Development and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Started in January 2008

For at least the past 20 years, the United Nations (UN) has underlined the need to adopt a human rights-based approach to development. In the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action the World Conference on human rights (HR) agreed that ‘democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.’ In 1997, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked for HR to be mainstreamed within the activities of all UN specialised agencies, programmes and funds.

Today, both HR and development actors acknowledge that HR can play an essential role within development and that there are important synergies between the two agendas. Despite this recognition of the need for greater integration, the promotion of HR and the pursuit of socio-economic development largely continue to be conducted as distinct endeavours.

Promoting the Complementarity between Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Development

This project aims to raise awareness about the complementarity of HR and development by analyzing the relationship between economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) and global development goals, namely the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015.

Between 2008 and 2015, in the context of the MDGs, the project focused on the promotion of the right to food to fight extreme poverty and hunger (MDG 1), and on the contribution of UN Special Procedures to the human rights and development dialogue.

Current Research on ESCR and the SDGs

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015 is ‘grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and) international human rights treaties’ and envisages a world of ‘universal respect for human rights and human dignity, the rule of law, justice, equality and non-discrimination’. The SDGs, which aim to eradicate poverty, and to guarantee equal access to social security, food, health care, education, housing, water and sanitation incorporate most of the core elements of ESCR as these are articulated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The 2030 Agenda also places a strong emphasis on ensuring that its implementation, follow up and review processes are participatory, rights-based and effective, with a call for the active participation of the ‘United Nations System’.

Since 2016, our work aims to support this approach. In 2016 and 2017, we focus on the role that UN HR mechanisms can play in monitoring the SDGs that seek to realize ESCR, notably through the organization of an expert seminar, a publication and a training course on the subject.


We work in partnership with the Swiss Government, the International Solidarity Service of the State of Geneva, UN agencies, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN human rights experts – in particular treaty body members and Special Procedures on ESCR – and civil society organizations, including the Center for Economic and Social Rights, and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


Picture of Adriana Bessa

Adriana Bessa

Research Fellow

Adriana Bessa's research areas include the rights of traditional local communities, the draft declaration on the rights of peasants and the right to food.

Picture of Joanna Bourke Martignoni

Joanna Bourke Martignoni

Research Fellow

Joanna Bourke Martignoni's research areas include the right to food, land commercialization, climate change, the right to education and gender equality.

Picture of Christophe Golay

Christophe Golay

Research Fellow and Strategic Adviser on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Christophe Golay's expertise notably relates to economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) and the rights of peasants.


The Right to Food and the Fight Against Hunger (MDG 1)

Between 2008 and 2012 we published a series of books and journal articles to promote the right to food as a tool to fight hunger and malnutrition (MDG 1). With the same objective, we drafted three studies published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

In Human Rights and Desertification, we explored the complementarity of international human rights law and the UNCCD to help States reaching MDG 1, through better protecting the right to food of people whose livelihood is threatened by desertification.

In The Fight for the Right to Food: Lessons Learned, we documented and analyzed the experiences of the UN's first Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, looking at key practical challenges to the realization of MDG 1, through experiences in eleven countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

 In The Right to Food and Access to Justice (also available in French, Spanish and Portuguese), we summarized the findings of our bookDroit à l’alimentation et accès à la justice and analyzed where victims of violations of the right to food can access effective remedies, and how access to justice can support the fight against hunger at national, regional and international levels.

In The Food Crisis and Food Security: Towards a New World Food Order? we analyzed the impact of the 2008 food crisis on MDG 1, and how the crisis might have led to a new world food order, in which the right to food would be one of the three pillars to fight hunger, together with food assistance and food security.

In The Right to Food and Global Strategic Frameworks, we provided guidance on how the right to food could best be integrated into the two main global frameworks designed to fight hunger and malnutrition – the Comprehensive Framework for Action developed by the UN High Level Task Force on Global Food Security, and the Global Strategic Framework for Food Security and Nutrition developed by the World Food Summit on Food Security.

ESCR and the MDGs

In 2012, we organized two expert meetings on ESCR and the MDGs with the participation of several UN Special Procedures. The MDGs were described as a missed opportunity to integrate HR into development programming. The debate also focused on the need to better include HR within the post-2015 framework.

We also submitted a contribution to the Post-2015 High Level Panel of Eminent Persons created by the UN Secretary General, asking the Panel to include greater attention to ESCR, access to justice and legal empowerment of the poor in shaping the post‐2015 agenda.

We then published an academic journal article on the contribution of UN Special Procedures to the HR and development dialogue during the MDG period (also available in Spanish and Portuguese).


Madagascar, Miarinarivo district. Women transplanting rice. Project

The Rights of Peasants

Started in May 2008

This project aims to support efforts to strengthen the promotion and protection of the rights of peasants, and in particular to provide expert support to the negotiations taking place at the Human Rights Council.

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Somalia, Bakool region, Hudur village. Woman selling products at market. Project

Land Commercialization, Gendered Agrarian Transformation and the Right to Food (DEMETER)

Started in January 2015

This project examines the relationship between the right to food and gender equality in ensuring food security in the context of land commercialization in two case-study countries, Cambodia and Ghana.

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