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Keynote address by Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, on Democracy and Human Rights: Development For People, By People

11 December 2014

My dear colleagues and friends,

I am delighted to be at this high-level conference to address the question of how development cooperation can strengthen democracy and human rights.

This is a refreshing topic. It's far more common to be asked to explain what added-value human rights can bring for development. Today, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we're being asked not what human rights can do for development, but what development can do for human rights. This is most gratifying.

When Member States committed to the UN Charter nearly 70 years ago, States pledged to achieve “better standards of life in larger freedom”. They agreed to cooperate “in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all”.
They did this because they had experienced what can happen if there is no framework of norms and values to set out the responsibilities of governments towards their citizens, and towards one another.

Emerging from a terrible world war, the genocide of the Holocaust, and the economic depression that had preceded it, they recognized that States must be responsible for securing both freedom from fear and freedom from want for all their people.
They knew that without human rights, any peace is unstable; without justice, all agreements are just paper; without respect for equality and dignity, development is really just work by the many for the benefit of the few.

So the job that States – and I want to emphasise this, States – laid out for the United Nations was to establish the frameworks which they knew would be crucial to safeguard peace: frameworks to promote human rights for all, and to promote strong and sustainable progress in development.

When all goes well, these elements braid together to form what is in effect a single, flexible, but immensely powerful, interlocking force: democracy, human rights, and development for and by the people.

You cannot achieve one without the other. How can right to vote be meaningfully exercised without the right to education and freedom of expression? How can people live in dignity without rights to food, health-care and sanitation? Can we development practitioners pat ourselves on the back and say that we have reached progress when there is still one billion voiceless and exploited people who must live on less than a dollar a day – at the same time as the ever-rising number of billionaires has now reached 1,645? And what about the so called rich world – as we learned this week, in most OECD countries, the gap between rich and poor is at its highest level since 30 years.

As development practitioners, we now know that public debate, open to the voices of all stakeholders, is key to identifying and responding effectively to development needs. As Sen famously pointed out, “No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic government and a relatively free press."

Participation, accountability, non-discrimination, due process : these and other human rights are among the fundamental building blocks of both democracy and sustainable development.

And as the founding members of the UN fully realised, they also build resilience to crisis.

When people can trust their government and their system of justice, this creates societies that are more stable, more resilient and more secure. When development is equitable and inclusive, this too generates societies that are more resistant to inner conflict.

But wait a minute. Haven't there been numerous claims that a government that seeks to accelerate development should shut down those pesky, bothersome human rights for a while – because they create such a bother, and divert such a lot of energy? Many States are said to be creating high growth due to "authoritarian capitalism" – a regime that maintains a crushing grip on public liberties and participation, independence of the judiciary and civil society activists, while also encouraging the operations of the market economy.

Three points here.

One, a regime that crushes dissent and expression is destroying its warning system. Public participation -- voting, criticising -- can draw attention to problem areas before they become explosive. With no checking mechanism from the public, inequalities may deepen, corruption may bloat.

Civil and political liberties are not divisive; they generate unity. In fact, and this is my second point: freedom of expression and information are not only important, they are cheap. Repressing them is what costs money. Despite this, countries all over the world spend huge sums and energy on creating obstacles for freedom: Invasive police and spying mechanisms to identify and punish people to speak out. Shutting down internet and media outlets, or detain dissidents, journalists or human rights defenders. These are complex, demanding of resources, and their only real aim is to prevent people from speaking out to criticise rulers who fear the truth.

Point three, there is no empirical or theoretical link between the oppression of dissent and economic progress. It is perfectly easy to argue that countries which practice authoritarian capitalism are succeeding despite their suppression of civil and political rights.

A government that ignores the freedom, equality and rights of all is in reality a poor government and a weak one, because it necessarily lives in fear of its own people. People are not disposable. When their voices are denied, and legitimate dissent is suppressed, they may radicalize. The gaps between a few rich winners and many, many poor losers may be filled by violence -- both within countries, and on a world scale. Governments which forget that they are there to serve the people have failed to learn the lessons of history. As the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary General of the UN, said a few months ago, “If leaders do not listen to their people, they will hear from them. In the streets, the squares, or, as we see far too often, on the battlefield."

He went on, "There is a better way. More participation. More democracy. More engagement and openness." Ultimately, these are the values that will sustain institutions which are far more resilient and successful, because the people trust them. They create much greater stability in the long term. Opportunities based on merit that are open to all, and inclusive participation, are strong antidotes to conflict. They and other freedoms and rights are essential to ensuring social harmony and peace.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As many of us have experienced, people all over the world clearly manifest -- spontaneously and often with enormous energy – a demand for the realisation in daily life of all three principles: human rights, democracy and development.
This became very clear during the exceptionally broad global consultations that preceded the definition of our post-2015 development objectives.

We are now reaching the final stretch which will define the Post-2015 development agenda, and we cannot miss this opportunity. We must make sure that the new agenda address both freedom from fear and from want, without discrimination.

You have probably all seen the Open Working Group Outcome Document and the S-G’s synthesis report that was released last week.

To return to the topic of this address, these documents show that there is huge potential for the Post-2015 agenda to become one which strengthens democracy and human rights. They are grounded in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights are mainstreamed across goals and targets rather than quarantined in a standalone goal – and, importantly, there is a strong emphasis on non-discrimination and equality: two equality goals, targets on laws, policies and actions that address discrimination and inequalities, explicit attention to marginalised groups, and an emphasis on the disaggregation of data. As the S-G’s report puts it, we are asked to “act boldly, vigorously and expeditiously to turn reality into a life of dignity for all, leaving no one behind.” And goal 16 addresses key dimensions of civil and political rights that are critical for democratic governance, and sets out to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”.

There are also a number of potential weaknesses - but there is still time to address these. I would like to point to some of the key priorities I see for the next phase of negotiations, which will begin again in January 2015:

First, as the Secretary General’s report suggests, it will be critical to ensure that the goals and targets are measurable and achievable, but it will also be crucial to ensure they are consistent with existing UN standards and agreements, including for human rights. For example, it is worrying that targets on women’s rights and on political freedoms are limited in the current draft by the qualification ‘in accordance with national legislation’. This runs of the risk that targets may fall well short of international standards.

Second, it will also be critical to keep a balanced development agenda that focuses on addressing freedom from want and freedom from fear for all. We need to preserve and strengthen Goal 16, which has been one of the most fought over goals so far in the negotiations between States. Goal 16 acknowledges that civil and political rights are critical for development and good governance, and I believe this is a vital point – although its target on fundamental freedoms could be further strengthened by explicitly referring to freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Goal 16 also emphasises the importance of justice and accountability, and we must also fight to maintain a strong focus on eradicating discrimination and reducing inequalities. We cannot let discrimination and inequality fuel the flames of hatred and conflict.

Third, the new agenda must be adequately financed, and we must maintain a clear vision of this point. We also need to create an enabling international environment that eliminates obstacles to development, ensuring greater policy coherence across international agreements with sound and democratic global governance.

Fourth, monitoring is a crucial factor in development. But we only see what we look for. For accurate measurement that leads to real insight and better policies, we need a forward-looking approach that invests in the development of new indicators and new measurement methodologies. According to some of those involved in the development of the MDGS, a goal on "governance" was excluded because of the assumption that such things are not measurable. If there was any merit in that argument back in 2000, there certainly is none now. My Office is working on human rights-based indicators that will be useful for monitoring targets in Goal 16, as well as targets across all the other goals, and we stand ready to assist Member States further on this front.

Last but not least, as the Secretary General also pointed out, we need a “rigorous and participatory review and monitoring mechanism”. Accountability will be critical for implementing this new agenda. Participatory mechanisms should be built in at the national, regional and global levels. A global peer review between Member States should monitor international cooperation to meet the goals. The Human Rights Council’s ground-breaking Universal Periodic Review process offers a number of clear lessons on this point.

Finally, as the Secretary General urges, we need strong agreement on a universal vision that recognises that human rights and development are not only interdependent, but also, in practical terms, almost inseparable. This agreement should include not only States and the UN family, but also the great multilateral development actors whose policies have the power to generate real change. We need to see development plans that prioritize anti-discrimination measures; which treat individuals as participants rather than recipients of charity; and which clearly build in a commitment to all human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural.

Human rights are not a distraction from the main event: they are the main event. Economic growth without human rights is a poor shadow of what true development means, and by denying full expression of the talents of every individual, it holds back the whole of society. We will at last live up to the promises of the UN Charter, and to the full dimensions of development, when we make equality, human dignity, rights and freedoms our objective.

Thank you.