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  • The United Nations, Human Rights, and Development
  • David P. Forsythe (bio)

I. Introduction

Development has always been a contested concept. Like other concepts such as peace, security, and human rights, development has been the focus of much debate at the United Nations. Quite clearly in the early history of the United Nations, development referred essentially to national macro-economic growth. 1 In an evolutionary process that began approximately with the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, 2 development acquired the notion of pursuit of economic growth combined with ecological protection. This was the core blend that went into the phraseology “sustainable development.” A common interpretation of this phrase was that development meant economic growth in such a way that future generations were not worse off. 3 It was also widely agreed that [End Page 334] sustainable development had social dimensions. After all, one was talking about sustainable human development. The social dimensions of sustainable human development, and especially those aspects pertaining to women, were clearly recognized in the 1995 UN World Summit for Social Development. 4

The relationship between human rights and development has never been clear in UN theory and practice. Are they two distinct concepts? Are human rights, in whole or in part, an element of sustainable development? In particular, what is the place of civil and political rights in UN theory and practice pertaining to development? More particular still, what is the place of participatory rights in UN developmental activities? Does the United Nations endorse and support democratic development?

Looking at both UN theory and the actions of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank, this article will show the following: 1) the United Nations, as a broad family or system of agencies, increasingly endorses democratic development as the preferred form of development; 2) the United Nations, through its economic activities, does not directly support classical democratic development to any great extent; and 3) United Nations practical economic programs aspire to support some types of popular participation in socioeconomic activities. The latter is not the same as democratic development in the classical sense, but may or may not contribute to it in the long run. UN economic programs may support micro-democracy more than macro-democracy.

II. United Nations Theory

For its first forty years, the United Nations was schizophrenic about development and participatory human rights. From the enactment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Universal Declaration) 5 in 1948 through 1976 and the opening for signature of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 6 the United Nations endorsed democracy. Every citizen was said to have the right “[t]o take part in the conduct of public affairs . . .” and “[t]o vote . . . at genuine periodic elections. . . .” 7 By [End Page 335] 1996, only one state (Saudi Arabia) refused to pay lip service to the Universal Declaration, and over 130 states legally adhered to the ICCPR. 8

Until about 1985 this general and abstract endorsement of democracy had very little to do with UN statements about development. As Theo van Boven, former director of the UN Human Rights Centre noted, UN human rights standards were not incorporated into UN programmatic statements about development with any frequency or consistency. 9 To the extent that democracy and development were linked even vaguely, this connection came from developing countries in an effort to suggest that civil and political rights could not be implemented in the less developed countries. During these early years, the United Nations—in a fundamental contradiction—endorsed democracy but did not endorse democratic development. 10 One would not expect otherwise in a United Nations whose voting majority, progressively from about 1955, was made up of authoritarian communist and developing countries. One might vote for abstract democratic standards, whose details of implementation were neither specified nor required by a certain date. Requiring that development programs be linked to democracy was another matter.

United Nations rhetoric about development began to change in the 1970s, and by 1986 the General Assembly’s Declaration on the Right to Development (Development Declaration) 11 spoke of individuals’ “active, free and meaningful participation in development” and maintained that the “human person . . . should be the active participant . . .” in...

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