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International Cooperation, Right to Development and the Pandemic

The economic, social and environmental impacts of the pandemic have been well documented and are being discussed amongst policy leaders, practitioners and scholars; a pandemic whose trajectory is still in an upward swing with the epicentre shifting to new regions. While the effect of pandemic was witnessed by the developed part of the world, till some time ago, now the emerging markets of the globe like Brazil, India and Russia have also showcased the impacts. In fact, seven of the top eight countries having the most number of positive COVID-19 cases belong to the global South with exception being the US on the top. There are indications that the African continent may become the new epicentre of the pandemic in near future. The pandemic in developing countries would have devastating effects as the health care infrastructure and health personnel are in short supply as compared to the developed world. There is not a facet of life that has been left uninfluenced by the spread of COVID-19.

When all the regions of the world and all the countries of the planet have been impacted, common sense would say that international relations and international cooperation would be at its peak. Unfortunately, international cooperation and coordination has been sketchy to say the least in these extraordinary times. There have been positive examples of inter and intra national cooperation. Leaders of G20 pledged to infuse USD 5 trillion in the global economy to nullify the negative economic impacts of the pandemic (ET, 2020). However, at the same time there have been instances of inward-looking protectionist attitudes in countries where trade restrictions were imposed. Until recently, 27 countries had imposed trade restrictions, 24 of which proceeded to control trade during the initial days of the outbreak (Kwatra, 2020). Scholars of International Relations have had diverging views about international cooperation, ranging from positive view of cooperation and coordination (Liberal Institutionalists) to a cautious and circumspect view where each country behaves in their self-interest (Realists). On the other side, behavioural scientists and human psychologists working in the field of International Relations have also had opposing claims ranging from professing that human beings (and nations) are inherently good and peace loving to human beings (and nations) are prone to infighting and constant power struggles.

COVID-19 has not only opened the fault lines of international cooperation and development paradigms but has also given opportunities to reform some existing deep-rooted notions and long held beliefs. It is in this context that the Right to Development (RtD) becomes an important tool for reform. The RtD is not a new paradigm, as it has existed since 1986 when the Declaration to Right to Development (DRTD) was adopted by the global community at the United Nations General Assembly. It states that development must not be seen through the perspective of guilt/charity given to developing countries or development being enjoyed by a few as a matter of privilege. Development is a right which goes beyond the stereotypical understanding of economic growth driven development. The RtD subsumes all human rights which fall within the domain of economic, social, and cultural rights on one hand and civil and political rights on the other. Thus, the RtD goes beyond the ambit of economic growth.

As the RtD views development as a ‘right’, it is also aligned with duties and responsibilities for individuals, communities and countries. Also, the RtD has a three-pronged approach to international cooperation for development where in the domestic, regional and international aspects of development cooperation are catered to. At domestic level, it is the responsibility of the government to design and implement policies within the country which would realise development in an all-encompassing way. In the case of pandemic, it would suffice to say that the government must ensure access to healthcare, diagnostic kits, immunity boosting medicines, testing devices and prompt medical systems to share credible information. At regional level, the home government must not only keep away from infringing the development of other countries by virtue of their domestic policies but, also pave ways to form alliances and cooperate with other countries and inter-governmental institutions, on a global and collective front. This step should be taken to ensure that there are no obstacles to development as enshrined in the declaration. It would mean (as mentioned previously) that export restrictions of masks and essential drugs should not be implemented which might hamper the relief efforts in the neighbouring countries. At the global level, the countries must strive to come up with declarations and conventions which would contribute to the relief efforts and at the same time take proactive steps to minimise the chances of occurrence and prevention of COVID-19 like pandemics. Thus, international cooperation is an essential piece in the RtD. The aspects of right holders and duty bearers can best be explained through this table:









Right Holders

Who is the Right Holder? Human Beings are the Right Holders of RtD.
RtD is both an Individual Right and Collective Right.



Individual Right

Human person is the central subject of development.
Human person should be an active participant and beneficiary of RtD.
Human person should have access to free, active and meaningful participation in development decisions.
There should be fair distribution of benefits of development with the ultimate objective of fulfilling all human rights (HRs) for all.

Collective Right

RtD is linked to the fundamental right of peoples to self-determination.
This includes peoples right to full sovereignty over all their natural wealth and resources.
Women, Children and Other Groups RtD specifically states that women and children should have an active role in the development process.
RtD calls for elimination of sex-based discrimination in access to all human rights and fundamental freedoms









Duty Bearers


Who is the Duty Bearer?

RtD imposes duty on States and the International Community.
And on all those whose actions and/or omissions have an impact on Human rights and on the environment in which these rights are to be fulfilled.





States as Primary Duty Bearer

States have the primary responsibility for respecting, protecting and fulfilling HRs.
They also have the primary responsibility for creating national and international conditions favourable towards realisation of RtD.
This means that states have obligations at 3 levels:


Domestic: through the formulation of national development policies and programmes affecting persons within their jurisdictions.


International: through the adoption and implementation of policies extending beyond their jurisdictions.


Collective: through global and regional partnerships.


Human Beings  All human beings, apart from being active participants in development, have a duty to promote and protect their human rights and fundamental freedom.

 Source: Author’s Compilation based on (OHCHR, 2016)

Viewing international cooperation and development from the perspective of the RtD automatically takes away the conditionalities (political and macro-economic) and skewed economic prospects in favour of the dominant partner which, unfortunately, has become an integral part of the existing international development cooperation. The normative core of the RtD which includes, the right to equal opportunity, Development as a process to realise all human rights, and Legal accountability goes a long way in paving a new framework for humane cooperation activities. The existing Intellectual Property (IP) regime governing life saving and essential drugs is heavily in favour of drug producing companies (countries) for whom profit maximisation is a major goal. It would be interesting to see how the accessibility of the COVID-19 vaccine (as and when it is developed) is made to reach the last person on the planet. India can play an important role in the global supply chains as the country has capacity to mass produce the vaccines and make it available to the vulnerable population on the planet (Wheaton, 2020). The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) catchphrase of  ‘Leave No One Behind’ will be tested and examined to the hilt in this case. The global pharma landscape is at a cusp of a major breakthrough, provided the relevant stakeholders play their cards well.

Also, the RtD takes a middle path if one views cooperation and development from the perspective of international relations. In a way, the RtD claims that development, both as a process and outcome will continue to be unsustainable if international cooperation continues to be dictated by the existing norms and principles. The current system in the areas of health, climate change and IP regimes have serious shortcomings. It further claims that cooperation and coordination are important for development, but it needs checks and balances. As mentioned previously, the RtD has been in existence since 1986 in form the declaration, it has not yet been effectively operationalised, thereby necessitating strong calls for a binding treaty. In fact, the declaration on the RtD was hailed as a big achievement in 1986 as the world schism in North and South was profound. However, the world in 2020 is much different with traditional problems of each region now present in the other as well. Development and poverty related challenges are now present in the North too with the issues relating to inequality being prevalent in the South as well. These challenges and inequalities were latently present in the North and the South, however, (un)fortunately they have been laid bare in this pandemic. Thus, there is now a greater understanding of mutual challenges in the respective blocs and provides a fertile ground to see the debate with a renewed focus. Also, it is the right time for the STI community to view international cooperation and development from the lens of the RtD. The principles of the RtD can have a positive influence on the technology facilitation mechanism (TFM) for achieving SDGs in general and overcoming the challenges posed by the pandemic in particular. It must be kept in mind that India was a key player to introduce TFM as an inclusive and equitable tool for SDG delivery based on affordable, accessible and available technological innovations (Deccan Herald, 2020). The prospects are bright of turning the declaration into a treaty body as the process of coming up with a draft treaty is already underway and the global community at the United Nations levels will soon initiate its adoption process.

About the author

Pratyush Sharma

Pratyush Sharma is a Queen Elizabeth Scholar and a doctoral candidate at the United Nations-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. He has a MA in interdisciplinary social sciences from O.P Jindal Global University's Jindal School of International Affairs. His research area is at the crossroads of International Relations and International Law wherein he is viewing the landscape of development cooperation (South-South Cooperation) through the normative lens of the Right to Development. He has over 5 years of policy experience in the areas of South-South Cooperation (SSC) and development cooperation and was part of the policy team at Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a Delhi based think tank in contributing towards India's SSC engagements. He is a correspondent for Development Cooperation Review, India's only academic journal which deals with the topic of development cooperation. He has also been a Global Governance Fellow at the German Development Institute, Bonn.

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