Will you still need me, when I'm sixty-four? Human rights and the post-2015 development agenda: Time to deliver

By Amnesty International

This week has witnessed Member States congregating in New York to discuss the current progress of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the post-2015 development agenda. As we participate in these conversations, for us the crucial question, to quote the classic Beatle’s track, is: ‘Will you still need me, when I’m sixty-four?’

Just over sixty four years ago, on 10th December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Progress has been made in the acceptance of universal human rights standards during the past six decades. Why, therefore, are we having to fight so hard to ensure that they are not marginalised in the post-2015 discussions in the name of security and economic development?

For more than 50 years, Amnesty International’s evidence has proven that human rights are central to effective economic and social development for all, ensuring that nobody is left behind. It is essential that governments put into practice what has been widely acknowledged. In the words of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: “we will not enjoy security without development. We will not enjoy development without security. And we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights." This conviction was again reiterated by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who cited the strong need to “pool efforts as never before and to advance on three fronts simultaneously: development, peace and security, and human rights,” in his recent ‘A Life of Dignity for Allreport.

Human rights not only provide binding legal obligations for states, but also clear, consistent and objective guidance on the responsibilities of non-state actors such as businesses and intergovernmental organisations, such as donors and international financial institutions. By promoting the principles of transparency, accountability and participation, human rights can correct the power imbalances that exist at all levels – nationally, regionally and globally – while enabling those who have suffered injustice to have access to effective remedies, preventing future abuses.

Yet development activities that are not properly aligned with human rights can often result in serious human rights violations. One such example is forced evictions.[1] Amnesty International has documented many thousands of cases around the world of families and communities forcibly evicted from their homes and lands. Such evictions further rob them of their livelihoods and access to essential services such as water, sanitation, health and schooling. In Cambodia, human rights monitoring groups report that over 700,000 people have been forcibly evicted from their homes and land in the last decade alone. A recent report (August 2013) by the UN Special Representative for human rights in Cambodia states: “Those already evicted and relocated reportedly suffer poor living conditions (including low standards of housing and unsafe water and sanitation conditions) and scant opportunities for employment, coupled with limited access to health and education services. Resettlement sites have continued to be poorly planned and developed before evictions, and promises by the companies involved and municipal governments have many times not materialised… access to justice and remedy remain key concerns.” Failing to incorporate human rights into development planning therefore leads to multiple violations of human rights for the women, men and children affected.

Our evidence in Europe and other regions shows that such human rights violations invariably impact the poorest, socially and economically vulnerable and marginalised sectors of society, especially women, children and minorities. In many European countries forced evictions have led to the segregation and ghettoisation of already marginalised communities such as the Roma. Such everyday experiences are in stark contrast to the poverty reduction and development policies adopted by governments as part of their efforts to meet the MDGs, in addition to fulfilling their obligations under human rights law.

In contrast, an effective human rights framework guarantees participation from individuals and communities, ensures accountability and allows lessons to be learned from mistakes so that failings are not repeated. Economic development initiatives that do not incorporate human rights obligations and principles carry a significant risk of deepening marginalisation, discrimination and injustice, thus widening the gap between rich and poor, between men and women, for minority groups and between geographical regions of the world. Where human rights, such as the rights to health, adequate housing and freedom of expression are denied – for instance in the context of infrastructure or extractive projects – the potential for widespread human rights violations and environmental degradation is increased, often further and disproportionally affecting the worst-off.

As a global human rights movement, Amnesty International is working towards a world in which everyone can live free from fear and free from want. As part of this vision, Amnesty International aims to see human rights at the heart of the post-2015 agenda. Specifically we believe that the post-2015 development framework must be inclusive, transparent, participatory and informed by human rights standards in order to address some of the gaps in the previous MDGs, as well as current challenges to development.

Ending all forms of discrimination and inequality, including segregation and exclusion, on grounds such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or other status is essential to enable people to exercise and claim their human rights, to ensure that no-one gets left behind. It also means moving away from identifying specific groups such as women as inherently ‘vulnerable’. Rather it aims to understand the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that often place certain groups at greater risk of human rights violations due to their historic disadvantage and disempowerment. The post-2015 agenda must ensure substantive equality, of both opportunity and results, with full protection of the law. It must address and dismantle the multiple and systemic barriers faced by certain sectors of society, in order to allow them to fully realise their rights and enable them to have access to justice and remedy whenever their human rights have been violated. Only then will governments around the world hold true to their commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in particular Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” a pledge that sixty-four years on continues to be fought for.

[1] A forced eviction is the removal of people against their will, from the homes or land they occupy without legal protections such as genuine consultation with affected communities to identify feasible alternatives to evictions, provision of adequate notice and legal remedies, compensation and adequate alterative housing for those who cannot provide for themselves.