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. 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 expert seminars and workshops, various publications, participation in High Level Political Forum meetings 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

Senior 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

Senior 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

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

Christophe Golay's expertise relates to economic, social and cultural rights, the right to food 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 book Droit 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).

ESCR and the SDGs

The 100-page long publication No One Will Be Left Behind and the 6-page long Research Brief on ESCR and SDGs look at the role of UN human rights mechanisms in monitoring the SDGs that seek to realize ESCR. They describe the convergence between the SDGs and ESCR, and highlight that they should be seen as mutually reinforcing: ESCR can offer a legal basis and guidance in the implementation of SDGs, and the SDGs can increase support for the realization of ESCR.

These publications also underline that the weakness of the 2030 Agenda lies in its accountability framework, based on voluntary national reviews and peer-reviewed soft guidance. In that context, UN human rights mechanisms can give the SDGs a strong legal basis and provide a means of accountability via independent mechanisms.

Via their unique expertise in monitoring the realization of ESCR in UN Member States, in promoting equality and non-discrimination and in pushing for the adoption of laws, policies and programmes that target the most vulnerable, UN human rights mechanisms can also ensure that no one will be left behind in the realization of the SDGs.

These publications do not only highlight the need to fully integrate human rights in the implementation and monitoring of SDGs, but also provide a set of very concrete recommendations to states, UN human rights mechanisms, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the High Level Political Forum to do so.


Cover page of the Research Brief

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Sustainable Development Goals

May 2018

The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

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Cover of the Briefing

Briefing No°11: No One will be Left Behind - The Role of UN Human Rights Mechanisms in Monitoring the SDGs that Seek to Realize ESCR

January 2018

Christophe Golay

The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

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Cover of the In-Brief No2: The Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Econimic, Social and Cultural Rights

The Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Econimic, Social and Cultural Rights

July 2013

Irene Biglino, Christophe Golay

Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

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The Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice CEO Mary Robinson speaks during a meeting of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement Lead Group at UNICEF House, New York City, United States of America, Monday 18 September 2017 News

Mary Robinson Refers to our Research on Human Rights and the SDGs at Human Rights Council Meeting on the 2030 Agenda

January 2019

Our publication No One will be Left Behind and its recommendations have been widely cited in Mary Robinson 's speech at the United Nations Human Rights Council inter-sessional meeting on human rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

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Experts Discuss the Role of United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms in Monitoring Sustainable Development Goals

June 2018

During an expert seminar UN Special Procedures, members of UN treaty bodies, staff from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as representatives from civil society and the Swiss Government discussed the role that UN human rights mechanisms play in monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals that seek to realize economic, social and cultural rights.

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Bentiu, South Sudan, two boys walk in a river News

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals

May 2018

This Research Brief provides a summary of the findings and recommendations contained in the more lengthy publication No One Will Be Left Behind.

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Tractor at work in a field (Mombaldone, Piemonte, NW Italy) Event

Public Conference: Peasants' Rights in Europe

September 2019, 13:30-17:00

This public conference will discuss the implementation of the UN Declaration on the rights of peasants in Europe and its contribution to the SDGs and the UN Decade of Family Farming.

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Young boy in a slum Training

Formation en ligne sur les Droits Economiques, Sociaux et Culturels

7 October - November 2019

Cette formation en ligne permet d’acquérir une connaissance approfondie des droits économiques, sociaux et culturels (DESC), des obligations des états et des mécanismes chargés de les protéger et de surveiller leur mise en œuvre.

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Senegal, Ziguinchor area, Bignona Department, Kataba 1 municipality, Kouram village. A woman works in a vegetable garden as part of an economic security programme. Project

Towards Food Sustainability: Reshaping the Coexistence of Different Food Systems in South America and Africa

Started in February 2015

This six-year project aims to provide evidence-based knowledge for the formulation and promotion of innovative strategies and policy options that improve food sustainability.

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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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