Righting the wrongs of development
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Righting the wrongs of development

Civic groups led by the Four Slum Region Network march from the Democracy Monument to the Transport Ministry on Ratchadamnoen Avenue to demand the State Railway of Thailand address land disputes facing the urban poor. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul
Civic groups led by the Four Slum Region Network march from the Democracy Monument to the Transport Ministry on Ratchadamnoen Avenue to demand the State Railway of Thailand address land disputes facing the urban poor. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

A key issue with which the world community has had to grapple since the end of the Second World War is that of "development", especially from the angle of national and international measures to ensure responsiveness to the rights and needs of the peoples of the land, without discrimination and violence, and to overcome historical and other injustices.

A pervasive irony is that while some of the authorities prefer to highlight the economic side, such as the "right to food", others prefer to underline political rights, such as freedom of expression exemplified by the "right to comment" on the quality of the food. The ensuing polarisation has been tantamount to a yoyo-ing football of international relations. Is there thus scope to converge on a more placid playing field?

Fortunately, at least in conceptual terms, comprehensive advocacy of human rights implies that civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are of equal importance and there are universal standards, such as UN declarations and treaties, which embody their universality and interdependence without bargaining between the various rights.

Development is thus a process of enhancing the human potential, with due respect for the environment, based on that connectivity. It is not simply the facade of the Gross National Product and top-down policies.

A key forum for underscoring that nexus was the recent Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)-backed Asia Pacific Regional Seminar on the Contribution of Development to the Enjoyment of All Human Rights organised in Bangkok in February. Through a variety of inputs ranging from accounts of action to overcome poverty and deprivation to preparedness for the advent of modern technology, various highlights emerged via these lenses.

In terms of reiteration, the seminar underlined the relevance and importance of key international instruments, as guiding landmarks, including this year's 75th anniversary of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the 30th anniversary of the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights and its Declaration and Programme of Action; the UN's 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development; the 2015-2030 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and the core international human rights treaties.

There is also a need for revitalisation of the commitment to the right to development as linked with the totality of human rights, peace, democracy and sustainable development. Needed actions include the call to all countries to ratify and enforce well the whole range of human rights treaties, such as the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, bearing in mind that the sole treaty to which all Asia-Pacific countries are parties is the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is complemented by support for realisation of the SDGs with more commitment and resourcing. Importantly, civic and political space should be opened up and constraints on rights and freedoms should be lifted.

It is essential to bring on board a wider range of institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and investment/trade/finance/business-related entities and stakeholders, in particular civil society, to energise discourses and open up new narratives and actions, including addressing the chronic debt issue post-Covid 19.

This is in tandem with the call for effective actions such as good laws, policies (such as National Development Plans), programmes, practices, mechanisms and personnel, resources, data and monitoring, education and capacity building, remedies and redress and space for mobilisation, networking and reform.

Since the right to development is based on the need for equity, epitomising fair distribution of wealth, people's participation, women's rights and gender-sensibility, the recovery process from Covid-19 also offers an opportunity to maximise responses to basic necessities, poverty, debt, fiscal adjustment, education, food security, employment, access to technology, with new technologies such as digitalisation and artificial intelligence and justice.

This should be accompanied by a broader umbrella of social protection, bearing in mind the call to restructure the international and national settings to ensure equitable sharing of resources.

Actions to address the challenges of climate change and other environmental concerns, aiming for decarbonisation, mitigation and adaptation measures, await more enhancement, with due regard to green technology respectful of human rights and sustainable development, aid and financing to help developing countries and preparedness for cooperation to help victims and survivors in times of natural and other disasters.

With a sense of recalibration, the seminar offered many ideas for the future, including to restructure the UN to enable more space for civil society and a range of other stakeholders (such as indigenous peoples, migrant workers, persons with disabilities and displaced persons) to enjoy participation in their interface with the state-cantered setting.

This should take into account the dilemma that while the latter is the "supply" side, it is pivotal to also respond to the call of the former, the "demand" side and reform international agreements, policies and practices in the field of trade, investment and finance where they have negative impact on human rights and development.

Also important are the national and international entry points to promote human rights budgeting, transparency and accountability and build upon the UN Secretary General's Our Common Agenda, including a Social Contract for all.

Multiple forms of international cooperation, with the value added of multilateralism, interlinking between North South, South South, triangular relationships such as between states, civil society and the business sector, are key drivers to expand democratically the development process, with potential outreach between different continents and generations, importantly with the role of the younger generation, including through pro bono work by youth of different regions and origins.

This is premised on not only material development but also non-material development such as spiritual development.

While the advocacy of cooperation is key, it has to be complemented by the necessity of accountability to rectify past and present wrongs. Inevitably, equitisation and democratisation are Siamese Twins embedded in the right to development inherent to a shared global-local space.

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at Chulalongkorn University. He has helped the UN as UN Special Rapporteur, Independent Expert and member of UN Commissions of Inquiry on human rights.

Vitit Muntarbhorn

Chulalongkorn University Professor

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. He has helped the UN in a number of pro bono positions, including as the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography; the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; and the first UN Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. He chaired the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and was a member of the UN COI on Syria. He is currently UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, under the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (2021- ). He is the recipient of the 2004 UNESCO Human Rights Education Prize and was bestowed a Knighthood (KBE) in 2018. His latest book is “Challenges of International Law in the Asian Region”

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