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Can Human Rights Contribute to Development and Women’s Empowerment?

24 January 2013

Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International60 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), what is the situation of Human Rights in the world and how does that affect the post-2015 development agenda?

Secretary General of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, provided an answer to these tough questions during his public lecture at the Graduate Institute in Geneva on 21st January 2013.

A public lecture on Human Rights and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

Needless to say, the auditorium of the Graduate Institute in Geneva was full of students, interns and professionals of different age, sex, ethnicity and formation, mostly gravitating around NGOs and international organisations, for the public lecture on Human Rights.

Hundreds of eyes turned on the same spot, ears were eager to listen and few hands were ready to take notes, when the lecture with the smiling Salil Shetty started.

The Secretary General of Amnesty International gave, with a confident tone of voice, a succinct interesting lecture on the interdependency of civil and political rights, and economical, social and cultural rights, as a cornerstone of the protection of human rights and development.

A missed opportunity

During the lecture, Salil Shetty underlined a number of times that, 20 years after the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights (1993), such rights are still too compartmentalised to the detriment of the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of the population worldwide.

He suggested that the end of the Cold War could have been a good opportunity to focus on the interconnection of security, development and human rights on the one hand, and of dignity and freedom on the other.

However, he recognised that the lack of resources and/or inappropriate allocation of public funds by governments have undermined the implementation of human rights towards the achievement of the MDGs.

Marginalisation and corruption jeopardise human rights and development

Son of a feminist and a human rights journalist, Salil Shetty is a committed activist in the fields of poverty, justice and human rights; so he was speaking with full awareness of reality when he said that the formal proclamation of the indivisibility of all human rights has not resulted in any true and genuine step forwards in the path of development.

He remarked that one of the main causes of such failure is the marginalisation of specific sections of the population both in developing countries, such as India, China and South Africa, and industrialised ones, with Roma communities.

The second stumbling block he pointed out is the issue of corruption, evasion and misallocation of public spending, which fosters inequality in terms of income, employment rate, access to food, water, housing and health care among others basic human rights.

The current lack of accountability does not help  

Salil Shetty’s calm expression turned to concern when he affirmed that the most critical factor to the collective failure to translate human rights into development goals is the lack of accountability and enforceability at global and regional level.

As an example, he briefly mentioned the issue of the voluntary aspect of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the UN and underlined the fact that it is still not in force since it has been ratified by less than ten countries out of over 190.

Hope for the future  

Salil Shetty ended his public lecture with a glimmer of hope, suggesting that the elaboration of the post-2015 development agenda provide a new benchmark for the inclusion of human rights as extraterritorial obligations, establishing a legal framework for their implementation.

During the roundtable, moderated by the Director of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, Andrew Clapham, the discussion moved further, touching future gender perspective issues.

As pointed out by more than one participant, the hope for the future is that a double movement breaths new life into the invisibility of human rights. The Secretary General of Amnesty International called on the idea of a top down reform of institutions, education and constitution accompanied by a bottom up push supported by the Civil Society and media.

Women’s rights and empowerment are critical to development

Despite the randomness of questions and issues raised during the roundtable, the discussion provided a few enlightening insights on the current status of women worldwide and plenty of food for thinking about the future of women’s rights.

Salil Shetty’s explanation of the role played by the Civil Society and the media in prompting a public reaction during the recent events in India offered a good opportunity to reflect on the recurrent violation of women’s dignity in the world.

Still on the subject of women’s rights, Salil Shetty admitted that women’s rights are particularly challenging, not only because they are difficult to classify into economic, social and cultural, or civil and political rights, but also because their implementation often requires a change of view on women’s status worldwide.

More news on human rights, security, development and women’s participation

As for the holistic approach on human rights suggested by the Secretary General of Amnesty International, WILPF International calls on the integration of the different aspects of security politics, disarmament, development, human rights and women’s empowerment.

We believe that women’s participation is critical to the discussion of new development goals and we will definitely attend and keep you posted on more events and discussions on the topic. Do not miss out our blog posts, articles and future updates on WILPF International website!

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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