Operationalising the right to development as a right to sustainable development

Analysis of the African human rights system

About the project

Development and growth on a finite planet cannot be limitless. Nevertheless, development in Africa remains a necessity given the challenges still faced by many millions of people in meeting their basic needs. However, development projects in Africa are often at the expense of both the environment and the population, often most severely affecting the human rights of vulnerable groups. This is because such development projects usually take the form of overexploitation of the natural wealth of African countries, of resources such as minerals, oil, fisheries and forests, and are associated with environmental pollution, labour exploitation and insufficient beneficiation. At the same time, communities have started to stand up for their rights against large corporations, in order to reject projects that undermine their environmental and socio-economic wellbeing.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter) is the only binding human rights treaty which explicitly provides for a right of all peoples to development. In addition, the 2005 Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol) provides for the right of women to sustainable development, as well as a right to a healthy and sustainable environment. Therefore, not only is there an urgent need for development on the continent, there is also a legal means through which ordinary Africans may hold their governments accountable for not respecting, protecting and fulfilling their development needs.


The overarching research question is whether, and if so, how the recognition and enforcement of a right to sustainable development as part of the African human rights system would be of benefit to rightsholders by supporting social and economic progress towards human dignity and wellbeing, without exceeding the ecological boundaries of the Earth.

The objectives of this study are three-fold: firstly, to consider the benefits and understand (and as far as possible address) criticisms against various elements of a potential right to sustainable development. Secondly to develop a systemic approach to implementing sustainable development as a legal entitlement of individuals and peoples in the African human rights system, with delineated content, obligations and remedies which peoples can claim from their states. Thirdly, to weigh up the benefits and disadvantages of delimiting sustainable development as a human right, in order to determine whether there is a place for a separate, justiciable right to sustainable development in the African human rights system, and more generally.


Elsabé Boshoff is a PhD candidate at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights (Faculty of Law, University of Oslo).

After obtaining an LLM in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa from the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, she worked with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights between 2017 and 2020. She supported the mandates of the Chairperson of the Commission, the Working Group on Extractive Industries, Environment and Human Rights and the Focal Point for Transitional Justice and Human and Peoples’ Rights and Conflict and Human Rights. 
She has authored and co-authored peer reviewed articles and book chapters on environment, sustainable development and transitional justice through a human rights lens, and is a co-editor of an edited volume “Governance, Human Rights and Political Transformation in Africa”, published by Palgrave Macmillan. 

Start Date: 01.02.2021
End Date: ongoing

Published June 25, 2021 2:02 PM - Last modified June 25, 2021 2:30 PM