World Bank, Washington D.C.
Preston Auditorium
3 December 2001


Lecture by Mary Robinson,
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Mr. President,

When I was invited to give a Presidential Fellows’ Lecture, I accepted readily. Months ago the date was put firmly in my diary. It fitted the closer links that had been developing at many levels between the World Bank and my Office. The Bank has been an active participant in workshops and seminars we have organized, has supported the work of the human rights treaty bodies and working groups, such as the working group on right to development, and has been a resource for us as we grapple with the challenge of being a catalyst, giving leadership world wide in human rights, and providing a knowledge base for the integrating of human rights into development, into conflict prevention and into peace-keeping. It was a timely invitation to try to bring all this together and see how we might deepen further the relationship.

That was before the 11th September. The terrible attacks in the United States on that day have altered the landscape in ways we are still trying to assess. Of one thing we can be certain, they have brought home dramatically the urgency of addressing the problem of world poverty, the divides in our world and the need for an ethical globalization drawing on the international human rights norms and standards.

In the days following the 11th September my colleagues and I brainstormed on the human rights perspective. We concluded that, based on the existing jurisprudence, the attacks on innocent civilians in the twin towers in New York constituted a crime against humanity. As such, there was an obligation on all states to cooperate to bring the perpetrators to justice. That justice could either be before a national court, such as the courts of the United States where the attack took place, or before a specially established international court. By characterizing the attacks as a crime against humanity the perpetuators are isolated in a significant way – you cannot purport to commit a crime against humanity in the name of any religion. Furthermore, the approach is focussed on going after individual perpetrators and bringing them to justice.

There is another linkage to be made, with an event that concluded on the 8th September. As the gavel come down on the adoption of the Durban declaration and programme of action I knew we had achieved an important breakthrough for human rights and in combating racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance. Three days later, one of my first thoughts was that this anti-discrimination agenda would be more vital and needed than ever.

So, with this added sense of urgency and gravity, let me explain the work of our office and how we see the potential for a still closer working relationship with you.

Under the terms of my mandate, I have the “principal responsibility for United Nations human rights activities”. I would describe the role of my Office as needing to be catalytic, to strive to be a centre of excellence, to add value to the knowledge base about international human rights and to network efforts world wide on the protection and promotion of human rights. It also has the duty to support the entire UN human rights machinery.

In 1997, the reforms of the Secretary-General brought a new dimension of work. Those reforms designated human rights as an issue cutting across the four substantive fields of the UN’s activities, including development cooperation. Thus, a major task for the United Nations, and in particular my Office, is to facilitate the integration of human rights fully into all of the Organization's work, including the field of development.

The main issue I want to address today is a challenge faced by human rights agencies, including my own Office, by other United Nations bodies, and indeed by donor and developing countries as well as non-governmental actors working in development or human rights. What can human rights offer to development work? How can those who are working for universal observance of human rights impact effectively on poverty – itself a violation of human rights – powerlessness, and the conflict and human suffering which poverty underpins?

To begin with, perhaps I should try to answer a prior question. What has the activity of promoting and protecting human rights got to do with development? Are these not wholly different fields of national and international endeavour? What does it add to try to relate them?

The UN’s mainstreaming reforms see human rights as both a means and an end of development. Furthermore, under international human rights principles, the individual, and by extension the impoverished community in which she or he lives - and which is the focus of development strategies and policies - are entitled to the same respect for human dignity as are those human beings that have the good fortune to live in countries classified as developed. They are entitled to expect of their governments the same commitment to protect their rights, whether individual or communal. Even though the States in which they live may not have the resources to guarantee those rights as effectively as richer and more developed countries, they have the same internationally endorsed entitlement to policies which will protect and realize their rights, including through international assistance, as any other human beings on the planet.

We owe this thinking on the relationship between development and human rights largely to countries of the South. When the newly independent countries of the 1960s and 1970s joined the United Nations, they took the promise of universal human rights principles and insisted that they were applied to the conditions of their peoples. Despite serious problems of governance, and often of corruption, the belief was there. From their efforts came the UN Declaration of the Right to Development of 1986. From that deeply influential statement - adopted in Cold War conditions - has come the current thinking of a rights-based approach to development that seeks to bring about the promise of universal human rights and dignity.

The international human rights documents, including the Declaration on the Right to Development of 1986, are replete with references to the interdependent or mutually reinforcing relationship that exists between all categories of rights, - by which I mean civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, - within national protection systems. But these documents go one step further. They express the further requirement for effective enjoyment of those rights, whether a country is developing or developed, of a participatory democracy, based on the rule of law, as the only system of government that can ensure the implementation of all categories of rights. In short, the framework of values that guides a human rights approach to development is one that builds on development as a process committed to the guarantee of all human rights, the rule of law and democracy.

This holistic view is surely not far removed from the approach of the Bank in its actual practice on development. But history records a gulf between development and human rights specialists and advocates. This, at least in part, may have had to do with the dominant professions that became engaged in both fields. There was a time - it may still be the time - when human rights discourse was almost always that of the diplomats, lawyers and philosophers, while development thinking and writing was the domain of economists and other social scientists. This inheritance, and hopefully its demise, is captured in a comment in the Human Development Report 2000:
      “Until the last decade human development and human rights followed parallel paths in both concept and action - the one largely dominated by economists, social scientists and policy-makers, the other by political activists lawyers and philosophers. They promoted divergent strategies of analysis and action -economic and social progress on the one hand, political pressure, law reform and ethical questioning on the other.”

In its Annual Report 2001, the World Bank illustrates how that gap is being closed:
      “Poor people often lack legal rights that would empower them to take advantage of opportunities and protect them from arbitrary and inequitable treatment. They, more than any other group in society, are adversely affected by laws permitting discrimination, deficient laws and institutions that fail to protect individual and property rights, and insufficient enforcement of these laws, as well as other barriers to justice.”

This assessment of the effects of poverty is little different from a human rights analysis which defines poverty as “the sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights”. It is clear that there is convergence. The challenge is to use a common analysis and multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral approaches to achieve development and poverty reduction.

If these assumptions about the convergence and complementarity of human rights and development are shared, the issue remains - how in practical terms are we to make it work? How has human rights thinking moved from the affirmation of principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and developed through treaties and legal standards, to operational approaches which contribute to development?

At the Millennium Summit, the General Assembly pledged to “spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected.” There was also an explicit recognition of the link between the realization of the right to development and poverty reduction.

The process of making relevant operationally a human rights-based approach to poverty reduction is at the beginning stage. It is a story with many chapters and an increasing range of actors, working to achieve rigorous and operationally specific human rights based approaches to their work.

Rights-based approaches to development may be seen as the operational expression of the inextricable link between development and human rights. A rights-based approach is a conceptual framework for the process of human development that is normatively based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights. The rights-based approach integrates the norms, standards and principles of the international human rights system into the plans, policies and processes of development. The norms and standards are those contained in the wealth of international treaties and declarations that I have mentioned. The principles in question are: participation, empowerment, accountability, non-discrimination, and express linkages to international human rights norms and standards. But it should be emphasized that at the heart of a human rights approach must be the legal character of the international treaties that creates rights and duties.

Drawing from existing research and development experience, we might say that a human rights approach provides:
      • Enhanced accountability
      • Higher levels of empowerment, ownership and free, meaningful and active participation
      • Greater normative clarity and detail
      • Easier consensus and increased transparency in national development processes
      • A more complete and rational development framework
      • Integrated safeguards against unintentional harm by development projects
      • More effective and complete analysis, and
      • A more authoritative basis for advocacy.
Rights also lend moral legitimacy and the principle of social justice to development objectives, and help shift the focus of analysis to the most deprived and excluded, especially to deprivations caused by discrimination. A human rights approach involves attention being directed to the need for information and a political voice for all people as a development issue. It believes that civil and political rights should be acknowledged in practice as well as in theory as integral parts of the development process, and that economic, social and cultural rights should be recognized and implemented as human rights, rather than shrugged off as fanciful ideals or abstract absolutes.

Of these various principles, in my view the most defining attribute of human rights in development is the idea of accountability. I have in the past called for a more critical approach to the integration of human rights into the work of development - one that asks hard questions about obligations, duties and action. All partners in the development process - local, national, regional and international - must accept higher levels of accountability. Establishing ways to operationalize and evaluate institutions and mechanisms for accountability in development programming is therefore a defining challenge in the years ahead. I recognize the important conceptual work produced by the Bank in this area.

However, while much in the field of human rights and development is now settled on a level of general principle, expectations can be too high. A human rights-based approach in any given set of circumstances:
      • provides an analytical and procedural framework, including participation, for the consideration of the complex issues involved in the development equation, rather than definitive answers; it will not necessarily shed light on the requisite or even the best policy mix, and the discussion of trade offs will always be a difficult one.
      • It should not rely upon unrealistic assumptions concerning the practical value of formal redress through legal processes and institutions. Human rights need to be seen as open-textured and flexible, and capable of policy application in diverse situations in ways not limited to adjudication in courts and tribunals.

Human rights and development in practice

I would like to share with you some examples of the work my Office and others are doing to bridge this gap between the conceptual and programmatic domains, through concrete research and practice.
    • At the inter-agency level

Under the 1997 reforms, many important initiatives have been undertaken at inter-agency level, including working with the United Nations Development Group to incorporate human rights standards in the Common Country Assessment and United Nations Development Assistance Framework (CCA/UNDAF). Similar efforts have been made under the UN Strategy for Halving Extreme Poverty by 2015 and its Options for Action. We have been involved also in the preparation of human rights guidelines for UN Resident Coordinators as well as in encouraging various other initiatives directed at human rights integration. The “Human Rights Strengthening” (HURIST) joint programme between my Office and UNDP is an important and practically oriented laboratory for the learning and dissemination of such lessons and shared experiences.
    • Indigenous peoples

Human rights and development directly concern indigenous peoples and I would like to speak about specific activities and the lessons that I believe can be learnt from them. The World Bank is very much involved in these experiences.

The UN system, and the World Bank included, have only comparatively recently taken into account the concerns of indigenous peoples. The World Bank published its first policy documents on the question in 1982 (Operational Manual Statement (OMS) on "Tribal people in Bank-financed projects", February 1982 and, Tribal peoples and economic development: human ecological considerations, May 1982). In the same year, the United Nations established the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, an event that is regarded as the first formal contact between indigenous peoples and the United Nations. We can say, therefore, that both the World Bank and the United Nations took note of the issue at more or less the same time and have been actively engaged in a learning process with indigenous peoples for the past 20 years. What are the lessons and what are the policy implications for both the World Bank and ourselves?

At the beginning of this dialogue indigenous peoples said they had no universally recognized rights and, second and unexpectedly, claimed that the kind of development being proffered by international financial institutions and governments was not at all welcome. Indeed, development was sometimes equated not with improvements in living conditions but with marginalization, impoverishment and violations of human rights. At one point indigenous peoples characterized themselves as victims of development rather than its beneficiaries.

A lot has happened since then. The ILO adopted Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (1989) and the World Bank introduced operational directive 4.20 of September 1991, which is now undergoing a revision and will be released as a new policy on indigenous peoples (OD/BP 4.10) possibly next month. Other policy guidelines on indigenous peoples have been elaborated by the United Nations Development Programme, the Asian Development Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank as well as other international organizations. The United Nations itself is working towards the adoption of a declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples that will, sooner rather than later we hope, be adopted by the General Assembly.

The United Nations draft declaration states the link between human rights and development, namely that the one is not possible without the other. Thus, economic improvements cannot be envisaged without protection of land and resource rights. Rights over land need to include recognition of the spiritual relation indigenous peoples have with their ancestral territories. And the economic base that land provides needs to be accompanied by a recognition of indigenous peoples’ own political and legal institutions, cultural traditions and social organizations. Land and culture, development, spiritual values and knowledge are as one. To fail to recognize one is to fail on all.

Indigenous peoples see the exploitation by others of their knowledge, sciences, and creativity as a fundamental violation of their rights and seek protection. As a San participant in our training programme this year put it when she was describing the many film-makers that come to her community in Botswana: "The man is poor but the cassette is making good money". The Bank is well aware of these issues and has published numerous studies that underline the all-encompassing way in which indigenous peoples view their world.

I want now to say a few words about another activity in which I hope my Office and the World Bank will be close partners: the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Last year ECOSOC decided to establish the Permanent Forum, and the first session will be held in May in New York.

We are calling the Permanent Forum a pioneering body. Let me explain why. The Forum is established to provide advice to ECOSOC and in specific ways it may be deemed unique in the UN system. First, the Forum is all-encompassing, covering social and economic, environment, development, education, health, human rights and all matters affecting indigenous peoples. It is potentially a mechanism for combining all the diverse issues dealt with by the UN system in one common space so that they can be viewed in their totality, as a whole rather than in distinct parts. I believe the Forum offers us all an opportunity to work as one with a very clear test at the end: have our concerted efforts made a difference for indigenous peoples? We will see how the Forum works in practice. But the challenge of the Permanent Forum for the UN system is there and we need to rise to it.

There are other features of interest. For the first time we have a body in which indigenous peoples are real partners. The Permanent Forum has 16 members, 8 of whom are governmental appointees and 8 of whom are indigenous people. I know we stress the importance of "consultation", but this can sometimes mean that our civil society partners are invited to comment but the end result is determined elsewhere. This will not be the case with the Permanent Forum. The agenda, the discussions, the contents and the recommendations will be decided by indigenous and governmental experts. This is new.

The Permanent Forum will be open to all representatives of indigenous peoples. This means that the Forum will benefit from the participation of community representatives, elders, young people, women's groups, indigenous teachers or health associations, and so on. There will be no closed doors. This, too, is new. And if the experience of the UN's Working Group on Indigenous Populations is anything to go by, it will enormously enrich the discussions and legitimacy of the Forum.

Finally, the Forum requires that the UN system manage itself differently. The Forum is not a project of this High Commissioner. It cannot be, since the Permanent Forum covers such a broad range of questions. So we must find a management tool to ensure we serve the new Forum in a new way. I believe we have, together, come up with such a tool. The UN system, including the World Bank, has decided to propose that we create an inter-agency steering group for the Permanent Forum that would take joint managerial responsibility for the secretariat team that services the Forum. We will have to appoint the staff together. We will have to decide together how to implement the programme of work that may be recommended by the Forum. We will have to take responsibility as a group for the successes and failures and we will have to learn together. Of all the challenges the new Permanent Forum offers, perhaps the need for the UN system to work together may be the most difficult. We shall see. The Bank is fully behind this endeavour and the inter-agency steering group will need to draw on your experience.
    • Gender

Gender is an issue which both human rights and development experts have recognized belatedly as a necessary component of their work. Internationally adopted human rights standards can provide useful guidance in improving women’s rights, and a major focus of international human rights law has been discrimination. 168 States have undertaken to apply the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Ratification of this and other legal standards on gender equality and on the rights of women provide a reference, and a means of avoiding cultural sensitivity traps.

The Bank's work on poverty reduction strategies points out that "gender-sensitive development strategies contribute significantly to economic growth as well as to equity objectives". The Bank's recent, and excellent, report on "Engendering Development" sums up much of the growing evidence on the extent to which gender disparities lead to economically inefficient outcomes and result in slower growth and lower levels of welfare.

Some dimensions of the impact of gender on economic growth and development have long been recognized. Improving access to education for girls and women reduces child mortality and improves the nutritional status of children, and improving gender equality in secondary education has been linked to increases in per capita income. When women lack the right to inherit or to own property, the resulting rigidities in gender roles influence the effectiveness of development strategies. For example, women who do not own land or whose low social status limits their access to agricultural extension services have less opportunity to increase productivity. Let us keep in mind that the two core human rights instruments that provide the framework for achieving gender equality are the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Dare I pose the question: have members of the Board of the Bank examined the small print of these documents?
    • HIV/AIDS

Appreciation of the linkages between health and human rights as complementary approaches to the advancement of human well-being is growing. There is greater recognition of the centrality of human rights to global health challenges and increased attention is being given to the accountability of States under international law for issues related to health. And there is recognition of the need to address the right to health in light of the social and economic conditions that allow people to lead healthy lives, such as access to safe drinking water, food and nutrition, housing, and to education and information related to health matters - including sexual and reproductive health.

In many respects, HIV/AIDS has broken new ground for a better understanding of these linkages. A lack of respect for human rights is linked to virtually every aspect of the AIDS epidemic, from the factors that cause or increase vulnerability to HIV infection, to discrimination based on stigma attached to people living with HIV/AIDS, to the factors that limit the ability of individuals and communities to respond effectively to the epidemic. This link is apparent in the disproportionate incidence and spread of the disease among certain groups including, in particular, people living in poverty. It is also apparent in the fact that the overwhelming burden of the epidemic today is borne by developing countries, where the disease threatens to reverse vital achievements in human development. There is clear evidence that where individuals and communities are able to realize their rights – to education, free association, information and, most importantly, non-discrimination - the incidence and impact of HIV and AIDS are reduced.

We have also seen a growing commitment by States to the promotion and protection of human rights in relation to global health issues. At the General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS, for example, States committed themselves to the realization of human rights as an essential part of the international response to the pandemic. At the World Conference against Racism, States recognized the need to address the impact of racism as a determinant of health status and access to health care, including measures to prevent genetic research from being used for discriminatory purposes.

The Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health adopted in Doha sent an important signal regarding the need to balance intellectual property rights against public health priorities for developing countries. The Declaration stresses the need for TRIPS to be interpreted in a manner “supportive of WTO members’ right to protect public health” and to promote access to medicines, particularly with regard to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other epidemics.


Mr. President,

I would like to return to the events of 11th September and conclude with some reflections. I read your recent newspaper article which carried the headline "Rich Nations Can Remove World Poverty as a Source of Conflict". As I hope will have been clear from what I have said, I agree with the analysis and prescription. We must as you said fight poverty and exclusion world wide. I would add only the issues of non- discrimination and dialogue. Globalization was addressed recently at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa. While noting the positive opportunities offered by globalization, the Conference Programme of Action warned that globalization can also aggravate poverty, underdevelopment, marginalization, social exclusion, cultural homogenization and economic disparities along racial lines.

The Durban Conference expressed determination to ensure that the economic growth resulting from globalization is channeled to eradicate poverty, inequality and deprivation. A central element in the new globalization must be the fight against all forms of intolerance. That requires intensifying dialogue between all cultures and regions. The events of 11 September have made this all the more urgent.

Amartya Sen wrote recently that the central issue, directly or indirectly, in the growing scepticism about the global order is inequality - between as well as within nations. To address that inequality I believe we need what Guy Verhofstadt, the Prime Minister of Belgium and current President of the European Union, has called ethical globalization. For me the foundations of ethical globalization are the international human rights standards making all rights available to all.

I believe there is convergence of thinking between the human rights agenda and the World Bank agenda. The bridge is built. We are dealing with the same intractable challenges to human betterment but from different approaches and with different resources. Lawyers should not be the only voice in human rights and, equally, economists should not be the only voice in development.

The challenge now is to demonstrate how the assets represented by human rights principles, a form of international public good, can be of value in pursuing the overarching development objective, the reduction of poverty.

Recently, I was glad to accept the invitation by the Bank to endorse the third volume of the Voices of the Poor, “From Many Lands”. One testimony contained in this third and last volume of the series touched me particularly. Fernando from Brazil said: “In a favela people have no idea of their rights. We have police discrimination; the politicians abuse us, and others use their knowledge to take advantage of us. So I want to know all about rights and obligations.”…

Together we must ensure that his testimony is heard.

Thank You.