The United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development defines development as ‘a comprehensive economic, social, cultural, and political process, which aims 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 benefits resulting therefrom.’

The Declaration establishes in its first article that ‘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 10 affirms that ‘Steps should be taken to ensure the full exercise and progressive enhancement of the right to development, including the formulation, adoption and implementation of policy, legislative and other measures at the national and international levels.’

The Special Rapporteur on the right to development has explained that the right to development ‘implies a twofold set of rights and duties: first, the requirement to involve all members of the population as participants in formulating development policies, and second, the requirement that the policies benefit all people equally.’

The Declaration on the right to development also informed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, an international commitment to achieve sustainable development worldwide by 2030. The 2030 Agenda goes further than the Declaration by integrating additional but related issues like the importance of the environment. In the introduction, States, Governments, and High Representatives pledged to:

‘resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources.   We resolve to create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.’

The Agenda sets 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 associated targets that work as a policy agenda that every country in the world should follow in order to achieve sustainable development. The Agenda also aims to foster cooperation between countries in order to achieve those goals.

At a regional level, the right to development is not necessarily stated directly. The American Convention on Human Rights (Pact of San Jose) states in its Article 26 the right to progressive development whereby every social, economic, and cultural rights are to be enjoyed. Similarly, the African Charter on Human and Peoples´ Rights states in Article 22 the right to social, economic, and cultural development, and the Arab Charter on Human Rights states in Article 37  ‘the right to development is a fundamental human right and all States are required to establish the development policies and to take the measures needed to guarantee this right.’ This right is also recognized in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.

Right to development and the right to a healthy environment

The right to development has a complex relationship with the right to a healthy environment. The idea that economic development comes at the price of environmental degradation was common during the second half of the 20th century. The preamble of the 1972 Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment warns about the destructive power of humanity to discover, invent, create, and advance when such energy is wrongly or heedlessly applied. Moreover, it vehemently states that ‘In the industrialized countries, environmental problems are generally related to industrialization and technological development.’

The idea that economic development, as opposed to environmental health, lit fierce debates between developed and developing countries. International instruments such as the 1972 Declaration of the United Nations Conference stated:

‘The environmental policies of all States should enhance and not adversely affect the present or future development potential of developing countries, nor should they hamper the attainment of better living conditions for all, and appropriate steps should be taken by States and international organizations with a view to reaching agreement on meeting the possible national and international economic consequences resulting from the application of environmental measures.’

In this sense, development and environmental protection are no longer understood as contradictory goals but rather as complementary. Cooperation between developing and developed countries is also established as a fundamental mechanism for fostering advances on both sustainable development and environmental protection.

Contemporary conceptions of development, such as those found in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and moreover, in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, explicitly include the protection of the environment as a necessary condition for development.

Principle 3 of the Rio Declaration establishes that ‘The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.’ Furthermore, Principle 4 states the fact that, ‘In order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.’

Similarly, the shared principles of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development affirms ‘Sustainable development recognizes that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, combating inequality within and among countries, preserving the planet, creating sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and fostering social inclusion are linked to each other and are interdependent.’

The link between development and the right to a healthy environment is also recognised by the Framework Principles On Human Rights And The Environment, which affirm that ‘A safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is necessary for the full enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to life, to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, to an adequate standard of living, to adequate food, to safe drinking water and sanitation, to housing, to participation in cultural life and to development, as well as the right to a healthy environment itself.’

In addition, the relationship between the right to development and the right to a healthy environment is evident in the importance of public participation for the fulfilment of both. The right to development requires the participation of members of the population in the discussions that lead to the formulation of sustainable development policies. Similarly, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment has made clear that States should provide for and facilitate public participation in decision-making related to the environment. Accordingly, ‘Ensuring that these environmental decisions take into account the views of those who are affected by them increases public support, promotes sustainable development and helps to protect the enjoyment of rights that depend on a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.’