25 February 2011

Human Rights in Development: "Search and Replace"?

We had a terrific Sussex Development Lecture from Salil Shetty last night. Salil is the Secretary General of Amnesty International. He was also the Director of the UN Millennium Development Goals Campaign and the CEO of Action Aid.

Given his background Salil is well placed to bring the worlds of human rights and development together. They operate largely in separate streams and networks and Salil's Lecture was about how to bring them together around civil and political rights, but also around economic, social and cultural rights.

He identified 6 places where the two worlds need to come together more.

1. Policy disconnects. There was an example from Asia where a government could not understand why its country's maternal mortality rate was so high. The laws on the right to an abortion were identified as a contributing factor.

2. A greater focus on exclusion and equality and he cited UNICEF's recent re-embrace of this issue.

3. The need to embed rights within laws and frameworks with the measurement of the commitment to time bound obligations.

4. Focus on the "enabling rights" of greater access to information, participation and justice.

5. Tighter national accountability mechanisms, for example the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa.

6. The need for international solidarity and pressure.

In the Q and A we got into an interesting discussion of why the term "human rights" seemed to be disappearing from the development discourse and apparently the IDS website (although a quick search of that shows more listings for human rights (217) than for social justice (170) and inequality (158)).

One of the audience noted that he had been told by a major US development agency that they had been asked to "search and replace" the term human rights in one of their key policy documents.

This rewriting is a bit puzzling. The centre-right parties that are in power in the West have highlighted choice, accountability, transparency and delivery. These are all things that a rights perspective underpins and will reinforce. Perhaps it is the worry about equating rights with entitlements. But while rights need protecting, respecting, facilitating and fulfilling, this is not the same as welfarism, regardless of what you think of that.

We need organisations such as Amnesty to remind all of us in the development world of the importance of rights in development.

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