence-based ideas about what works.

Secondly, and as I've written elsewhere, there is abundant evidence that attaching human rights and other political conditions to aid often doesn't  work to improve rights outcomes.

To achieve this, much more joined up thinking on how to deploy diplomatic efforts, trade rules and other forms of international pressure is needed — all carefully tailored.

Human rights is a global political agenda: turning it into an issue solely for 'developing countries' betrays the spirit of the Universal Declaration.

If donor countries like the UK care about human rights and are serious about helping to address human rights violations, they should start by putting their own house in order.

The Independent


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