Winning a place for human rights in the new sustainable development agenda

Flickr/USAID (Some rights reserved)

“We envisage a world…where we reaffirm our commitments regarding the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.”

At the United Nations (UN) in New York this week [September 25], heads of state from around the world will officially adopt ‘The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. This includes the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their associated targets. Diplomats concluded the final agreement in early August, after a frantic round of negotiations characterized by several sordid last-minute compromises. 

Advocating for human rights at UN development talks in New York has always been an uphill struggle. There is no shortage of rhetorical commitment to human rights, but the reality is that—more than a decade after the ‘human rights approach to development’ was in theory mainstreamed across the UN—most New York diplomats (and many UN staffers) still have very little understanding of human rights, and don’t necessarily see the links between human rights and development.

It was, therefore, not particularly surprising, although still disappointing, to see references to human rights in the SDGs become a bargaining chip at the eleventh hour. As the talks moved into the final weekend in August, the draft text included a very strong recognition that the realization of all human rights is a principal aim of sustainable development, and an explicit commitment to non-discrimination on any basis. However, two negotiating blocs of member states—the African Group and the Arab Group—raised fervent (and legally incoherent) objections to this language. They demanded that the prohibition of discrimination on any ‘other status’, included at the end of the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination (such as sex, race, religion, etc), be removed, even though it has been present in UN treaties since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sadly, it seems this was motivated by the desire to avoid recognizing the rights of LGBT people. (They also insisted that every use of ‘gender equality’ be followed by language about the empowerment of women and girls, to avoid the implication that it might refer to equality on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity). It is disconcerting that we are still fighting these battles in the halls of the UN, more than two decades since the interdependence of human rights and development was reaffirmed at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, and more than twenty years since the UN human rights system first recognized sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited grounds of discrimination.

In the end, the compromise found was to replace the disputed text with a verbatim cut-and-paste of language from the Rio+20 outcome document, The Future We Want. This was a shame, because the previous text made explicit links between the post-2015 agenda itself and respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights; whereas the compromise outcome is a very general reaffirmation of the ‘importance’ of human rights law and the ‘responsibilities’ of States. It also fails to specifically mention age, ethnicity or migration status as prohibited grounds of discrimination.  However, it was a savvy political strategy, as the text in the Rio document still includes the all-important phrase ‘or other status’ and all states have already agreed to it.

It is also worth noting that reference to the right to water and sanitation—which many civil society organizations fought tirelessly for—also reverted to the formulation agreed to at Rio+20 (“We envisage a world…where we reaffirm our commitments regarding the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation”), after the US objected to previous drafts pledging to ‘realize’ the right.

Despite its compromises and shortfalls, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development gives the human rights movement much to work with over the next 15 years. There are certainly plenty of reasons to be critical of the SDGs from a human rights perspective. In particular, the goals and targets for the most part stop short of using explicit human rights language. Further, the urgent structural obstacles to sustainable development and human rights enjoyment are only included in a piecemeal and somewhat contradictory way (e.g. the commitment to sustainable consumption and production lies alongside a continued lionization of economic growth).

However, it is also important to recognize the huge strides made in comparison to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). When assessed according to the ‘Human Rights Litmus Test’developed by civil society groups, we can declare partial success in every category—which is more than we might have dared hope for when this process began. We finally have a global development agenda that encompasses inequality and climate change; that acknowledges governance, transparency, political freedoms and access to justice are crucial to just development; and that pledges to take action on a wide range of women’s rights issues, including reproductive rights and sexual health, and violence against women.  Despite an insufficiently critical approach to our current economic system, there are groundbreaking and important resource-related commitments enshrined in the SDG targets, especially around debt, progressive taxation, illicit financial flows and enhancing the representation of developing countries in global economic governance. Meanwhile, aside from the last minute compromises, there are still important references to human rights in the final agreement, including recognition in the preamble that the SDGs ‘seek to realize the human rights of all’.

Indeed, despite its compromises and shortfalls, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development gives the human rights movement much to work with over the next 15 years. In its universality, its focus on tackling inequalities and on ‘leaving no one behind’, and the Declaration’s anchoring in international human rights commitments, it has the potential to improve human rights enjoyment worldwide.

The real litmus test will, of course, be implementation. Here, big questions remain unanswered. The July Financing for Development agreement in AddisAbaba (a follow-up to the 2002 Monterrey Consensus and the 2008 Doha Declaration) stopped far short of the concrete, time-bound commitments necessary to unleash equitable, sufficient and accountable financing for sustainable development, due to the evasion and strong-arm tactics of the rich countries. Moreover, the framework currently envisaged for monitoring and review of implementation of the post-2015 agenda is vague and entirely voluntary. There is therefore a lot of hard work still to be done at the national and international levels to unleash the potential of the SDGs as a vehicle for human rights realization and accountability. But the space has been opened, and a comprehensive framework of hard-won commitments is about to be put in place that apply to all countries across the globe. For the human rights movement and its allies in development, efforts must now begin in earnest to ensure this historic opportunity is not lost.