Sustainable Development: A First and Second Generation Human Right

Human rights issues surrounding Sustainable Development

In the modern global world there is an overwhelming amount of people who live in and die from poverty each and every day. Statistically it is an issue that it, to say the least, overwhelming and shows no sign of stopping. In fact when comparing statistical information about this issue poverty, on a year to year basis, is clearly growing at an incredible rate across the globe.

Poverty is the main cause for hunger and malnutrition. Unemployment and unjust wages prevent many millions of people from getting the basic foods and clean water needed to sustain life. With out the ‘fuel’ needed to run the ‘human machine’ the body is weekend, the immune system compromised and soon after the hungry become ill and ultimately die from simple diseases.

According to the Bread for the world Institute web site ( in 2004 Over 1.2 million people world wide were living well below the international poverty line, earning less then one dollar per day. 852 million people we’re hungry world wide (an increase of ten million people in 2003). Of this number more than sixteen thousand children per day, close to six million a year, die from hunger and hunger-related illness. Even more disturbing is the fact that more than 11 million children under five years old die every year due to issues of being born under weight. Simple illnesses such as diarrhea, and the measles play a large role in this disturbing number.

Furthermore diet plays a substantial role; iron deficiencies and the lack of vitamins and minerals which contribute largely to the problem, could simply be solved by a more diverse diet (ie: meat, vegetables, fruits, clean water, and oats/grains). Unfortunately for many diet diversity is an impossible dream.

Many of the people afflicted by hunger are unable to provide for themselves and their families. The reasons are simple;they lack the skills necessary to work, there is a lack of employment opportunities or where employment exists a lack of fair wages, and a lack of resources such as availability of food, clean water and diversity of diet.

The other issue at are the lack of medical treatment for people who are afflicted by hunger and subsequent illnesses resulting from hunger. In many of the third world countries where extreme poverty is ever present there is an extreme shortage of medical supplies, medicines, and skilled medical professionals. Many of these countries lack the facilitates necessary to the treatment of the sick and dying.

Preventative measures for poverty include the availability and opportunity for both children and uneducated adults to receive schooling. Education is the fundamental tool in providing basic skills such as mathematics, reading, writing and critical thinking. These skills assist the educated in securing good jobs which provide good income. Education is the fundamental foundation for individuals to be able to independently support themselves and their families.

What it all boils down to is the question of human rights. Does every human being have the fundamental right to have adequate food, clean water, shelter, and medical treatment? These things are the basic necessities of life and millions die with out them so, is it the responsibility of society and our fellow man to step in and help provide these necessities and the opportunity to improved living conditions where they are not present? According to many social groups, humanitarians and government organizations the answer is yes.

All humans have the right to an adequate standard of living and the tools and opportunities to obtain said standards, regardless of who or what they are, just for simply being born human. This very concept is the basis of sustainable development.

Defining Sustainable Development

To begin to look at sustainable development as a fundamental human right we must first fully define what Sustainable development is. It is also important to bear in mind the separate entities which make up the over all movement.

The right to development is the right, for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, religious background, gender, and/or political affiliation to live in a climate which advances the basic conditions of life including economic, political, social and environmental. When these rights are obtained it guarantees the fundamental human right for all humans to live at a basic standard of life and dignity.

At the heart of sustainable development is the globally needed changes which include eradicating poverty and unemployment, providing the opportunity for education, and spreading the resources of healthcare to the areas that are in desperate need, especially third-world and developing countries.

Sustainable development includes conditions of environmental conservation and protection as well. With out the resources provided by the environment the right for basic necessities of life such as uncontaminated water and food is at jeopardy. Furthermore it is of note that agricultural development and conservation with in the environment provide for more jobs, and more resources thus helping to bridge social and economic development, which is vital to the rights of all humans. To understand this we must further define both types of development and examine how they come together.

Social development ensures that the basic necessities of life are being provided to human beings. These necessities include access to education which decreases poverty by providing people with the skills they need to succeed in a working life; access to health services, which provides for the general well being of those who are sick and either can not afford medical treatment, or b) can afford treatment but do not have access to it due to lack of supplies (medicine, needles, ointments etc.) or lack of medical personnel; access to food and clean water, a major problem when considering how many people die of dehydration and hunger every day; shelter, which provides protection from natural sources such as storms, cold temperature, and wild animals all of which contribute to disease and death; and finally access to employment including the provision of fair wages, which provides the means necessary to acquiring food, shelter, and medical treatment.

Economic development builds upon social development providing the economic tools necessary to providing such social rights. With in economic development lies the availability of work and the skills for people to secure such employment. By providing the skills and opportunity to uses those skills in a structure which allows for a fair income, individuals are given the independence of supporting themselves and their families and thus guaranteeing basic human rights. Industry, agricultural, and participation in the global economy are all important and fundamental pieces of economic development. Economic and social development are two halves of puzzle that when joined together provide the fundamental human rights of sustainable development.

One last note about the fundamental link between environmental movement and sustainable development is that all humans are entitled to live in an unpolluted environment. This means that as economic development grows that it must include a priority of environmental conservation and preservation. If this is not present then economic development can trample the social and environmental rights of a people. I think a great example of this is the Ford Motor’s plant which once operated right here in Mahwah, New Jersey.

The Ford plant was the largest in the country at the time it was built in the early 1950’s and brought many jobs and a booming economy to Mahwah. The expansion of industry (economic development) lead to more homes, more families and lower poverty (social development). However, due to the company and it’s contractors not properly disposing of hazardous wastes, and literally dumping paint sludge and car parts through out the state many areas have seen negative effects to their environment and subsequently human health. For example, in nearby Ringwood NJ, a major dump site, their have been increased cases of some cancers and several cases of rare diseases sometimes with fatal results. There have also been instances in which homes were completely abandoned, and/or destroyed because the area was so contaminated by the waste and posed a substantial human health risk. In this case the economic development disregarded preservation and conservation and while providing one group (the workers and their families) with the tools for social and economic development deprived another group of the same fundamental rights such as health and shelter.

It is apparent that sustainable development is more than just guaranteeing a few jobs or providing a starving family with canned soup, rather it is an important balance between the basic necessities of life, the providing of opportunities for people to independently obtain these necessities and to do so in a way that does not create a toxic wasteland.

Activism with in the Social Movement

Now that we have a clear definition of the issue and the rights surrounding it, we can begin to look at the organizations which promote and work toward the common vision of achieving sustainable development.

There are many globalized organizations which work to improve and provide development conditions and ensure that all humans are given the right to partake and benefit from it. These activist groups contribute to the advancement of many related policies including international trade, economy (including fair trade, and fair wages) education and environmental protection and conservation among others.

We will focus on two specific organizations with in the movement, NOVIB, and The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). Both groups are focused on a separate but equally important issues which ultimately contribute to the over all movement. We will explore the work and goals of each of these two organizations as well as the scope of their influence on the movement as a whole.

Before discussing the groups I feel it is important to first look at one major work, written to further define the goal of sustainable development; the Declaration on the Right to Development adopted by the United Nations general assembly on December 4th, 1986 . The Declaration is a document of 10 articles which outline the “inalienable right” to participate and benefit from development.

Articles 1-2 out line and guarantee the rights of individuals with regards to development. Articles 3-8 speak on the responsibilities of the states to provide for and promote conditions of Sustained Development and that they should guarantee the opportunity to persons regardless of race, sex, religion etc. to participate and benefit from development. Articles 9 and 10 speak on the indivisibility, and use of the document in the both a general context and with in the established ideals of the United Nations.

The context of this declaration gives us clear guidelines in how to fully examine the organizations which work with in the realm of sustainable development. There are three articles that are of particular note.

Article 1 part one,:

” The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.”

article 2 part three,:

“States have the right and the duty to formulate appropriate national development policies that aim at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals, on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of the benefits resulting therefrom.”

and, article 8 part one:

“States should undertake, at the national level, all necessary measures for the realization of the right to development and shall ensure, inter alia, equality of opportunity for all in their access to basic resources, education, health services, food, housing, employment and the fair distribution of income. Effective measures should be undertaken to ensure that women have an active role in the development process. Appropriate economic and social reforms should be carried out with a view to eradicating all social injustices.”

The basic principals of these articles are clear: it is the right of all humans to have a basic standard of living derived from the right to participate in sustainable development, that states need to promote and support those rights with active polices which do so and fulfills the realization of said rights fully and without limitation.

It is with in the context of the Declaration on the Right to Development, specifically these three articles, that I will examine the two organizations I have researched in terms of their focus, their goals, and their over all contribution to the issue as a whole .

International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)

The first organization we will look at is the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). The IISD is a Canadian based organization which develops and advocates policies which contribute toward their goal of ‘better living for all’ as stated in their vision. They work toward their goals by working with “decision makers in government, business, NGO’s, and other sectors to develop and implement policies that are simultaneously beneficial to the global economy, the global environment and to social well-being.1 “

IISD’s main focus is the spread of knowledge and resources with in the movement. They ‘advance policy recommendations’ on several topics such as natural resource management, trade, and economic policy. Much of IISD’s work is focused in Canada but does include international work with in trade and investments on five continents. IISD also conducts research and works to have the results implemented to further the goal of sustainable development. They often act as consultants to government and business organizations when considering policies concerning development. Finally the utilize the internet as a means of spreading their knowledge globally. Their well organized site ( is home to much information collected by their research and work.

Additionally IISD hosts a second resource site ( IISD Linkages. This site is designed to be a resource for environmental and development policy makers. It includes articles on sustainable development, human development, trade and a host of environmental issues. As a resource site is loaded with relevant and important information. Many documents are reports which follow conferences which have been held world wide for a variety of sub issues with in the movement.

It is quite clear that IISD works mainly with in the social theoretical realm but also some what in the political arena on this issue. Their research is based on social theory, a social hypothesis if you will, and later the conclusions of the research is transformed and used for political mean. They work to advise policy makers on changes which could and theoretically should advance and/or improve social, economic and environmental issues. The political means are the advancement of policies which protect, insure and promote sustainable development.

IISD’s work adheres to and supports the responsibilities of governments to provide their people with the opportunities and tools to take part in sustainable development as provided by the Declaration of the right to Development articles 2 part one and 8 part three. IISD predominantly focuses on the economic development of industry and investment which contributes to social development and the eradication of poverty and hunger. Further more their stance on environmental responsibility and the conservation of resources with in economic development demonstrates their values in full realization of basic human rights.


NOVIB is an organization based in the Netherlands working towards eradicating hunger. NOVIB is one of twelve independent organizations which make up Oxfam International, an alliance which believes poverty and exclusion is a violation of human rights.

NOVIB’s work stems from three separate but equally important areas of activism to achieve their goal of ‘Ensuring poor people have access to basic right’ such as food, water, and shelter. These three ways are support for projects, lobbying and campaigning.

We will begin with NOVIB’s support of local development projects developing countries. These projects are headed by local organizations which receive funding, advice and the opportunity for a learning experience from NOVIB. At this time they are supporting projects run by 861 organizations in 61 countries. In this way they are working in the social realm of the movement, supporting separate works globally to contribute to the advancement of the movement and the inherent human rights contained with in.

Secondly NOVIB advocates policy changes to help achieve a ‘poverty-fee world’. They lobby mainly in the Netherlands however under the frame work of Oxfam they also contribute to international lobbying as well in terms of advocating fair trade practices. In this area they work in a more political way. NOVIB uses it’s influence to support and introduce changes on important issues.

Lastly NOVIB campaigns to increase awareness, support and involvement in their activities. This includes finding volunteers and monetary donations as well. One way in which they campaign is through their web site which promotes their ideals and gives the viewer an opportunity to join and/or donate to the cause. On this issue NOVIB takes both a political and social stance. Their actions are geared toward both the public whom they want to help support the advancement of their agenda, as well as the policy makers who have the power to initiate real changes in law.

Currently NOVIB is involved in two official campaigns which are focused on separate areas of Sustainable Development. The first is Make Trade Fair, a campaign which advocates reform in the world market place and the creation of laws which will allow for poorer countries to make better profits on their exports, which for the most part are raw materials such as cocoa beans and cotton. Make Trade Fair is based on the belief that with a radical change in the rules world trade could be part of the solution to eradicating poverty instead of contributing to it.

The second campaign is Educate Now! The goal of Education now is to persuade governments and private institutions to fund education programs. According to the Education Now web site their are over 115 million children that do not have the opportunity to receive an education. This includes basic education of math, science, reading and writing. There are an overwhelming amount of the population which is illiterate and has no opportunity to correct this. The denial of this right contributes to the increasing poverty and inability of individuals to become independently stable. Without education many people in third world countries are unable to find jobs, and if they do find employment it is usually at menial jobs making (what should be) criminally low wages.

NOVIB subscribes to the more political area of the issue. This is apparent through their lobbying and campaigning strategies in defeating poverty and promoting development. They attempt to persuade governments to contribute time, money, effort and resources in the global fight for education, fair trade and the subsequent eradication of poverty.

This organization stands strongly in the scope Article 1 part one of the Declaration of the right to Development. It is self evident in their campaigns that their work is the realization and support for the person them self regardless of origin or status. Furthermore they use lobbying and campaigning to influence the governments themselves, as per the guidelines of Amendment 2 and Amendment 8.

Sustainable Development in terms of theory and progress

The theory I believe fits this issue best is the theory of cognitive liberation. For thousands of years the world was based on ‘survival of the fittest’. All though humanity may have shed a tear for conditions of immense poverty, resources and activism has never been as prevalent as it has been today. Since people afflicted with poverty have been considered in one way or another as being victims of natural selection there has been little in the way of a ‘rebellion’ against such human rights violations.

By defining development and the basic human needs contained with in as a human right it made people realize that these conditions are unjust, that their is something that can be done to remedy the situation and not doing so is wrong. This created a larger movement in which organizations, both governmental and non-governmentatl, work for the common goal of righting this wrong. As these organizations emerged and spread awareness a new wave of interested people have emerged due to the “moral shock” caused by these rights violations.

Many of the issues surrounding sustainable development fall under “moral shock.” It is safe to say that most people with some tiny bit decency will be shocked by the effects of poverty, the numbers of dying children and the minor progress to sustain life globally. It will make people angry because such atrocities go against their core morality and good will. Often “moral shock” will lead to the outraged desiring to make a difference. This difference can come in the form of self recruitment to a movement. It can be as simple as joining a group, or donating to food drive or it can be as radical as protesting the inequality of free trade or flying to Guam to do missionary work.

Progress in regards to the movement has been quite slow and thus far unsuccessful. For an example of this we can look back to the statistics mentioned in the introduction, particularly the increase of ten million people living in poverty from 2003 to 2004. It is obvious that while there is much activism and work being done that far more drastic measures then campaigning may be needed to fully solve the problems ahead.

Social organizations such as NOVIB and IISD significantly contribute to furthering of the fundamental goals of substantial development as a human rights movement. They spread the word, provide information, funding, and guide those in positions to improve conditions. This alone can not suffice but is a solid foundation for the real work ahead.

To sufficiently combat the basic human rights issues contained with in Sustainable Development there needs to be an abundance of wide spread support from political powers across the globe. With out the help of policy makers and a concerted global effort which includes individual and corporate support.

There is an overwhelming lack of international and national law across the board on this issue. As we’ve seen with the fair trade issue there are no laws to provide protection for the poor countries which provide the raw materials, meanwhile the corporations of rich companies can sell finished product for ninety plus percent gross margin and line their already fat pockets. This is only one example of areas which need a legal movement. So far none seems to be in the coming.

Finally as it is clear that there is a large problem facing the human population of the world. With large corporations dominating the global economy, the lack of a strong political voice, and no sign of a solid solution sustainable development and the eradication of poverty issues in the world humanity has its work cut out. It is up to not only organizations like IISD and NOVIB to be the solution but rather it is up to all people to support humanity and ensure to full realization of human rights.

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