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Sustainable Development

Rights at Stake
International and Regional Instruments of Protection and Promotion
Assistance and Service Agencies
Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials
Other Resources


What is Sustainable Development?
The right to development implies the right to improvement and advancement of economic, social, cultural and political conditions. Improvement of global quality of life means the implementation of change that ensures every person a life of dignity; or life in a society that respects and helps realize all human rights. These changes must include the eradication and alleviation of widespread conditions of poverty, unemployment, and inequitable social conditions. Sustainable development ensures the well-being of the human person by integrating social development, economic development, and environmental conservation and protection.

Social development implies that the basic needs of the human being are met through the implementation and realization of human rights. Basic needs include access to education, health services, food, housing, employment, and the fair distribution of income. Social development promotes democracy to bring about the participation of the public in determining policy, as well as creating an environment for accountable governance. Social development works to empower the poor to expand their use of available resources in order meet their own needs, and change their own lives. Special attention is paid to ensure equitable treatment of women, children, people of indigenous cultures, people with disabilities, and all members of populations considered most vulnerable to the conditions of poverty.

Economic development expands the availability of work and the ability of individuals to secure an income to support themselves and their families. Economic development includes industry, sustainable agriculture, as well as integration and full participation in the global economy. Social and economic developments reinforce and are dependent on one another for full realization.

It is impossible to separate the well-being of the human person from the well-being of the earth. Therefore truly sustainable development places just as much importance on the protection and of the earth and the earth's resources. International documents that include the environmental aspect of development affirm and reaffirm that "human beings are at the centre of concern for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature…". As the goal of sustainable development is to permanently improve the living conditions of human beings, social and economic developments must be carried out in a way that is environmentally and ecologically sound; ensuring the continual rejuvenation and availability of natural resources for future generations.

Active participation in sustainable development ensures that those who are affected by the changes are the ones determining the changes. The result is the enjoyment and sharing of the benefits and products generated by the change. Participation is not exclusive, ensuring equitable input, self-determination and empowerment of both genders and all races and cultural groups.

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Rights at Stake

It is essential, when looking at sustainable development from a rights perspective to first acknowledge that in order for a person or society to continue advancing, the basic needs of every individual must be met. Social conditions such as a lack of education and information, as well as poor health conditions, severely limit a person's ability to work and enjoy personal economic growth and development. Therefore basic rights must be respected and realized so that every person has equal access to resources:

- Every person has the right to an adequate standard of living and the continuous improvement of living conditions.
-Every person has the right to the highest level of physical and mental health, and rights to access all resources needed to maintain a high level of health including:


  • The right to adequate food and nutrition
  • The right to clean water
  • The right to sanitation
  • The right to health care

    -Every person has the right to an education directed to the full development of the human personality.

    Rights that directly relate to economic growth and development include:

    -The right to adequate work and appropriate working environment. Meaning every person has the right to work and receive a fair monetary wage for work.

    -The right to work in a safe environment.

    -The right to equal pay for equal work with no difference based on sex, or race.

    Humans have the right to participate in making decisions regarding their right to development through:

    -The right to self-determination. This right includes free political opinion and the ability to choose how each person wishes to pursue his/her own economic, social and cultural development.

    -The right to dispose of wealth and resources however they see fit, and no person can be deprived of his/her means of subsistence.

    -The right to technical and scientific knowledge especially in regard to improved production, conservation and distribution of food.

    -The right to information regarding the most efficient development and use of natural resources.

    -The right to enjoy the improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene to maintain health and well-being.

    -The right to be an active participant and beneficiary of the right to development.

    The right to development strongly recognizes that all people are equal and should be treated equally in their access and enjoyment of resources and means to improve and continue personal development. Documents encompassing development rights mention specific vulnerable groups in order to ensure that the rights relative to development are enjoyed equally by all.

    Children have the right to a standard of living that promotes full development of their physical, mental, spiritual and social capacities. Specifically children have the right to have access to nutrition, clothing, housing and an education that provides them with the tools needed to sustain an adequate standard of living. Children have the right to protection from harsh working conditions that interfere with their ability to enjoy any of the aforementioned rights, and therefore limit their development.

    Women have the right to work and enjoy equal pay, benefits, and opportunities for advancement. Women have the right to protection from discrimination in the workplace due to pregnancy. Women have the right to obtain loans, mortgages, and credit that may further their economic development. In rural areas women are assured participation and access to the benefits of rural development through participation in the development planning process; access to education and technical training; the right to organize groups to develop economic opportunity; equal treatment and consideration in land and agrarian reform, and land resettlement.

    Indigenous people have the right to define their own priorities regarding development that affects their lives, beliefs, institutions, spiritual well-being and lands. Indigenous people have the right to maintain control over their own social and economic development. Indigenous people have the right to participate and offer input to national and regional development plans that affect them. Indigenous people have the right to continual improvement of living conditions, and continual economic growth. Indigenous people have the right to government study of the impact of development plans on indigenous culture before the implementation of such projects. Indigenous people have the right to protection of their natural environment.

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    International and Regional Instruments for Protection and Promotion

    International legal instruments take the form of a treaty (also called agreement, convention, or protocol) that binds the contracting states to the negotiated terms. When negotiations are completed, the text of a treaty is established as authentic and definitive and is "signed" by the representatives of states. A state can agree to be bound to a treaty in various ways. The most common are ratification or accession. A new treaty is ratified by those states that have negotiated the instrument. A state that has not participated in the negotiations may, at a later stage, accede to the treaty. The treaty enters into force, or becomes valid, when a pre-determined number of states have ratified or acceded to the treaty.

    When a state ratifies or accedes to a treaty, that state may make reservations to one or more articles of the treaty, unless reservations are prohibited by the treaty. Reservations may normally be withdrawn at any time. In some countries, international treaties take precedence over national law; in others a specific law may be required to give a ratified international treaty the force of a national law. Practically all states that have ratified or acceded to an international treaty must issue decrees, change existing laws, or introduce new legislation in order for the treaty to be fully effective on the national territory.

    The binding treaties can be used to force governments to respect the treaty provisions that are relevant for the human right to adequate food and water. The non-binding instruments, such as declarations and resolutions, can be used in relevant situations to embarrass governments by negative public exposure; governments who care about their international image may consequently adapt their policies.

    The following are the international treaties, declarations and commitments that address the human right to sustainable development:


    Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (article 21, 23, 25, 25, 26, 27, 28)
    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was the first international document to articulate inherent dignity of the human person and address rights relating to development, including the right to take part in government; realization of all economic, social and cultural rights that aid the development of personality; fair employment; adequate standard of living; education directed toward development of the human personality; enjoyment of scientific advancement; an international environment and order in which all rights can be realized.

    International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) (article 5)
    Article 5 of this convention asserts there should be no difference in the level of enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights based on race, color or ethnicity. Rights listed pertinent to development are: participation in elections, equal employment and pay, housing, health services and education.

    International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) (article 1,6, 7,11,12, 13)
    This treaty asserts the right of every person to self-determination in order to develop in all three economic, social and cultural fields. Articles 6 and 7 define the right to employment in order to achieve economic stability. Working conditions should be safe and healthy, and every worker should receive a fair wage to ensure a decent living for him/herself and his/her family. Every person has the right to an adequate standard of living attained by having access to adequate food, housing, clothing and the continual improvement of conditions. To meet food needs states need to improve methods of production, conservation and distribution by using all available technical and scientific information. States should also use available information to more efficiently use natural resources. Every person has the right to the highest attainable level of physical and mental health. Everyone should have access to education, and enjoy the benefits of scientific progress.

    Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1979) (article 3, 7, 10, 11, 13, 14)
    The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, usually abbreviated as CEDAW, states that nations have a responsibility to implement legislation that supports and ensures the development, advancement and equality of women. Women should be equal to men in their ability to participate in elections, policy-making, and holding public office. Women should have access to equal education opportunities, equipping them with the skills to make career choices. Women should have equal employment and enjoyment of benefits. Women should have access to loans and credit and benefit from rural development through participation in planning, access to health care, inclusion in agricultural credit, reform and resettlement schemes, and adequate living conditions.

    Declaration on the Right to Development (1986)
    This declaration defines the right to development as a living environment in which all fundamental freedoms can be realized through participation, contribution and enjoyment of economic, social, cultural and political development. The right to development gives every person the right to self-determination, participation in formulating polices that encourage development, as well as an equal share of the benefits. Full realization of the development of a state requires international co-operation, with more developed countries aiding less developed countries. In fostering a state in which human rights are implemented and respected, states must actively work to eliminate activity that violates human rights. States must also work to ensure that all people have equal access to education, health services, food, housing, employment and fair wage, and peace and security.

    Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) (article 24, 27, 28, 29, 32)
    This treaty commits states to providing children with the means to attain the highest possible level of health. States commit to combating disease and malnutrition --major health problems for children-- through provision of nutritious food and clean water. Every child should enjoy a standard of living that promotes his/her physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. Education should be provided for all children, both general and vocational, to assist each child in realizing his/her own potential and equip children with the skills needed to successfully participate in a free society. Children should be protected from unfair working conditions that limit their formal education and are harmful to development.

    Convention (No. 169) concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (1989) (article 6, 7)
    This convention asserts that indigenous people have the right to define their own priorities regarding development that affects their lives, beliefs, institutions, spiritual well-being and lands; as well as maintain control over their own development. Indigenous people have the right to participate and contribute to national and regional development plans that affect them. Indigenous people have the right to continual improvement of living conditions, and continual economic growth. Indigenous people have the right to government study of the impact of development plans on indigenous culture before the implementation of such projects. Indigenous people have the right to protection of their environment.

    Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992)
    This declaration introduces environmental conservation as a key element to sustainable development. Development projects must meet the needs of both present and future generations. This means that humans need to have the ability to live "a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature". This declaration also emphasises the importance of poverty eradication as a means to achieve development.

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    African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990) (article 13, 15, 16, 17, 22, 24)
    The African Charter on Human and People's Rights states that "all people shall have the right to their economic, social and cultural development with due regard to their freedom and identity and in the equal enjoyment of the common heritage of mankind." The articles within the Charter address the rights of people to participate democratically in their government; to work with equal pay and benefits; to enjoy physical and mental health and well-being; to receive an education with due respect and protection for traditional values. All of these rights should be enjoyed in an environment favorable for development.

    African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990) (article 13)
    This treaty stipulates special provisions of refugee children that are unaccompanied by parents or guardians.

    The formation of the African Union in 2001 set the stage for a new strategy on furthering African development. 2001 also saw the emergence of the New Africa Initiative (NAI), a commitment to African development conceptualized by African leaders. African leaders involved committed to improving the quality of life in their countries through poverty eradication and the implementation of political systems of good governance, democracy, and realization of all human rights. The document drafted that contains the commitments and strategies of implementation is called The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). NEPAD is the framework for African countries as well as the international community to draw from in order to support African Development.



    European Social Charter
    The focus of the European Social Charter is to create a social environment in which all people have the ability to attain and enjoy economic advancement and security. The Charter addresses the right to employment and fair working conditions. The Charter offers protection to children and pregnant women within the work environment. Everyone has the right to receive vocational guidance and training so as to seek out employment of personal interest. Social security as well as protection and inclusion of disabled persons and migrant workers in the workplace are also included in the Charter.


    Charter of the Organization of American States (1948) (article 34)
    This article guarantees access to proper nutrition by increasing production and availability, and diversifying production.

    Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Protocol of San Salvador) (1988) (article 12)
    Recognizes the human right to adequate nutrition. States must take steps to increase food supply through improved production and distribution.

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    Assistance and Service Agencies

    National Agencies

    Most countries throughout the world either guarantee free and compulsory education in their constitution, or are working to establish a free education system. The definition and criteria for compulsory education vary from state to state. In some states education is compulsory for children within a certain age range, commonly beginning when the child turns 6 and ending when the child turns 16. In other states compulsory education does not relate to age necessarily, but to a specific number of years attended. The number of years vary between 7 and 11 in different states. Compulsory education in some states requires students to complete a certain level of education, the minimum being primary school, or seven years.

    Health status and health care are major development concerns. 109 countries recognize the human right to health in their constitutions, which means the government has some level of obligation to ensure that health care is available and accessible (this includes affordability). Some states guarantee access to free health care to all citizens. Other states may provide federally funded health insurance programs only to lower-income individuals who qualify. Often these programs are directed to certain groups like children, the elderly, or the disabled.

    A number of states have some system of social security. Social security benefits guarantee that if something unexpected, such as illness, injury, sudden death should occur, income will not simply cease. Social security allows people who qualify to collect unemployment, and provides for people after they have retired. If the primary income earner of the family should become disabled or deceased, families can benefit from social security.

    Establishing a strong democracy remains a goal for many states. In the contemporary world many governments are in transition, and many democracies are still very young. It is the belief that a free society, in which the people are deciding and influencing policy, creates an appropriate environment for development. While governments and government agencies are concerned with development issues, much of the progress development and the improvement of living conditions of individuals comes from the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and nongovernmental development organizations (NGDOs). Grassroots NGOs are the groups that work closely with the poor, identifying obstacles that hinder development as well as viable solutions. Many NGOs rely on volunteers and receive financial funding in the form of grants and loans from larger donor organizations.


    Key International Assistance Agencies

    Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) supports sustainable development in developing countries through technical assistance projects. FAO projects include sustainable agriculture, sustainable water management, and world fishery production. The FAO also pays special attention to women's roles and inclusion in development.

    International Fund for Agricultural Development. Established in 1977 as a result of the 1974 World Food Conference, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) mobilizes resources and funds programs designed to help the rural poor improve their living conditions. IFAD promotes social development, income growth, environmental sustainability and good governance. IFAD provides loans and grant opportunities as well as forms partnerships with NGOs, international development organizations and International Financial Institutions.

    International Labour Organization. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has set the standards for global worker rights including fair wage and equal opportunity. The ILO has a program that supports the development of small business and enterprise to expand employment opportunities and people's abilities to employ themselves.

    International Monetary Fund. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) provides three main services: surveillance, financial assistance and technical assistance. Through surveillance the IMF monitors and consults with member countries over economic and financial policies, including trade and exchange arrangements. The IMF assesses whether these policies are aiding the country in furthering its economic and sustainable development. The IMF attempts to identify and eliminate economic vulnerabilities. Loans that are provided through IMF financial assistance are not given for specific projects, rather they are given to stabilize the currency and financial integrity of the country. The IMF has developed seven facilities of assistance designed to alleviate specific financial problems. These facilities have varying interest rates and repayment periods. The IMF's technical assistance programs promote capacity building and policy design meant to strengthen financial institutions.

    United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) formed in 1992 following the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). It is the responsibility of this commission to monitor states compliance and work toward meeting the sustainable development goals established at UNCED. The CSD is particularly concerned with the relationship between the environment and sustainable development, and building partnerships between governments.

    United Nations Development Programme. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has offices in 166 countries worldwide. The focus of the UNDP is to help countries build and share solutions to what they have identified as the biggest challenges to the development process: democratic governance, poverty reduction, crises prevention and recovery, energy and environment, information and communications technology, HIV/AIDS. In its work the UNDP aims to protect and promote human rights, especially the empowerment of women. The UNDP commissions an annual Human Development Report. This report is written by experts who analyze development data, ideas and practices from around the world. The hope is these reports will spur political debates, draw political attention to issues, and help countries formulate development solutions.

    United Nations Division for Sustainable Development. The United Nations Division for Sustainable Development works to advise, train and build the institutional capacities of governments at their own request. The Division designs and implements development projects that the government subsequently becomes responsible for. The goal is to formulate policy around sustainable development. Their expertise covers: freshwater management, energy, infrastructure, and land management.

    World Bank. The World Bank is made up of two institutions, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Development Association (IDA). The IBDA deals with economic development in countries that they deem 'creditworthy". The countries that receive loans from the IBRD must be able to repay loans with interest. The IDA was formed to provide development and debt-balance loans to countries that cannot afford to borrow from the IBDA. "Credits" from the IDA are given to countries with a per capita income of under $875, with zero interest and a ten year repayment period.

    World Trade Organization. The World Trade Organization (WTO) governs the rules of trade between nations. Agreements and rules are drafted by the members of the WTO themselves. WTO agreements guarantee certain trade rights for member countries. The agreements help producers and services, exporters and importers conduct business most efficiently. Three quarters of WTO members are developing nations, and the goal is to increase their trade ability and market access in order to improve the welfare of the population.

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    Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials

    For advocates

    Nutrition Rights: The Human Right to Adequate Food and Nutrition (by George Kent, World Alliance on Nutrition and Human Rights/University of Hawai'i)
    The purpose of this text is to help readers understand the meaning of economic, social and cultural rights through study of the human right to food and nutrition. The text can be used for self-directed learning, in a training or classroom.

    The Right to Adequate Food (in: Circle of Rights. Economic, Social & Cultural Rights Activism A Training Resource, International Human Rights Internship Program/Forum-Asia).
    This module provides an overview of the right to food. It identifies international standards related to the right to food, discusses the right to adequate food, analyzes the relationship of the right to food to other rights, considers states’ obligations under international and national law, and addresses implementation and enforcement mechanisms.

    For teachers

    "Mignonette" (in:First Steps: A Manual for Starting Human Rights Education, Amnesty International-International Secretariat).
    A one-hour lesson plan based on a morally complex story about the right to life will help students to think about how rights work out in practice. It also links well with activities about conflict.

    World Food Day (by Richard Pierre Claude in: Popular Education for Human Rights: 24 Participatory Exercises for Facilitators and Teachers, HREA)
    Exercise for a workshop setting about World Food Day (16 October). Participants will learn how to differentiate between "wants" and "needs"; distinguish among: hunger, malnutrition, and starvation; develop some perspectives on global hunger, including the ranking of several countries; develop some comparative skills in analyzing the causes of hunger in your country; devise some policies to respond to issues of hunger, taking "globalization" into account.

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    Other Resources

    Courses and training opportunities

    Links to organisations that promote sustainable development




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    Key terms

    Sustainable development - development that ensures the well-being of the human person by integrating social development, economic development, and environmental conservation and protection

    Social development - the basic needs of the human being are met through the implementation and realization of human rights

    Basic needs - access to education, health services, food, housing, employment, and the fair distribution of income

    Economic development - expansion of the availability of work and the ability of individuals to secure an income to support themselves and their families

    "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights" Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1

    This guide was developed by Eva Hathaway.

    Copyright © Human Rights Education Associates (HREA), 2003. All rights reserved.

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