Recently, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said that world leaders are failing to defend human rights or protect populations from violence, and that they are “morally weak, shortsighted and mediocre.” His strong words come at a time of increasingly blatant violations of human rights, and when UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres himself has been criticized for remaining silent on abuses by countries like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) in July—and SDG Summit in September—reviewing the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are an opportune time to build on progress and to remind governments of their human rights commitments.
Under the theme of “empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality” governments are going to review five SDGs at this year’s HLPF, including SDG 17 on partnerships that is reviewed every year. A key idea that must be emphasized during the forum is the connection between human rights and the 2030 Agenda. Human rights, as the third pillar of the UN, is largely missing from the ongoing UN reform process, and incorporating a human rights-based approach to the SDGs can accelerate the implementation of the reform of the UN development system. Furthermore, this would contribute to the prevention agenda of the secretary-general, which has been a top priority since he has taken office.
During the SDGs negotiations, member states did not emphasize human rights in particular, yet all the SDGs have linkages to human rights conventions and treaties. According to the Danish Institute for Human Rights, more than 90 percent of the 169 targets are in some way connected to the international human rights and labor standards. Additionally, the preamble of the 2030 Agenda highlights that the SDGs “seek to realize the human rights of all.” Moreover, the main objective of the development system reform is to “better position the United Nations operational activities for development to support countries in their efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” With human rights embedded in all the SDGs, including Goal 16 on peace, the reinvigorated resident coordinators have a major role to play in promotion of human rights using the 2030 Agenda as their blueprint.
Ensuring participatory, fair, and just institutional structures—enshrined in Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda—with a civil and political rights focus is essential to the realization of the SDGs and for safeguarding inclusiveness and equality. There is a correlation between having democratic institutions with strong state capacity and social and economic development, which becomes stronger with increased protection of human rights. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the five goals that are the focus of this year’s HLPF can only be achieved with the full incorporation of human rights frameworks into the sustainability agenda. Below is a look at how the goals under review are connected not only to SDG 16, but also to human rights.
Goal 16 is Connected to all SDGs, and Human Rights
SDG 16 calls on UN member states to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies. . . provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” Accountable and inclusive institutions—or their absence—have an impact on all other SDGs. This implies a need to apply SDG 16 to other goals on education, poverty, access to services, among others.
Further, Goal 16 includes the need for capable, participatory political institutions designed to reduce political, social, and economic inequality. Leaving no one behind is also a core principle of the 2030 Agenda to which member states have committed. One path to achieving this is through strong and inclusive political institutions, which respect values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the subsequent human rights instruments developed by the international community. These universal values set the stage for people to claim their rights on political, social, and economic fronts. For governments to ensure fulfillment of the SDGs and maintain international peace and security—the ultimate goal of the UN—a participatory responsive, transparent, and inclusive institutional framework needs to be achieved.
Targets (a) and (b) of Goal 16 are also direct applications of human rights principles within the development framework. SDG 16(a) calls for strengthening “relevant national institutions, including through international cooperation, for building capacity at all levels, in particular developing countries, to prevent violence and combat terrorism and crime.” The Paris Principles, adopted in 1993 by the Human Rights Commission and General Assembly resolutions, call on governments to create national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights. These institutions are expected to be competent, autonomous, independent agencies with resources and powers to conduct independent investigations based on universal human rights values. According to data from OHCHR on the SDG database, in 2018 only 39 percent of countries around the world have national human rights institutions that are in compliance with the Paris Principles. The good news is that this is up from 35 percent in 2015. This demonstrates that a majority of governments lack the domestic institutions to independently check on human rights.
Further, SDG 16(b) calls for the promotion and enforcement of non-discriminatory laws and policies. Non-discrimination is enshrined in Article 7 of the UDHR, and extends its application to realizing peaceful, just, and inclusive societies. There is presently no data readily available on whether states are making progress toward SDG 16(b).
Goal 8 on Work and Goal 10 on Inequality
There has been some attention on viewing economic issues from a human rights perspective, particularly in relation to SDG 8 on the right to work and to just and favorable conditions of work. Yet, social and economic concerns are still treated primarily as development issues, and human rights come as an afterthought.
In examining SDG 8, civil society and the business sector have had contradictory solutions for sustainable economic growth, full employment, and decent work. While civil society groups have encouraged a rights-based approach on Goal 8 with a strong regulatory framework, the corporate world defends growth as a solution to poverty, low incomes, and lack of economic and social opportunity.
The financing of the SDGs also emphasizes private sector investment, innovation, and entrepreneurship, as opposed to building strong government institutions. This is despite the fact that state institutions are needed to act as brokers between the demands of civil society for decent employment and labor protections, and the corporate desire for economic growth and increased productivity and consumption. Governments play an important role in ensuring inclusive and equitable policies that adhere to the leave-no-one-behind ethic.
Similarly, target 4 of SDG 10 focuses on reducing inequalities through fiscal, wage, and social protection policies. It would be difficult to achieve this goal without the state capacity to tax. Democratic state institutions are more likely to spend public funds in ways that respond to the needs of broad sectors of society and reduce inequality. Here, again, civil society and the corporate world have differing views. While corporations are proponents of unfettered control over investment decisions, civil society groups advocate for state economic policies that favor redistribution and the protection of marginalized and vulnerable populations. The only way to reconcile these views is through participatory, transparent, and universal human rights-based state institutions.
Goal 4 on Education
The term “human rights” is not mentioned in any other SDGs with the exception of target 7 of Goal 4 which calls for education systems to include global citizenship and human rights among other topics in their programs. The ability to deliver education that includes a core curriculum of human rights and global citizenship depends on state institutions having the capacity to develop this curriculum and run schools that are broadly inclusive and treat children as equals. This can only be done in systems where there are transparent and responsive state institutions. Once again, the connection with goal 16 and human rights comes into play for the social goals related to education.
Linking SDGs and Human Rights on the Ground
In order to achieve peace and sustainable development, member states should recognize the vital link between human rights and the implementation of the SDGs. In addition, Secretary-General Guterres’ reform agenda, especially in relation to the UN development system, could serve as an opportunity to link SDGs and human rights on the ground. The resident coordinators (RCs) now serve as the main UN representative and could advise, aid, and guide the 2030 Agenda goals on the ground through prioritization and promotion of human rights. The question remains, however, whether RCs will be able to call for greater human rights in contexts that require moral pressure and, in some cases, push back from governments on human rights-related issues.