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  • Writer's pictureAntonia Boorman

Human Rights Theories and International Development: Intersectionality.

Exploring how human rights theory has contributed to the modern understanding of international development and why it is important. **This piece was written as a piece of coursework for my LLM in Human Rights Law**

Human rights are inherent principles inscribed in law designed to ensure equality, freedom, and justice. Human rights are universal, inalienable, indivisible and interdependent, meaning that no right is more important than another, that all rights must be guaranteed in conjunction and that every human being is entitled to all of their human rights[1]. States ratify human rights treaties to ensure these rights to their citizens, and by doing so, are explicitly committing to protecting their citizens from maltreatment and discrimination and treating them with respect and dignity (Protect), to not infringe upon any citizen’s rights and to not allow any other citizen to do so (Respect), and to providing services that will ensure that all citizens have access to their rights (Fulfil)[2]. These obligations, outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), are summarised as the obligations to Protect, Respect, and Fulfil (PRF).

International development is defined as the concept of “improving the lives of individuals worldwide through areas of need and interest...areas such as health, education, democracy, sustainability, and economics”[3]. A way of achieving this is through meeting the guidelines outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs outlines 17 goals, which if achieved by 2030, would “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity”[4]. Since the goals are tangible and measurable, and followed by the same 193 countries who have ratified the UDHR[5], they act as a good method for tracking progress of international development.

In this essay, I will be exploring why human rights theories set the precedence for progress in international development and are crucial for the understanding, monitoring and the implementation of international development. I will be examining how the human rights theories have become compulsory in shaping an international recognition of a basic standard of rights provisions and how this shapes the perception of development, exemplified through how states succeed and fail to ensure the obligations to Protect, Respect, and Fulfil (PRF) through their progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Importance of Human Rights Theories

The process of conceptualisation, the developing of theories which turn into foundational definitions, is significant to the development of international developmental progress. Theories are necessary to explore and solidify definitions, as theories go through extensive critique and analysis, making the concluding definition more reliable and dependable. These established definitions help to unify the understanding of human rights concepts and avoid misinterpretations which can be detrimental. By solidifying the understanding and definitions of human rights, these concepts can be transcribed into law and into the obligations we observe today of Protect, Respect, and Fulfil (PRF), which can then be enforced, monitored and evaluated. There is a certain power in transcribing into human rights law as these concepts become recognized as inherent principles which gives them a certain pinnacular status, which in itself gives these concepts power and authority.

Human rights law differentiates itself from other forms of law, as human rights are recognized as inherent and innate to all human beings[6]. This naturalistic approach is linked to the concepts of ethics and morality, that we must treat all human beings with respect and equality simply because we, as human beings, are equal to each other, and have a moral obligation to treat humanity as sacred[7]. The innate and inherent nature is the premise of why human rights today are seen as so significant and sets the precedent for adherence with the obligations and requirements set out in the PRF structure, in the way that humanity must have adequate resources to thrive, simply because humans have these inherent rights. This necessity to have adequate resources to thrive underlines the essence of international development. Although this naturalistic approach verifies the understanding behind the PRF structure and the reasoning for the adherence with it in theory, it does not always translate to practice within international development. For example, many states are too poor to provide adequate means for their citizens to access facilities and services that fulfil their basic human rights (e.g., many do not access their rights to education as the state is too poor to provide free schooling)[8]. Other states, such as the United States, operate in a way that is exclusionary and disproportionate in their provision of rights by engaging in systems that marginalize and segregate[9], like provision of sub-standard education and healthcare by the state and allowing of the provision of better versions of these services by market stakeholders[10]. This begs the question of what can be consider the basic standard of the provision of services to meet the Fulfil obligation.

Rawls’ famous thought experiment of the ‘original position’ can be used to understand the specific rights that must be met as a basic standard[11]. These specific human rights, such as freedom from slavery and discrimination, are ‘a special class of urgent rights’[12] that must be prioritised by states. This links to the political theory to human rights which links human rights with the role of the state and justifies a need for a state[13]. This in itself acts as precedent for international development by accounting for the state’s presence and outline its duties i.e., to provide human rights for its citizens, which can be tangibly done by following the PRF obligations. This theory works to clarify and reiterate the importance of basic provisions as a form of rights yet contradicts the universality and indivisible nature of rights by creating a hierarchy. Additionally, just because it is recognised that states should provide these rights and fulfil their obligations, does not mean that they will. Some states simply do not adhere with the PRF obligations, such as dictatorships like North Korea[14], and due to state sovereignty, no one can truly stop them from doing so[15]. This brings into question the importance of human rights in practice, as if they were as inherent and important as they are recognized to be, then they should be obeyed above all else, including above respecting sovereignty. The existence of states who abuse human rights directly contradicts this. Therefore, the naturalistic theory that human rights are inherent and innate contributes to the understanding of how human rights law structurally exists today, and explains the recognition of its importance, yet still leaves gaps regarding implementation in international development.

Human Rights and International Development

Human rights theories set the foundation for international development and thus understanding them is crucial. As outlined above, the naturalistic approach outlines the importance of human rights and the political theory outlines how we understand and justify human rights. International Development builds upon this recognition and importance by outlining how a state can meet the PRF obligations, as well as acting as a monitoring tool to highlight weak gaps in the implementation of human rights. This brings us to the SDGs as a tool for achieving the PRF obligations based upon human rights theory. The SDGs were created from the UDHR and crafted into tangible and realistic goals for states to achieve by 2030[16], this acts as a concrete extension to ensure that the PRF obligations are met.

McInerney-Lankford suggests that development is purely for economists, while the human rights framework is purely for lawyers as development is measured empirically and human rights law follows normative analysis[17]. Similarly, Seymour and Pincus claim that development is “ inherently consequentialist and concerned with outcomes” while human rights are “deontological”[18]. This paper refutes this sentiment arguing that not only are the two fields interconnected, but that human rights and development both use normative and empirical aspects within their analysis due to their connectivity.

The SDGs directly build upon the PRF structure developed from the UDHR. The evidence-based monitoring of the SDGs act as a tool to track international development which is crafted from the need to adhere to the PRF obligations. For example, within the 17 goals below there are sub-goals with specific targets, 169 total, that are monitored through a universal reporting mechanism[19]. States must fulfil the SDGs by providing means to do so, such as by providing public healthcare and educational institutions (Goal 3 and 4), mandating legislation that punishes discrimination (Goal 5 and 10), setting a living wage (Goal 1 and 8), setting environmental tariffs and subsidies to encourage sustainable businesses (Goal 7, 9, and 11-13). States can protect their citizens against human rights abuses and show respect towards them by following the SDGs, as the adherence with them encourages freedom, equality and dignity, which is both the objective of international human rights and core of human rights as a concept.

Amartya Sen outlines the capacities approach, which depicts development as measurable by the progress in citizens’ capacities and functioning i.e., basic needs and enjoyments such as nourishment, access to education and healthcare, and socialisation[20]. In line with Sen, development can then be seen as an expansion of human rights in the way that it is a continuation of the pursuit of freedom, equality and justice, through specific tangible means. Both human rights and development require the remove of any obstacles that may impact on people’s abilities to access their rights and freedoms and are thus interlinked. As made apparent in this paper, human rights and international development are extremely interlinked in theory, however in practice, the two disciplines have been described as “ships passing one another in the night, each with little awareness that the other is there, and with little if any sustained engagement with one another”[21]. Not only do these disciplines fail to recognise the interconnectivity of their work, but the growing overlapping nature has also caused tension that dissolves all the progress towards the unified goal of achieving freedom, equality and justice[22]. The recognition that these disciplines are interconnected and working towards the same aim, is thus crucial for this aim to be achieved. While the divide exists, many are suffering. This isn’t only a theoretical debate but a damaging roadblock that if persisting threatens many lives.

In conclusion, there are issues with human rights law, but they are important to have as a foundation to build upon. To reiterate, international development is the improving of social, economic and political need[23]. The theories of human rights in this paper clarifies the significance of human rights thereby motivating the state to fulfil their obligations, and stakeholders such a citizens, advocacy groups and international organisations to hold the states accountable to meeting their provisions. Therefore, there is a significant positive contribution of human rights theories to the understanding of international development, and this is important as by outlining the importance of human rights and creating a solid structure to follow them (PRF and SDGs) this holds states accountable and ensures that citizens’ rights are protected, respected and fulfilled.

References [1] OHCHR, ‘What Are Human Rights’ (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner) <> accessed 23 April 2021. [2] OHCHR, ‘What Are Human Rights’ (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner) <> accessed 23 April 2021. [3] Net Impact, ‘International Development: The Ultimate Guide | Net Impact’ (Net Impact) <> accessed 23 April 2021. [4] Net Impact, ‘International Development: The Ultimate Guide | Net Impact’ (Net Impact) <> accessed 23 April 2021. [5] United Nations, ‘THE 17 GOALS | Sustainable Development’ (United Nations | Department of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development) <> accessed 9 May 2021. [6] John Simmons, Justification and Legitimacy: Essays on Rights and Obligations (Cambridge University Press 2001). [7] Suri Ratnapala, Jurisprudence (Cambridge University Press 2009) <> accessed 10 May 2021. [8] OECD, ‘Concepts and Dilemmas of State Building in Fragile Situations’ (2009) 9 OECD Journal on Development 61. [9] David R Williams and Chiquita Collins, ‘Racial Residential Segregation: A Fundamental Cause of Racial Disparities in Health’ (2001) 116 Public Health Reports 404. [10] Engineering National Academies of Sciences and others, The Root Causes of Health Inequity (National Academies Press (US) 2017) <> accessed 8 May 2021. [11] John Rawls, ‘The Law of Peoples’ (1993) 20 Critical Inquiry 36. [12] John Rawls, ‘The Law of Peoples’ (1993) 20 Critical Inquiry 36. [13] Joseph Raz, ‘Human Rights Without Foundations’ in J Tasioulas and S Besson (eds), The Philosphy of International Law (Oxford University Press 2010). [14] Freedom House, ‘North Korea: Freedom in the World 2020 Country Report’ (Freedom House, 2020) <> accessed 10 May 2021. [15] Samantha Besson, ‘Sovereignty, International Law and Democracy’ (2011) 22 European Journal of International Law 373. [16] United Nations, ‘THE 17 GOALS | Sustainable Development’ (United Nations | Department of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development) <> accessed 9 May 2021. [17] S McInerney-Lankford, ‘Human Rights and Development: A Comment on Challenges and Opportunities from a Legal Perspective’ (2009) 1 Journal of Human Rights Practice 51. [18] Dan Seymour and Jonathan Pincus, ‘Human Rights and Economics: The Conceptual Basis for Their Complementarity’ (2008) 26 Development Policy Review 387. [19] United Nations, ‘THE 17 GOALS | Sustainable Development’ (United Nations | Department of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development) <> accessed 9 May 2021. [20] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Oxford University Press 1999). [21] Philip Alston, ‘Ships Passing in the Night: The Current State of the Human Rights and Development Debate Seen through the Lens of the Millennium Development Goals’ (2005) 27 Human Rights Quarterly 755. [22] Eric Posner, The Twilight of Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press 2014). [23] Net Impact, ‘The Ultimate Guide for International Development’ (Net Impact) <> accessed 28 April 2021.

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