Friday, January 9, 2015

Update on the SDGs and Human Rights


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


Back in October, I wrote about the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, or SGDs, which will replace the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)adopted in 2000 by the UN to alleviate global poverty.  As I mentioned, expiration of the MDGs in 2015 has generated a healthy discussion within the human rights community about what a more universal and holistic set of goals to eradicate poverty might look like, with some human rights groups developing a human rights “litmus test” for the post-2015 SDGs.  Last month saw an important and promising development on the road to a human rights-based approach to the SDGs.

On December 4, with the state-level negotiations over the final SDGs well underway (the final version of the SDGs is expected in September 2015), the UN Secretary General released a Synthesis Report, “The Road to Dignity by 2030,” which is intended to serve as a road map for the final negotiations.  In it, the Secretary General makes clear that the SDGs are premised on the understanding of universality, thus applicable to both developing and developed countries, including the United States.  In addition, unlike previous preliminary SDG documents, the Synthesis Report makes explicit reference throughout to human rights, clearly articulating the SDGs through a human rights framework and including human rights as a central component of the SDGs.  The Report notes that “the agenda itself mirrors the broader international human rights framework.”  Human rights concepts are implicit throughout the Synthesis Report, as well. The Report calls for the essential participation of civil society, transparency, and the accountability of all actors (including the private sector).  The previous Open Working Group for Sustainable Development Goals Proposal, which was intended as a starting point for the state-level discussions on the SDGs, set forth 17 goals for sustainable development.  The Synthesis Report seeks to maintain these 17 goals, but rearranges and incorporates them into six integrated “essential elements” for achieving the SDGs: dignity, prosperity, justice, partnership, planet and people.

There is still a great deal to be worked out in the final document, including what form an accountability mechanism might take.  The report calls for “strong, inclusive public mechanisms at all levels for reporting, monitoring progress, learning lessons, and ensuring mutual accountability,” and suggests accountability mechanisms at the national, regional and international level, as well as thematic reviews.   The Universal Periodic Review might serve as a model for an SDG accountability mechanism, perhaps through the U.N. High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.  In addition, or alternatively, as some human rights groups have suggested, existing human rights mechanisms might be strengthened to take into account the new global development goals.   The Synthesis Report itself suggests that some review might take place through the existing human rights mechanisms, such as the treaty body reviews, with the participation of civil society. 

Another important piece of the puzzle is how the final SDGs will be measured, including how they will articulate the relevant targets and indicators.  The Synthesis Report indicates that at least some of this will take place at the national level. 

Despite these unanswered questions, the Synthesis Report suggests a strong foundation for building human rights into the global development discussion, and offers promise for US human rights advocates who may seek to engage the SDGs in their advocacy on economic justice and poverty-related issues in the United States.  Stay tuned for further developments.

Risa Kaufman, Universal Periodic Reviews | Permalink


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