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Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Programme Paper 5: Human Rights and Social Development: Toward Democratization and Social Justice

31 Jan 2002

  • Author(s): Yash Ghai


Has progress been achieved in reaching the objectives set in the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development and Programme of Action? The author of this paper uses a human rights strategy in seeking to find the answer.

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 human rights norms and mechanisms will inform decisions on development policies. It assumes that human rights will empower disadvantaged or excluded groups. It also assumes that human rights norms that require and support democracy will provide a foundation for political and social stability, and that the realization of economic and social rights will eliminate the worst consequences of poverty.

The present paper shows how human rights stand at the core the Declaration. In exploring the potential for change carried by human rights standards, norms and enforcement mechanisms, the paper examines their philosophical foundations. It examines the various rights - civil, political, economic and social - in the international regime and the links between them. It also examines the degree of consensus on human rights, including attacks that undermine their ability to serve as a consensual framework for policies. 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 instability, oppression and suffering. The paper also discusses provisions that aim to promote social justice, as well as how and to what extent democracy and social justice have been implemented, particularly since the Summit. To do this, it examines the nature and implications of globalization, which has a profound effect on democracy and social justice.

The paper shows that human rights provide a highly relevant framework for the goals of the Declaration. It regrets, however, that little progress has been made in the realization of rights that are central to the Declaration. It argues that there has been more progress in democratization than in social justice. But even there, progress is hindered through the lack of international consensus on the importance of human rights. "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", notes the paper. It concludes, that "the achievement of global social justice necessitates a massive transfer of financial and other resources internationally, from richer to poorer countries, and domestically, from richer to poorer classes" and, that "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".

Yash Ghai is the Sir YK Pao Professor of Public Law at the University of Hong Kong and is currently chairing the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission.

Order PP DGHR5 from UNRISD ($5 for readers in the North; $2.50 for readers in the South).