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The place of human rights in The Future We Want

By Bridget Lewis - posted Friday, 29 June 2012

Last week world leaders, along with representatives of international agencies, NGOs and the private sector, gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.  Dubbed ‘Rio+20,’ the conference marked the 20 year anniversary of the UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio in 1992, which resulted in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.

The agenda for Rio+20 focused on two key themes: the promotion of the Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and the eradication of poverty; and the institutional framework for achieving sustainable development.   The outcome document from the conference is entitled The Future We Want, and is the result of lengthy negotiations between stakeholders in the lead-up to the conference.   The document promises a commitment from the international community ‘to ensure the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future generations.’

It’s a lengthy document, spanning 53 pages and covering a range of topics, substantive and procedural.  In conjunction with its key theme of eradicating poverty, which it states is ‘the greatest global challenge facing the world today, the declaration recognises that ‘people are at the centre of sustainable development’ and reaffirms the need to raise basic standards of living, to promote inclusive and equitable economic growth, to create greater opportunities for all and to foster equitable social development and inclusion. The declaration also reaffirms ‘the importance of freedom, peace and security, respect for all human rights, including the right to development and the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food, the rule of law, gender equality and women’s empowerment and the overall commitment to just and democratic societies for development.’


To anyone familiar with the language of international human rights phrases such as these will sound familiar, and may whet the appetite for a more detailed engagement with human rights principles in later paragraphs.  However, rather than build on these introductory snippets of human rights language, the declaration contains only scant references to human rights and fails to elaborate on the role of human rights law in achieving sustainable development, or indeed on the place of human rights in ‘The Future We Want.’

But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves here.  Why should human rights be included in a declaration on the future of sustainable development? What is the relevance of human rights in that context, and, perhaps more significantly, would it ever be realistic to expect governments to include greater reference to human rights obligations in such a declaration?

To address these questions briefly, human rights principles are both relevant and useful in the context of sustainable development.  Human rights provide a set of basic minimum standards which can be used to identify development needs and areas of vulnerability, as well as to evaluate policy responses and to assist with decision-making and setting priorities.

Human rights principles can potentially contribute to a number of the dimensions of sustainable development identified in the declaration.  First, the links between human rights and poverty are well recognised, and any attempt to eradicate poverty and its associated impacts (hunger and malnutrition, poor access to water and sanitation, disease, inadequate housing) inevitably intersects with corresponding human rights objectives.  Further, it is acknowledged that violations of human rights, including civil and political rights like the right to freedom of information and the right to participate in democratic elections, perpetuate and exacerbate poverty, while protection of the full range of interdependent human rights can help build capacity towards ending poverty.

The declaration also stresses the need for sustainable development to be ‘inclusive and people-centred’. It identifies gender equality and women’s empowerment, as well as the participation and protection of other vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, as necessary components of achieving sustainable development.  The principles of equality, non-discrimination, consultation and participation are well known in human rights law.  The outcome document does refer to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), but doesn’t delve any deeper into the way that the human rights framework might inform and support the inclusive and people-centred approaches it aspires to.

The other key area where human rights could potentially inform our efforts to achieve sustainable development is in relation to the protection of the environment.  The declaration stresses the need to protect ecosystems and natural resources, but leaves much of the relationship between human rights and the environment unspoken.  It comes close in paragraph 30, where it recognises that ‘many people, especially the poor, depend directly on ecosystems for their livelihoods, their economic, social and physical well-being, and their cultural heritage.’  The document goes on to state that for this reason it is essential to generate decent jobs and encourage income growth in order to decrease disparities in standards of living, but it misses an opportunity to elaborate more fully on the various ways that the environment and human rights are mutually supportive of each other.


 In recent years, the relationship between human rights and the environment has been receiving increased attention, and it is now widely accepted that environmental factors impact on the enjoyment of human rights.   Regional human rights tribunals such as the European Court of Human Rights have found in the past that environmental degradation can amount to a violation of human rights such as the right to health, the right to life and the right to privacy.   The possibility that the human rights apparatus might be employed to pursue environmental protection, and ultimately sustainable development, is not a novel idea, yet it is left virtually unexplored in the Rio+20 document.   This is despite the fact that the document expressly refers to the need to promote coherence and synergies between UN agencies and to avoid duplication of responsibilities and unnecessary overlaps. The absence of any reference to human rights agencies in relation to the institutional framework for sustainable development indicates an apparent reluctance to take advantage of the existing human rights apparatus in the roadmap for sustainable development in any clear or meaningful way.

This is a missed opportunity.  International human rights law already engages with a number of issues which cut across sustainable development, especially poverty and living conditions, environmental protection, equality and non-discrimination.   Existing human rights laws provide a framework of standards which could be beneficial in developing more effective and equitable sustainable development strategies.  While the international community’s commitment to human rights is affirmed in the outcome document, the precise nature of the relationship between human rights and sustainable development is left unclear.  Human rights law appears relegated to the ranks of outsider in what is otherwise proclaimed to be an integrated and coherent strategy to tackle the challenge of sustainable development. 

This might be the most we could have expected, however.  States are notoriously reluctant to include rights language where it is not absolutely necessary, because of the corresponding duties which might be implied.  In an area as complex and demanding as sustainable development, we might expect states to avoid any language which could be interpreted as expanding their international obligations, particularly in the area of human rights, where enforcement mechanisms could feasibly be utilised by individuals or communities to bring a claim against a state who failed to discharge its duties. 

Ultimately, the Rio+20 declaration was shaped by the same forces of negotiation and consensus that determine all such international declarations, and which are notoriously hostile to any proposed expansion of human rights.

The Future We Want allows therefore only a limited and underutilised role for human rights. Let’s hope The Future We Get affords human rights a slightly bigger part.

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About the Author

Bridget Lewis is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the Queensland University of Technology, where she teaches primarily in international law.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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