Eight Principles for a Sustainability Rights Framework

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By the Civil Society Reflection Group on Global Development:

"We are facing societal and ecological disaster. The State can respond quickly to this, if based on democratic legitimacy and accountability. In times of growing global interrelationship between societies, economies and people, universally agreed principles are the precondition for living together in justice, peace and in harmony with nature. Here we propose eight principles as the foundation for a new sustainability rights framework.

In late 2010, an alliance of civil society groups, networks and foundations, including the Third World Network, Social Watch, DAWN, the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, Global Policy Forum, terre des hommes, and the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, launched the so called “Civil Society Reflection Group on Global Development Perspectives”. The group consists of about 15 leading civil society activists, experts and academics from around the globe. The group assesses conventional and alternative models of development and well-being, reconsiders development goals and indicators, including the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), draws conclusions for future development strategies and provides specific policy recommendations for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development 2012. For that purpose, the group made a submission to the compilation document prepared by the conference bureau. The time around the Summits 2012 (Rio+20) and 2013 (the next conference evaluating progress towards the MDGs) provides a unique window of opportunity to reconsider the current development paradigm and to develop strategies towards a holistic, rights-based approach of global development and well-being. The Reflection Group wants to contribute to this process of rethinking.

Group Members : Barbara Adams (Global Policy Forum, US), Beryl d’Almeida (Abandoned Babies Committee, Zimbabwe), Alejandro Chanona Burguete (National Autonomous University of Mexico), Chee Yoke Ling (Third World Network, China), Ernst Ulrich von Weizsaecker (Germany), Filomeno Santa Ana III (Action for Economic Reforms, Philippines), George Chira (terre des hommes India), Gigi Francisco (Development Alternatives with Women for the New Era, Philippines), Henning Melber (Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, Sweden), Jorge Ishizawa (Proyecto Andino de Tecnologias Campesinas, Peru), Karma Ura (Centre for Bhutan Studies, Bhutan), Roberto Bissio (Third World Institute/Social Watch, Uruguay) Victoria Tauli-Corpuz (Tebtebba Foundation, Philippines), Yao Graham (Third World Network-Africa, Ghana), Jens Martens (Global Policy Forum Europe, Germany), Hubert Schillinger (Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, Germany), Danuta Sacher (terre des hommes Germany)." (http://www.world-governance.org/spip.php?article806)


By the Civil Society Reflection Group on Global Development:

"The world is in need of fundamental change. We live in a world in turmoil; too many people are tossed around in a global boom and bust, a global casino gambling with our livelihoods, our security, our futures and our planet.

We live in a world where the top 20 percent of the population enjoy more than 70 percent of total income and those in the bottom quintile get only two percent of global income. Gains from economic growth and globalization have been unevenly shared. In most countries, the rich have become richer at the expense of the middle class and low-income groups. Unfettered economic growth has further increased social inequalities even though it has generated the resources to do the opposite and finance more equitable access to public and essential services. Persistent poverty, unemployment, social exclusion and higher levels of inequality are threatening care systems, social cohesion and political stability.

We live in a world where 50 percent of carbon emissions are generated by 13 percent of the population. Fast spreading unsustainable production and consumption patterns have been linked to the rapid depletion of natural resources, including clean water, as well as to unequal sharing of the promised “benefits” of economic growth and expanding trade. They have led to global warming that produces rising sea levels, higher frequency of extreme weather conditions, desertification and deforestation. For bio-diversity, the loss of environmental heritage is permanent. We have exceeded the ecological limits and ignore the planetary boundaries. With the climate change threat we are already living on borrowed time. However, we refuse to cut back on emissions and allocate the scarce resources to those who have not yet benefitted from their exploitation.

All too often national and international policies have not aimed to reduce inequalities. Their dedication to stimulating economic growth has provided the incentives to exploit nature, rely on the use of fossil fuels and deplete biodiversity, undermining the provision of essential services as countries compete in a race to the bottom offering lower taxes and cheaper labor as incentives.

Persistent discrimination locks women in precarious reproductive work and violence. Women, especially the poor, remain socially discriminated and in many places are deprived of their bodily, reproductive and sexual rights. This makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and violence inside and outside their homes. Care work which is often undertaken by women within households, is given no value or recognition. Women’s livelihoods and productive activities that include all forms of health care work are often left unprotected and unsupported. All these are made more distressed during times of economic crises and by policies that favor profit over social provisioning.

Biodiversity and the bounty of nature, while cherished, are not respected, protected or valued. Communities and populations that seek to live in harmony with nature find their rights ignored and their livelihoods and cultures jeopardized.

Why has this happened? Certainly it is not because of a lack of awareness or attention of policy makers at the highest levels. The climate change danger, cited in the mid-1980s at a conference of the WMO, was brought center stage in 1987 by the Brundtland Report, as was the urgency of biodiversity loss. The momentum carried to the Rio conference in 1992, which launched framework conventions on climate change and biodiversity as well as on desertification. It also adopted the Rio Declaration principles, the Forest Principles and a plan of action, Agenda 21. The global conferences of the 1990s focused on issues of human rights and social equity and adopted blueprints to tackle injustices from social exclusion and gender discrimination. In the Millennium Declaration of 2000, member states committed themselves “to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level” as “a duty to all the world’s people, especially the most vulnerable and, in particular, the children of the world, to whom the future belongs”.

Over the last 20 years, however, the ideals and principles of Rio have been overshadowed, as implementation has mostly not occurred. Similarly, a host of international commitments to human rights and gender justice have not been fulfilled. World product per capita has more than doubled in the last two decades, yet with widening disparities. Globalization has yielded millions of poor quality jobs. Financial and commodity speculation has undercut food security and turned millions of hectares of land away from growing food and into unsustainable uses. Little has been done to change patterns of production and consumption that pollute, erode biodiversity and lead inexorably to climate change. 45 countries with a total population of 1.2 billion people have managed to achieve social indicators that are better than the world average with per capita emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels below the world average. And none of them are labeled as “high income”. Yet, similar to other middle-income countries and those considered as “least developed”, they often find their space for making domestic policy choices to achieve sustainable development squeezed by external demands, conditionalities and impositions that press them to take steps such as to slash tax rates and spending on social services.

Economic policies have on many occasions contradicted the commitments made to rights and sustainability as they and their related national and international institutions occupy the apex of governance domains. They have relied too much on markets to allocate societies’ resources and distribute their wealth, singling out GDP growth as the ultimate measure of well-being. The result has been increased concentration and bigger market share ratios of a few transnational corporations, including in the food and medicine sectors.

This deliberate policy choice of hands-off came to a head when, ignited in the USA, it exploded into the global financial crisis in 2008, intensifying inequalities further as the resulting job losses and income cuts hit low-income groups disproportionately. Yet, relentlessly, the policy responses squeezed societies and communities further, relying on the same market actors that had been wrong before, paying little or no heed to the already fragile human and ecological systems, and pushing societies and communities to the breaking point.

Despite evidence that counter-cyclical policies acted as effective shock absorbers and enhanced resilience, many governments have sacrificed social expenditures to neo-liberal orthodoxy and a stronger dependence on financial markets. The costs of inaction and the mal-action of business as usual are amassing a mountain of social and ecological liabilities. High unemployment especially of young people, increasing food prices and widespread unfairness have created a climate of social and political tension and unrest in many countries. In countries around the globe, from Cairo to Manhattan to New Delhi, people take to the streets to express their anger with the status quo and their unwillingness to accept it any longer. Their motives and goals may differ according to the unique circumstances they live in – but their demands are all similar: greater justice and more freedom from the pressure of the “markets” and their faithful agents.

Why is governance failing us so badly? States have reneged on their democratic values and governments have become less accountable to the people. Universal norms and standards are being ignored or side-stepped by new rules that favor markets. Risks are being borne by those who had no role in taking them while a new classification of “too-big-to-fail” has re-ordered the distribution of public resources. We are confronted with a hierarchy of rights with those protecting human and eco systems relegated to the lowest rungs. This situation finds its parallels in governance at the national and international levels. Further, the fragmented global governance has led to missing the big picture and setting low demands that treat symptoms not causes.

Decades of wrong-headed policies and the impact of multiple policy failures have inevitably highlighted the role of the state and how important it is. Responses to the failure of the financial system show that the state can act and will act quickly in the face of perceived disaster with money and policies. But, the required stronger role of the state must be based on democratic legitimacy and accountability and be balanced by effective participation of civil society.

We are living in a period of turmoil, facing societal and ecological disaster. We demand of states that they act now promptly and effectively in the face of this disaster." (http://www.world-governance.org/spip.php?article806)


By the Civil Society Reflection Group on Global Development:

"The framework of universal principles and rights

The need for universal principles. Every concept of development, well-being and progress in societies is based on a set of fundamental principles and values. These values are rooted deeply in our culture, our ideologies and our belief systems. We are convinced, that there is a set of universal principles and values that is shared by most of us. Common principles and values build the foundation of societies. We acknowledge the diversity of cultural expressions as a value in itself that has to be protected and promoted. In times of globalization and growing global interrelationship between societies, economies and people, universally agreed principles are the precondition for living together in justice, peace and in harmony with nature.

A set of existing principles as common ground. There is no need to invent principles and values of this kind. In national constitutions as well as in various international treaties, declarations and policy statements of the United Nations, governments have agreed upon certain fundamental principles, which are essential to societies and international relations." (http://www.world-governance.org/spip.php?article806)

The 8 Principles

"We propose the following set of eight principles as the foundation for a new sustainability rights framework:

Solidarity principle.

Solidarity has been a widely accepted principle in many national constitutions to govern the relationship of citizens within a country. Central to this concept is the equality of citizens and their shared responsibility for a common good. In the notion of solidarity, assistance is not an act of charity, but a right of every woman, man and child. Solidarity differs radically from charity and philanthropy. In times of globalization, this concept has been transferred to the international level. In the Millennium Declaration, governments listed solidarity as one of the core values: “Global challenges must be managed in a way that distributes the costs and burdens fairly in accordance with basic principles of equity and social justice. Those who suffer or who benefit least deserve help from those who benefit most.” Today, the notion of solidarity is accepted as a key principle in various international agreements such as the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification from 1994.

Do no harm principle.

Originally a key principle of medical ethics reflected in the promise of the Hippocratic Oath “to abstain from doing harm”, this principle has become relevant to other areas. For instance it has been included in humanitarian principles of UNICEF since 2003 and has been adopted in a code of conduct of major humanitarian organizations. In essence, the commitment to implement policies in a way that they do no harm to people or nature should be regarded as a guiding principle in all policy areas and at all levels.

Principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

This principle marks one of the milestones of the Rio Declaration from 1992. Its Principle 7 states: “In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.” For the first time in history, governments recognized their differential present and historical contribution to environmental degradation and, thus, their differential obligation to pay for the remediation and mitigation. By including the historical dimension it goes beyond the principle of “special and differential treatment” based on economic capabilities and needs, as contained in WTO Agreements. The principle is a key element of the Kyoto Protocol but its application must not be limited to the climate negotiations.

Polluter pays principle.

The simple message of this principle is that the costs of pollution have to be borne by those who cause it. This principle has been part of international environmental law since the 1970s, and was reaffirmed in the Rio Declaration, Principle 16: “National authorities should endeavor to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution (...).” While this principle is widely acknowledged in international environmental law, it should be applied in other areas as well. In the context of the recent financial crisis, many asked for the “polluters”, i.e. the banks and the financial industry, to bear the costs of the crisis. As the European Commissioner Michel Barnier said: “I believe in the ‘polluter pays’ principle. We need to build a system which ensures that the financial sector will pay the cost of banking crises in the future.”

Precautionary Principle.

This principle states that in the absence of a scientific consensus if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to people or nature, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on the proponents of this action or policy. It is also laid down in the Rio Declaration, which says in Principle 15: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” After Rio this principle has been incorporated into many other international agreements, such as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety from the year 2000 with regard to the transboundary movement of living modified organisms and their products.

Subsidiarity Principle.

According to this principle political decisions must always be taken at the lowest possible administrative and political level, and as close to the citizens as possible, in order to ensure that women and men fully participate in decision-making. This idea is a core element of concepts of federalism and one of the central principles in the treaties of the European Union. Indigenous peoples regard this principle as an essential tool to preserve their identity, diversity and cultures. The principle recognizes the inherent democratic right to self-determination for people, communities, and nations, but only as long as its exercise does not infringe on similar rights of others. Therefore, it must not be misused as an argument against central governmental action at national or international levels, but must always be applied in combination with the other principles, in particular the solidarity principle.

Principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

According to this principle communities have the right to give or withhold their consent to proposed projects and actions by governments or corporations, that may affect their livelihood and the lands they customarily own, occupy or otherwise use. This principle is a key element of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from 2007 and recognized in the ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (169/1989). However, this principle is not limited to the rights of indigenous peoples. It is also laid down in the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent procedure for certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides in international trade from 1998. This convention provides, inter alia, for importing countries to receive information on a chemical being exported from a country that has banned or severely restricted it for health or environmental reasons.

Principle of peaceful dispute settlement.

This principle is a core element of the UN Charter, which says in Article 2: “All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” In the Manila Declaration of 1982 governments reconfirmed that the peaceful settlement of disputes should represent one of the central concerns for states and for the UN (A/RES/37/10, 15 November 1982).

These eight principles shall build the cornerstones of a universal sustainability rights framework. They are interconnected and must not be applied in isolation." (http://www.world-governance.org/spip.php?article806)


The essential values of freedom, equality, diversity and the respect for nature. In addition to the core set of universal principles, there are fundamental values, which are also essential to international relations. Governments referred to some of them in the Millennium Declaration.

They include, inter alia:

Freedom. Men, women and children have the right to live their lives in dignity, free from hunger and from the fear of violence, oppression or injustice. Democratic and participatory governance based on the will of the people best assures these rights. But there are limits to freedom – namely where the freedom of our peers is touched. “Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters” (Rosa Luxemburg). And freedom has its limits in the principle of “do no harm”.

Equality. No individual and no nation or group must be denied the opportunity to participate in and to benefit from development. Equal rights and opportunities of women and men must be assured. Equality includes the concept of intergenerational justice, i.e. the recognition that the present generation shall only meet its needs in a way that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Diversity. Human beings must respect one other, in all their diversity of belief, culture, language, looks, sexual orientation, and gender. Differences within and between societies should be neither feared nor repressed, but cherished as a precious asset of humanity. A culture of peace and dialogue should be actively promoted.

Respect for nature. Prudence must be shown in the conduct towards all living species and the use of natural resources. Only in this way can the immeasurable riches provided to us by nature be preserved and passed on to our descendants. The current unsustainable patterns of production and consumption must be changed in the interest of our future welfare and that of our descendants. Respect for nature means much more than sound management of the human environment: it means that all living species have intrinsic rights. They should not be regarded as objects of human interaction but as subjects with value that goes beyond use and exchange. This understanding of nature as a living system is reflected in the thinking and believe systems of indigenous peoples, for instance in the concept of Buen Vivir. (http://www.world-governance.org/spip.php?article806)

Conclusion on Rights

Failure to translate the principles into practice. While all governments agreed to these principles in general, they have mostly failed to translate them into enforceable obligations and specific policies. If governments had taken the solidarity principle seriously, poverty and hunger could have been reduced dramatically; if they really accepted the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, the Copenhagen climate summit would not have ended in such a disaster; and had they complied with the precautionary principle, nuclear catastrophes such as those of Chernobyl and Fukushima could have been avoided.

Turning principles into rights. In order to ensure the functioning of a society and create safeguards against tyranny, values have to be translated into law, rights and legally binding obligations. At international level, the human rights system plays a key role in turning moral values into legal rights. Of particular importance is the International Bill of Human Rights that includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Equally significant are the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. More recently, these key documents have been complemented by the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). Together with the Declaration on the Right to Development (1986) and complemented by the core set of principles we mentioned above, these documents can form the normative framework of a holistic concept of sustainability, well-being and societal progress.

Rebalancing rights. While the norms of the international human rights system are generally accepted and ratified by most countries of the world, there is still a huge implementation gap. Even worse: while states and their organs at national and international levels too often failed to respect, protect and fulfill human rights, over the last two decades they have strengthened corporate rights and the rights of capital. They promoted the free movement of capital, but restricted the free movement of people; they strengthened the rights of transnational investors, but weakened the rights of people affected by these investments. Transnational corporations may nowadays sue governments at international fora for any change in the rules, including health regulations, that affect their actual or planned profits, but people are hindered from suing companies for the pollution and other harmful practices inflicted upon them. There is an urgent need to rebalance rights, i.e. to reclaim human rights as the normative foundation of policy, and to roll-back the rights of capital in relation to the rights of people.

Filling the gaps in the rights system. There are not only gaps in the implementation of rights but also gaps in the international rights system itself. Certain principles and values, such as the principle of intergenerational justice and the respect for nature are not explicitly translated into (codified) rights yet. There is a need of intensified debate and research on how to include the concepts of the rights of nature and intergenerational justice in the international normative system and turn them into practice.

From theory to practice: Translating principles and rights into strategies, goals and policies. To translate fundamental principles into internationally agreed rights and obligations is only the first step. The next is to formulate political goals and strategies to implement these rights. Here, public policies play a crucial role. Democratically legitimized public authorities, particularly governments and parliaments, have the main obligation to implement a rights-based approach of sustainability, well-being and societal progress. They must not transfer this obligation to the private sector or to civil society.

Redirecting policies towards present and future justice

Consequences from the failure to translate principles and rights into policies. In the past decades governments agreed formally on an almost comprehensive set of sustainability principles and human rights, but they failed to bring their policies effectively into line with them. Instead, policies are still too often sectorally fragmented and misguided with an overreliance on economic growth and self-regulation of the “markets”. New concepts like “green growth” are at best attempts to treat the symptoms of the problems without tackling their root causes. What is therefore needed are fundamental changes at three levels: in the mindset, the guiding concepts and indicators of development and progress; in fiscal and regulatory policies (at national and international levels) in order to overcome effectively social inequalities and the degradation of nature and to strengthen sustainable economies; and in institutions and governance mechanisms (at national and international levels).

Changing the dominant mindset. The mindset of many opinion leaders and political decision-makers worldwide is still focused on economic growth and market-driven solutions as the panacea for all economic, social and environmental problems in the world. Governments are not (and should not be) in a position to change the dominant mindset by command and control. But they are obliged to draw lessons from the failures of the past and reformulate the overall objectives of their policies and related concepts and metrics that guide them. Instead of subordinating their policies to the overarching goal of maximizing GDP growth, the leitmotif of their policies should be to maximize the well-being of the people without compromising the well-being of future generations by respecting the planetary boundaries." (http://www.world-governance.org/spip.php?article806)