Sunday, July 25, 2021
By Martha Davis, Northeastern University School of Law
The U.S. has yet to prepare a Voluntary National Review as part of the international push to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, three U.S. cities -- New York, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh -- have taken up the challenge by preparing their own Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs). Orlando has promised to issue its VLR in the near future, and other U.S. cities may be coming on line over time. These U.S. cities are not alone. Around the world, dozens of cities have prepared their own VLRs, often in dialogue with their corresponding national governments’ reports.
Preparing a VLR is a significant undertaking, and these cities are to be particularly commended for filling a void left by U.S. inaction. As these cities have recognized, the SDGs cannot possibly be met without participation at every level of government, a fact that was stressed repeatedly at the recent UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development that reviewed several national SDG reports.
Still, there is more that U.S. human rights advocates and cities themselves can do to ensure that the VLR processes lead to the transformation needed to reach sustainability.
In a new report, Northeastern Law School’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) examines these three U.S. cities’ treatment of SDG #6, on access to water and sanitation. Because the SDGs are intended to incorporate human rights, the report uses a human rights lens to analyze the VLRs’ treatment of water and sanitation, both of which have the status of independent human rights.
As an initial matter, some of the VLRs fail to even acknowledge the human rights underpinnings of SDG #6, an omission that will ultimately undercut the effectiveness of these local initiatives. Without a fixed place for human rights considerations, it may be all to easy to pursue laudable end goals without taking proper account the human impacts.
Further, the VLRs vary widely in the level of community engagement that they pursued as the cities identified goals and implementation strategies. Again, the human rights principles that inform the SDGs demand significant outreach and opportunities for input at every stage. As cities update their VLRs in the future, they will have the chance to improve this aspect of their process.
This small study demonstrated that there is an important role for human rights advocates to play in developing city-level VLRs. As SDG implementation goes forward, we urge human rights advocates to recognize the opportunities presented by the VLR process and to work with local governments to ensure that the pursuit of sustainability includes consideration of local human rights.