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Human Rights Quarterly 23.4 (2001) 1005-1031

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A Human Rights Approach to Development

Brigitte I. Hamm


I. Introduction

The end of the Cold War has supported the emergence of a more differentiated view of both global problems and the challenges that globalization brings to international relations. This change in perception has its repercussions on human rights. More and more, the equal status of all human rights is recognized in practice; economic, as well as social rights, become a major issue not only in the debate over human rights, but also in the practical human rights policy of both states and international organizations. Part of this rethinking is the rapprochement of development and human rights policy in a so-called human rights approach to development. The Human Development Report 2000 published by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is a prominent example of this discussion. 1

I understand development and human rights as being interdependent. A human rights approach to development recognizes primarily the legal obligation of members of human rights treaties to development cooperation and development efforts and so goes beyond human rights as the content of development policy. The inclusion of this obligation into the human rights monitoring system of the United Nations (UN) is part of such an approach.

This article discusses different views concerning a human rights approach to development as a relatively new stream of thinking within the development and human rights context. Questions considered are: What [End Page 1005] are the relationships between human rights and development? How useful is the right to development? What does a human rights approach to development mean and what should it look like, so that sustainable human development is promoted and human rights strengthened? How can a human rights approach be translated into practice?

II. Economic and Social Rights in a Human Rights Approach to Development

While a human rights approach to development refers to all human rights and thus emphasizes the interrelation and interdependence of human rights, it pays special attention to economic and social rights as the authentic concern of development policy.

Economic, social, and cultural rights are often classified as second-generation rights, while political rights and civil liberties are considered as rights of the first generation. Many have understood this not as a mere categorization but as a ranking which puts economic, social, and cultural rights after political rights. Thus, the so-called second-generation rights have led a kind of shadow life until the late 1980s. This is more or less still true for cultural rights, which are mainly considered in the context of minorities. In contrast, economic and social rights have become part of the mainstream human rights discussion, although they have not yet received equal treatment as compared with political rights and civil liberties.

Some reasons for the reorientation of the human rights discussion are:

After the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had passed the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, 2 the distinction between the two groups of human rights quickly developed into a fierce ideological debate between the West and the Socialist states. Human rights became a major terrain in the battlefield of the Cold War. Although debate on human rights continues between North and South, the end of the Cold War has freed the human rights discussion from many ideological constraints, and human rights voices and demands from the South that always have emphasized economic and social rights are now considered more seriously.

Social indicators, e.g., for health and literacy, show improvements in respect to the standard of living on the aggregate level. 3 Nevertheless, the gap between the rich and the poor on the global and national level continues to grow worldwide, as does the feminization of poverty. The [End Page 1006] challenge to improve the situation especially of disadvantaged people in societies of the South has been met only insufficiently by policies of poverty reduction and the basic needs approach in development policy. This inadequacy demands a new perception of development policy.

The process of neo-liberal economic globalization threatens social standards, especially in countries...


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