The Complexities of Democracy, Development, and Human Rights in China's Belt and Road Initiative


A Kellogg Work-in-Progress Seminar with Faculty Fellow Diane Desierto, Associate Professor of Human Rights Law and Global Affairs at the Keough School of Global Affairs.

China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a dense network of China-funded multi-year infrastructure projects in over 65 countries from the Western Pacific to the Baltic Sea aiming to establish China's strategic "Maritime Belt" and "Silk Road" connectivity using an estimated USD$1 trillion – is as unprecedented a phenomenon in sovereign project financing and the scale of bilateral lending, since the United States' USD $800 billion Marshall Plan was for the postwar reconstruction of Europe.  The scale, scope, and terms of BRI projects remain shrouded in relative opacity, with China incrementally disclosing debt sustainability policies and lending terms in response to public pressure for transparency.  The formal handover of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka to China as part of debt repayment under the BRI has generated cautionary concerns for BRI debtor states regarding the exercise of accountable democratic sovereignty in bilateral lending agreements with China; the nature of short-term and long-term development strategies envisaged by BRI debtor states in partnership with China; and whether Chinese firms operating the BRI projects can be held to observe guaranteed human rights standards in the performance of business activities under the aegis of BRI financing.

Part I (Democracy and the BRI: Choice, Consent, and Consultation in Sovereign Lending) of the paper explores several publicly documented case studies involving the negotiation of BRI projects, as well as China's publicly-available BRI documentation (including its most recent document on debt sustainability for the BRI) to examine how these negotiations measure up to the UN Monterrey Consensus on Financing for Development and the UNCTAD Principles on Responsible Sovereign Lending and Borrowing.  Part II (Development and Human Rights in the BRI: Participation, Transparency, Monitoring, Impacts) then examines publicly reported impacts from the BRI, against China's own commitments in the 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the Sustainable Development Goals, China's own treaty commitments in its foreign investment agreements, and most importantly, China's significant international obligations as a full treaty party of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (including General Comment No. 24 to the ICESCR).  

The Conclusion (Development IS Human Rights and Human Rights IS Development: Paths Forward for the BRI) argues that while the proliferation of external capital sources are crucial to achieving raw economic growth, no single sovereign – including China – can reject the full application of international labor, environmental, social, and all other human rights standards in sovereign project financing activities and the long-term implementation of infrastructure connectivity to achieve genuine integral human development, and provide five paths forward for the negotiation and implementation of BRI projects to ensure consistency with international obligations, namely: 1) transparency of BRI negotiations to host State constituencies; 2) joint partnership governance over BRI projects; 3) open monitoring and accountability of BRI projects to all affected stakeholders; 4) publicly available country and community impact assessments; and 5) embedded human rights auditing.

Work-in-Progress Seminars are designed to generate in-depth discussion of new scholarly work. For the pre-circulated paper and to attend, register with

Speakers / Related People
Diane Desierto

Diane Desierto is an associate professor of human rights law and global affairs at the Keough School for Global Affairs and is a member of the faculty advisory committee for Notre Dame’s Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights. She specializes in international law, including international economic law, human rights, development, humanitarian law, comparative constitutional law, and maritime security...
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