Since the 1990s, development research, policy and practice has embraced a human rights agenda. Many attempts have been made to inform development with human rights concerns, align development agendas with human rights frameworks and integrate human rights in practice via the adoption of ‘rights based approaches’ to development.
Yet, recent research suggests that human rights has lost traction in the post-2015 consensus for ‘sustainable development’ (Brolan, Hill, & Ooms, 2015). This is worrying, given that these findings concerned global agenda-setting for health rights, arguably the most advanced domain of rights in practice, and a fundamental underpinning for global struggles for health justice. The humanitarian relief agenda has expanded in recent times and some of this expansion may help to meet immediate human needs where development has failed, or where catastrophic circumstances demand immediate attention. However, the questions remain: has the development community left human rights behind as a project and a principle? And what should the human rights community do?
We confront the possibility that development has entered a post-human rights era, and consider the possibility of rediscovering and rehabilitating human rights within the sustainable development agenda 2016-30, as well as the major challenges and barriers to doing this. Responding to a fundamental provocation for human rights to move from victims’ justice to survivors’ justice (Mamdani, 2014), a rights-based development agenda involves three elements: deeper democratization of development processes, incorporation of environmental principles into human rights and advancement of concrete arrangements for addressing harm and benefit sharing. This re-aligns sustainable development’s elements of participation, benefit-sharing and environmental protection, which have evolved along divergent paths. We argue that the time has come to reunite the ‘generations’ of negative, positive and collective rights in the pursuit of sustainable development. The liberty to demand rights and equity in enjoyment of rights must be complemented with a commitment to solidarity, understood as common, but differentiated responsibilities to re-distribute power and resources required for sustainable development to be inclusive and non-discriminatory. This requires concrete commitments to unburden the most disadvantaged, while remaining within ‘safe spaces’ of ecological and social survival.