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Back | Programme Area: Governance (2000 - 2009)

Human Rights and Social Development: Toward Democratization and Social Justice



This paper aims to assess progress toward the objectives of the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development (referred to as “the Declaration”) and Programme of Action by using a human rights strategy. The Declaration seeks to make human rights the framework for policies to achieve the goals of the World Summit for Social Development, held in Copenhagen in 1995. This strategy assumes that the norms and machinery of human rights would inform decisions on development policies. It also assumes that rights would empower social and economic groups hitherto excluded from or disadvantaged in development and entitlements. In particu-lar, it assumes that human rights norms that require and support democracy would provide the basis of political and social stability, and that social and economic rights would eliminate the worst consequences of poverty.

Yash Ghai begins by showing the relevance of human rights to the goals and strategy of the Declaration. In order to explore the potential for change through the norms and machinery of rights, he describes the salient elements of the system or “regime” of rights—the philosophical foundations, principles and norms of human rights, and the machinery for their enforcement—as well as the different kinds of rights that now constitute the international regime and the con-nections between them. He then discusses the degree of consensus on human rights, pointing to various criticisms of such rights, which affect their ability to serve as a consensual framework for policies. The provisions in international and national norms that support democracy are analysed, paying special attention to those that define the rights of minorities, since ethnic conflicts—or what pass for ethnic conflicts—have been a principal source of political and social in-stability, and of great oppression and suffering. Ghai also discusses provisions that aim to pro-mote social justice, as well as how and to what extent democracy and social justice have been implemented in recent years, particularly since the Social Summit. In order to do this, he ex-amines the nature and implications of globalization, which has a profound effect on both the relevance and prospects of democracy and social justice.

The author concludes that, although human rights provide a suitable framework for the goals of the Declaration, and there is considerable merit in using it, little progress has been made in the realization of rights that are central to the agenda of the Declaration. There has been more progress in democratization than in social justice, but even there the progress is strictly limited because there is no international consensus on the importance of rights. There are varying understandings of human rights, and there is no great commitment to this ideal on the part of governments. Even Western governments, which claim to be the foremost champions of human rights, attach greater importance to their national interests than to the realization of human rights. The achievement of global justice necessitates a massive transfer of financial and other resources internationally, from richer to poorer countries, and domestically, from richer to poorer classes. There simply is not the will at either level for these redistributions. On the contrary, the processes of globalization accentuate the disparities between the rich and poor, globally and nationally.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Oct 2001
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8186
    From: UNRISD