Universality as Human Rights in the Financing for Development Agenda

By Wolfgang Obenland, Global Policy Forum

The outcome of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD3) will affect the ability of states to fulfill their human rights obligations, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets being set for the post-2015 agenda. Both human rights and the SDGs are similar in that they are universal, and entail individual as well as common responsibilities, taking into account varying national capacities to achieve them.

The SDGs take three different forms: those of particular relevance to the internal affairs of all countries, including rich ones, requiring changes in their domestic policies; those that address the need to change domestic policies in order to reduce negative external effects beyond a country’s borders; and those that zero in on international duties and responsibilities. The last two mainly apply to wealthier countries.

The human rights system, including the covenant of economic, social and cultural human rights, involves the duty to protect and fulfill human rights at home; the obligation to not negatively impact the ability of other countries to fulfill that duty, either through act or omission; and finally, where capacities allow, the duty to support countries in need of assistance. The system contains binding obligations as well as the duty to apply “maximum available resources” to realize them. International human rights instruments, agreed to by UN Member States, thus outline basic parameters for financing development.

Human rights commitments must be adequately reflected in FfD3 as it strives to achieve universality. While the FfD3 zero draft outcome document, discussed in the intergovernmental negotiations in New York from 13-17 April, contains many positive elements, there are several areas where language needs to be improved to ensure coherence with international human rights obligations. These were articulated during the process in statements from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Most fundamentally, the draft does not adequately integrate the human rights commitment to mobilize maximum available resources for the progressive realization of human rights, which could have repercussions for the chapter on domestic resource mobilization. This commitment, in conjunction with the extraterritorial obligations of states, constitutes a duty for governments to refrain from practices that violate other countries’ abilities to mobilize those resources, for example by offering preferential tax treatment for foreign companies. Other issues under the different chapters of the zero draft are as follows.

Domestic and international private finance

The FfD3 zero draft emphasizes the need to establish an enabling environment for businesses, but does not sufficiently address the corresponding duties and responsibilities of States to protect people from harms caused by the private sector, and of businesses to respect human rights in their activities. Most notably, it—so far—omits any reference to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the globally recognized standard in this area, nor does it mention efforts by the Human Rights Council to build on the Guiding Principles and establish a binding instrument on the human rights responsibilities and duties for transnational corporations.

International public finance

As the representative of the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) stressed during the April negotiations, Member States will have to mobilize additional resources for development, including through innovative sources of finance. Such sources should be additional to existing official development assistance (ODA), predictable and stable, and should aim at fairer distribution of global wealth to reduce inequalities within and among States.

How any existing or additional money is going to be invested deserves scrutiny from a human rights perspective. The FfD3 outcome will have to makes sure to send the right signal on safeguard policies. The multilateral development banks, prominently mentioned in the zero draft, are revising or developing their social and environmental safeguards—but against a history of widely documented human rights violations in their investments and infrastructure projects.


As human rights activists have emphasized time and again, unsustainable debt burdens cannot be permitted to threaten governments’ efforts to fulfill their commitments to sustainable, inclusive development and human rights. Creditors have these same obligations in their lending practices. In resolution 68/304, the UN General Assembly calls upon states, international financial institutions, the UN system and the private sector to cooperate to find sovereign debt solutions that promote sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth and sustainable development. Such solutions should ensure transparent lending and borrowing that benefits and is fully accountable to people at large, not just a select few.


There is an urgent need for systematic inclusion of human rights issues in all trade agreements to be developed or renegotiated. All trade and investment agreements should be subject to ex ante and ex post human rights impacts assessments to ensure they promote and achieve stated development objectives, including the promotion, protection and realization of human rights for all without discrimination. Beyond that, the use of existing flexibilities in the agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) would promote policy coherence, align international trade and investment agreements with sustainable development objectives, and maintain needed policy space for the protection of the public interest, the environment and human rights.

Systemic Issues

Realizing people’s universal human rights (civil, cultural, economic, political and social), including the right to development, should not be regarded as just another means but the ultimate end of sustainable development. FfD3 must therefore help establish “a social and international order in which […] rights and freedoms can be fully realized” (Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). FfD3 should strengthen the coherence between development, trade, investment, intellectual property, finance, tax, environmental and other key policy regimes, globally and nationally. International human rights standards, as legally binding standards and higher-order policy objectives representing the ultimate ends of development, should be the yardstick for policy coherence.

Monitoring and follow-up

The universality of human rights obligations could serve as a basis for designing FfD3 follow-up mechanisms. Follow-up should not be limited to the SDGs, but take on universality in terms of what has to be monitored—and who will have to be held accountable. Monitoring FfD3 implementation cannot be reduced to calculating donors’ contributions and development effectiveness in developing countries. Rather, it entails scrutinizing different obligations of countries, based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, especially for those countries with the means to orchestrate systemic transformations essential for achieving sustainable development for all.

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