The world organization’s uneven record in the human rights arena continues as the development agenda is being set for the next decade-and-a-half. If human rights are a central pillar of the United Nations, why are they likely to be peripheral to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? What are the prospects for more rights-based language in the goals themselves, or for rights-based approaches in their monitoring and review?
In September 2015 a summit of world leaders at the UN is to adopt a set of SDGs to take the relay from the MDGs, which have yielded mixed results when it comes to making the world a better place for peace, development, and the universal realization of human rights. On 2 June 2015, the president of the General Assembly circulated a zero draft of the September 2015 summit outcome document. This briefing discusses the forthcoming SDGs from the perspective of human rights, focusing on the content of the SDGs, strategies of implementation, and the role of monitoring in the implementation of the SDGs.
It is worth recalling that the General Assembly has a rich but uneven record when it comes to integrating human rights in development efforts. This rich tradition of integrating human rights in the development process should be kept in mind in finalizing the SDGs. It is important to place them under the human rights spotlight for a number of reasons.
First, whatever progress has been made in, for example, alleviating poverty since the adoption of the MDGs, the state of human rights worldwide has not improved in the past 15 years. It is impossible to speak of ameliorating the human condition when gross violations of human rights remain pervasive world-wide.
Second, enhanced governance grounded in the rule of law and respect for human rights is essential if the SDGs are to be more than aspirational.
Third, human rights in and of themselves are an essential component in any meaningful implementation and monitoring.
From the perspective of a long-time proponent of human rights, the zero draft is disappointing and problematic in numerous ways — a missed opportunity.
The Human Rights Content of the SDGs
The draft UN agenda and SDG document in circulation at the time of writing is a rallying call to humanity to go forward in development while protecting the earth and the environment, advancing peace, and having regard to human rights principles.
But a careful reading of the zero draft shows a profound disconnect between the declaratory parts and the SDGs and the actual human rights strategies for their implementation. The preamble opens with a reference to strengthening peace in larger freedom and then refers to the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women and girls, combating inequality within and between countries, and protecting the planet. The new agenda is said to be grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international instruments such as the Declaration on the Right to Development.
However, in the adumbration of the 17 goals themselves, human rights are not mentioned anywhere, although they are fully amenable to the adoption of specific language. For example, Goal 1 is “End poverty in all its forms everywhere,” and one could easily add “enhance human dignity and rights.” Goal 5 is “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” and one could easily add “to achieve the universalization of their inalienable human rights.” Goal 17 is “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development,” and one could easily add “grounded in the Universal Declaration, the International Covenants, and the Declaration on the Right to Development.”
More explicit human rights wording along these lines would send a signal that human rights are essential to the conception and implementation of the SDGs. Human rights are admittedly approached cautiously in UN circles. It might be asked why such additions should cause controversy when they would simply reaffirm what governments have repeatedly agreed over the years.
Human Rights Strategies of Implementation
The implementation parts of the new agenda are high-sounding but lack specificity when it comes to the potential contribution of human rights actors to development. It states that the agenda deals with the means required for implementation of the goals and targets. While resources are an understandable constraint, why is there is no reference to human rights? It would enhance the document to add here: “We are determined to keep striving for the universal realization of the human rights of our peoples, economic, social and cultural as well as civil and political, in the spirit of the Declaration on the Right to Development and of the Charter’s foundation principle of equality and non-discrimination.”
It would also enrich the document to add a paragraph along the following lines: “We call upon the organizations of the UN system to cooperate with the UN Secretary-General in the mainstreaming of human rights in the implementation of the New Agenda and the SDGs.”
Human Rights Review of Implementation
In the zero draft the preamble (paragraph 38) states: “Our Governments will be responsible for follow-up and review, at the national, regional and global levels, in relation to the progress made in implementing the goals and targets over the coming fifteen years... We look forward to the development of indicators to assist this work.”
Unfortunately, there is no reference whatsoever to the contribution by human rights bodies to monitoring and implementing the SDGs. The zero draft document proposes to “request the Secretary-General to prepare guidelines for national reports and review processes.” The Secretary-General in preparing guidelines should refer to the role of national human rights institutions, the Human Rights Council, and human rights treaty bodies. However, it would be preferable for the document adopted by the summit to make express mention of the potential contribution by such human rights bodies.
As the draft itself states, “What we are announcing today — an agenda for global action for the next fifteen years — is a charter for people and planet in the twenty-first century.” It adds: “The future of humanity and of our planet lies in our hands. It lies in the hands of today’s younger generation, who will pass the torch to future generations. We have mapped the road to sustainable development; it will be for all of us to ensure that the journey is irreversible.” One could add here, “We shall persist in our efforts for justice and human rights for all the world’s peoples.”
The hard reality is that sustainable development cannot be achieved without universal realization and protection of human rights. Sustainable development must be anchored in the observance and protection of human rights.
The high-sounding rhetoric about human rights is not mirrored in the content of the SDGs, nor in the methods indicated for their implementation and monitoring. These lacunae diminish the document. There is very little time to strengthen the human rights content of the document. One feasible possibility would be for the drafters to request the UN Secretary-General, with the assistance of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to review and make suggestions for enhancing the human rights content of the new agenda, the SDGs, and the methods for their implementation and monitoring.
Bertrand G. Ramcharan is a Senior Fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. His three decades of UN service included five years as Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and over a year as Acting High Commissioner. He was a Professor of Human Rights at the Geneva Graduate Institute and Chancellor of the University of Guyana. He is the author, among other books, of Contemporary Human Rights Ideas (2015, 2nd edition); The UN Human Rights Council (2011); Preventive Human Rights Strategies (2010); and Preventive Diplomacy at the UN (2008).