Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, on the last day of the March session of the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this year, renowned international law scholar from India, Dr Mihir Kanade was elected on the newly established five-member UN Expert Mechanism on the Right to Development in the representation of the Asia-Pacific region. He is currently one of the three Indian independent experts across various mechanisms of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council. His election comes close on the heels of him successfully completing his role as the chair of the group of international experts created by the UN for preparing the draft Convention on the Right to Development, negotiations on which are expected to commence among countries later this year.
In an interview with Financial Express Online, Kanade notes that the right to development (RtD) agenda has witnessed a new-found momentum since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations in 2015. As many as four new mechanisms on this issue, including the process for the elaboration of a treaty and the Expert Mechanism, have been established since 2016 by the Human Rights Council bringing the agenda to the center stage. But what explains this sudden push now considering that the RtD agenda has been in a political stalemate for more than three decades?
Kanade suggests that this was inevitable at some stage and adoption of the SDGs only presented the final trigger. He notes that support for the RtD has been split across the global North-South lines ever since the adoption of the UN Declaration on the RtD way back in 1986. It was the developing countries, including India, that have been major promoters of the RtD which views development from the lens of the duty of international cooperation rather than a charity or generosity, and as rights of individuals and peoples rather than as privileges. In essence, he contends, the RtD is about humanizing the international political, economic and social order, whether related to the rules of international trade, practices of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, investment agreements, conditionalities by donor countries on development aid or the reforms of political organs such as the UN Security Council. In addition to respecting the RtD of citizens by countries internally, this agenda is about making the international order more equitable by eliminating obstacles to development resulting from international law and policy as well as unilateral coercive measures by some countries against others. Kanade suggests that this may explain why some countries who benefit from the lopsided status-quo have historically not been keen on supporting the RtD and its meaningful operationalization. But when the SDGs were adopted, developing countries including India felt that the time is ripe to break the political deadlock and transform rhetoric into reality. And therefore, he explains, the push towards a treaty which is legally binding.
Discussing more about his role chairing the process for developing the draft treaty, Kanade explains that the document was finalized by the drafting group after extensive consultations with States, NGOs and experts. The zero draft, as the document is called, was made public by the UN in January along with extensive commentaries prepared by Kanade. Countries are expected to begin debating the same in November this year. Kanade agrees that the road to adoption of a treaty will not be easy and the negotiations are expected to be politically charged. However, he remains optimistic that some European countries will join forces with the developing ones, especially with the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and the realization that international cooperation and solidarity are indispensable in an interconnected world. In any case, he points out that the zero draft has been prepared in a way that some of the hesitant developed countries may find it counterproductive not to be a part of the process.
The work of the Expert Mechanism on the other hand is not subject to political posturing by countries. It is intended to function independently and provide expert thematic advice to States on best practices for operationalizing the RtD in law, policy and practice. The first annual report of this mechanism will be presented this week before the Human Rights Council by the current Chair, Bonny Ibhawoh of Nigeria. Despite the travel restrictions resulting from the pandemic, Kanade states that the mechanism has been working virtually to discuss thematic studies to be developed during the next three years of its first term. If the proposals in the report are approved, Kanade will be leading a thematic study on operationalizing the RtD in implementation of the SDGs, especially in the COVID-19 context, to be presented to States next year.
Kanade goes on to highlight the heightened importance of the RtD, during and in the aftermath of the pandemic. He dismisses views in some quarters that all talk about development is irrelevant when the world is suffering from the biggest global recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s and lives of millions are at stake. To the contrary, he argues, there has never been a more urgent moment for the RtD to be taken seriously and operationalized. The pandemic has demonstrated that the “business as usual” approach to development is incapable of either preventing or recovering from the pandemic. More than 2.2 billion people in the world do not have basic access to water and sanitation creating major challenges for prevention. Global poverty has increased for the first time since 1998 and millions are unemployed. Annual debt repayment amounts for most of the heavily-indebted countries outnumber their public health budgets. Unfortunately, despite demands, debt-relief for poorer countries has not been granted, unilateral sanctions continue, and international financing has decelerated by alarming proportions. At the same time, the Doha Development Agenda of the WTO has been forced off-track. When most needed, multilateralism, international solidarity and cooperation has been thrown out of the window, including through preferential access agreements made by many developed countries with potential vaccine-producers. He laments that some countries have unfortunately attempted to misuse the pandemic for even more predatory practices through tougher conditionalities on bilateral loans passed off in the name of development.
In this context, Kanade highlights that given its historical push for international reforms aimed at a more balanced and equitable model of global governance, India has unsurprisingly been a prominent voice in supporting the RtD. This is reflected in India’s unstinting support to the treaty process as well as in its South-South cooperation practices which have been hailed globally as exemplary models that are based on respect for sovereignty and the RtD of partners. Kanade is convinced that India will and should continue taking a leadership role in promotion of the RtD agenda.
Ultimately, he concludes, the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to build back a better world order in which developing countries and emerging economies like India have a much larger role to play – an order that is normatively and operationally based on respect and realization of the RtD for all.