Friday, October 10, 2014

Sustainable Development Goals and U.S. Human Rights

 By Risa E. Kaufman, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute

 Late September was a busy time at UN headquarters in New York. The 69th Session of the UN General Assembly opened on September 16, bringing together the world’s leaders for discussion of such heady topics as global terrorism, nuclear disarmament and the prevention of armed conflict.  Also on the agenda was discussion of the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.  It’s a conversation that U.S. human rights advocates should pay attention to. 

The SDGs will replace the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were adopted by the UN back in 2000 to alleviate global poverty.  The MDGs, which expire in September 2015, have accomplished a great deal, by some measures halving the number of people in the world living in extreme poverty and improving access to clean water, health care and education.  But they have fallen short in other areas and been roundly criticized by many international human rights advocates and organizations for ignoring the interrelated nature of rights and failing to address systemic barriers and underlying inequities and disparities.

Expiration of the MDGs has inspired a robust conversation within the human rights community about what a more universal and holistic set of goals to eradicate poverty might look like.  Groups including the Center for Economic and Social Rights, the Center for Reproductive Rights and CIVICUS have formed a post-2015 Human Rights Caucus and developed a human rights “litmus test” for the SDGs.  The Caucus calls for the SDGs to align with, and explicitly reference, relevant human rights standards; secure the full spectrum of rights; combat inequality and commit to end discrimination; and support the human rights of women and girls.  In addition, the Caucus calls for the SDGs to be premised on universality, indivisibility and interdependence; to ensure transparency and meaningful participation of all people; and to ensure human rights accountability of all actors, including in the private sector.

Civil society, including many international human rights NGOs, have been active participants in the initial conversations about the post-2015 development agenda, including through participation in Rio +20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development which took place in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  In July 2014, building off of the outcomes from Rio +20, the Open Working Group for Sustainable Development Goals issued a Proposal, which is intended as a starting point for the state-level discussions on the SDGs that will take place over the course of the coming year.  But now negotiation and drafting of the final goals rests with the member countries of the UN, in what will largely be a political process. 

What does this all mean for the U.S. human rights community?  While the content and text of the SDGs won’t be final until September 2015, there appears to be fairly broad consensus that they will be premised on the understanding of universality.  The goals will apply to developing and developed countries alike.  Thus, the United States will be accountable for achieving the goals to the same extent as all other countries.  And while they may not explicitly reference human rights, if the Open Working Group’s Proposal is any indication, they are likely to address a more comprehensive set of issues than the MDGs, including access to justice, inequality within and among countries, and climate change. So, it’s an issue worth following, and indeed deserving of some deep thinking.  Just as U.S. advocates are developing creative approaches to hold the U.S. accountable for its international human rights treaty commitments, we should consider, too, how to make the SDGs real and meaningful close to home.

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