Human Rights and the SDGs: Bridging the Gap to Achieve More Together

International Relations and Development Studies Graduate

As Amina Mohammed, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, noted in March 2019:

human rights are an intrinsic part of sustainable development — and sustainable development is a powerful vehicle for the realization of all human rights’.

Every day human rights defenders work on SDG-pertinent issues across New Zealand and around the world, from affordable housing, to environmental protection, to justice system reform. Indeed, the human rights agenda and that of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) not only share a common vision for human empowerment, but rely upon one another to achieve their aims. The SDGs promote a vision of development that seeks to expand people’s capabilities and freedoms: in other words, to uphold their human rights. Conversely, as United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres notes, ‘it is only by respecting and promoting human rights that we can achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda’.
This crucial relationship however remains under acknowledged and underutilized. Progress will depend upon leveraging the synergies between these two mutually reinforcing frameworks for human empowerment: here, I outline a few ideas for how this can be achieved in practice.

1. Embrace rights-based language in SDG advocacy

For some, the human rights basis of the SDGs may be obvious. Goal 5 for example, Gender Inequality, encompasses fundamental rights for women; Goal 4, Quality Education, effectively corresponds to Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), demanding free and accessible education for all. For others however, this is less transparent, with many perceiving the ‘goals’ of the SDGs as just that: aspirations, not entitlements. Reframing the SDGs around the rights of people and the responsibilities of States would reaffirm the fact that many of these goals represent the bare necessities for life: from no poverty, to zero hunger, to good health, these are rights we are entitled to simply by virtue of being human. Using rights-based language when talking about the SDGs will embed a necessary sense of urgency as we enter the final decade of their implementation.

Goal 16 is the only SDG that explicitly references human rights, evoking the need to tackle human trafficking, detention without sentencing, attacks on human rights defenders, journalists, and trade unionists, and the necessity for National Human Rights Institutions. Despite appearing to be the poster boy for human rights (or at least, the civil and political rights traditionally evoked by Western NGOs), opposition from dissident states meant any reference to human rights was omitted from the title of this goal, which became ‘Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions’. Likewise, while claiming to be grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN Charter and international human rights treaties, the goals themselves do not themselves explicitly reference these documents or espouse the rights contained within. These disappointments in the drafting process however do not mean that it is too late for the goals to assert their linkages to, and solidarity with, human rights.

In 2017, Michael Møller, United Nations Under-Secretary General, argued there was no ‘SDG on Human Rights’  because ‘the entire 2030 Agenda is premised on a foundation of human rights’. While this may be obvious for those who have studied both, using bolder, explicitly rights-based language and linking SDG targets to obligations under human rights law will reinforce their inherent connections and prevent any erosion of Agenda 2030’s strong rights-based foundation.

2. Link Universal Periodic Review Recommendations to SDG Targets

If it is essential to highlight the importance of human rights when promoting the SDGs, it is equally essential to highlight the importance of the SDGs whilst working on human rights. One example is the five-yearly Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process by which States are reviewed before the United Nations on their human rights performance and are given Recommendations for improvements by other United Nations Member States. This process is a key mechanism for state accountability, as it benefits from universal buy-in from Member States, with even North Korea participating.

Before New Zealand’s third review this January, former High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson expressed her ambition that the UPR can be a powerful means for furthering SDG commitments, particularly if Recommending States explicitly link their Recommendations to SDG targets. While State Recommendations do not bind the state in question, they can become important advocacy tools for use by civil society and media to hold governments accountable. The genius of the SDGs is that their goals and targets often provide ready-made recommendations with specific and measurable indicators. SDG Target 5.3 for instance, aims to:

‘Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation’

This target is accompanied by clear indicators and definitions that could be effectively recycled to save effort and minimise complexity in the UPR process. Monitoring of the implementation of Recommendations can also be related to SDG targets: indeed, in 2019 High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet advised the New Zealand government to do more to link UPR reporting and follow-up action to the SDGs. Using SDG targets and indicators to measure the success or failure of State efforts to make human rights progress enhances both the accountability and accessibility of the UPR process.

3. Empower National Human Rights Institutions to promote Agenda 2030

National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) are a powerful tool for driving in-country human rights progress: their role in promoting awareness and engagement with the SDG agenda is however woefully underutilised. Greater efforts on the part of these agencies to highlight SDG targets and indicators could enhance government accountability for the SDGs (and their human rights implications) by promoting public awareness and enabling civil society advocacy.

While ‘no one left behind’ is at the core of the SDGs, human rights mechanisms have been accused of failing to execute such an inclusive approach. Examples include the UPR, which allows for only limited civil society input as a State-driven process, or international human rights law, which is state-developed and adjudicated. Because they are nationally established and led, NHRIs have immense power to ensure the voices of those at the local level are heard. This is to the benefit of both agendas: for instance, NHRIs can ensure local human rights NGOs are included in discussions around SDG implementation, or that development actors, businesses, local governments and all those with stakes in the SDGs are involved in rights-based policymaking.

NHRIs also act as a bridge for the implementation of international human rights agreements in international law: this is important when over 90% of SDG targets are based in international human rights instruments. Highlighting this overlap would raise the profile of both agendas and emphasise the need for partnership, as expressed in SDG 17. While the establishment of NHRIs is in fact an indicator for SDG 16, only 70 States have established any such agency to date. Fast-tracking efforts to establish and resource these agencies will be essential to effective partnership to achieve the goals: however, if the current rate of progress is maintained, only half of all States will have a Paris Principles-compliant NHRI by 2030.

Human rights and sustainable development: interlinked, interdependent and mutually reinforcing agendas

The human rights agenda and the SDGs share a common vision of the betterment of humankind. Currently however, the synergies between these two frameworks are under-recognised and underutilised across advocacy and policy work. To be successful and sustainable, development must be participatory, non-discriminatory, and encompass mechanisms for accountability. Thus progress requires we promote the rights of all to equality, agency, and justice. Human rights depend upon sustainable development, and sustainable development depends upon human rights: that much is clear. What comes next is working out how, in practice, we can best align these frameworks to ensure greater collective success. Leveraging rights-based language during advocacy on the SDGs, deploying SDG targets and indicators in human rights recommendations, and empowering national institutions to promote both awareness of the goals and an inclusive approach to achieving them may go some way towards bridging this gap.


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