Human Rights in Sustainable Development

By Anita Dhanvanthari

At the highly publicized Leaders’ Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism during the United Nations General Assembly on September 29, President Obama recognized the importance of reducing poverty to counter terrorism: “sustainable development—creating opportunity and dignity, particularly for youth—is part of countering violent extremism.” He also noted, “when human rights are denied and citizens have no opportunity to redress their grievances peacefully, it feeds terrorist propaganda that justifies violence.”

Sustainable development is an important tool in combating terrorism, yet it must be achieved while respecting human rights. Important players in sustainable development, including international financial institutions, have yet to incorporate human rights into their work. As Professor Philip Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, notes, “The World Bank does not have a single comprehensive human rights policy.”

The recently released U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also fall short on human rights protections. Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks wrote for the Huffington Post, “One obvious objection is that the term ‘human rights’ is not mentioned anywhere at all in the 17 proposed goals…the omission of the actual term is notable and indicative of a global climate where more and more states are assertively pushing back against human rights standards and labeling international pressure to encourage compliance as unacceptable interference in their sovereignty.”

This pushback against human rights standards is antithetical to peace and stability and therefore antithetical to CVE efforts. It’s especially dangerous in countries where the rule of law is weak.

The World Bank Group conducted its annual meetings this weekend in Lima, and although there was discussion on promoting social and environmental sustainability, human rights are not in the bank’s draft social and environmental safeguard policies. Sharing the “aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” does not actually signal any obligations; it’s just a nice-sounding statement. Premising these policies on human rights rather than general objectives will trigger obligations for countries to uphold agreements they have voluntarily accepted under their constitutions and treaties to which they are a party.

The U.S. government needs to use its influence with the World Bank and other international financial institutions to pursue sustainable development in a way that prioritizes human rights. Promoting sustainable development while committing human rights violations is self-defeating and leads to more violent extremism.

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Published on October 15, 2015

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