Two challenges – overlapping reporting requirements and less than universal compliance with human rights obligations – could be addressed by involving civil society more meaningfully in substantive processes.
Furthermore, it is essential that positions on human rights matters that are taken at the UN Human Rights Council are followed up at the UN General Assembly and, most importantly, are implemented at the local level.
This year’s High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), which convened at UN Headquarters in New York, from July 10-19, was particularly significant. Forty-three countries came forward to present their reviews of progress on promises laid out in 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – arguably the most ambitious global exercise ever to create a better life for all.
As expected, participating governments produced reports showcasing their achievements in glowing terms, while alternate civil society reports (also called “shadow reports”) presented a more sober picture of the quest to “leave no one behind.” With both governments and civil society committing significant resources to the monitoring and evaluation of the 2030 Agenda, it is perhaps time to link this new process with existing UN evaluations on countries’ human rights records.
The 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – such as achieving gender equality, ensuring inclusive education, clean water and sanitation, reducing corruption, promoting better administration of justice, and protecting fundamental freedoms – are also covered by several UN treaties. And many of these treaties have elaborate and sophisticated reporting procedures.
One of the key challenges with the UN’s vast reporting mechanisms on rights realisation is that review processes and implementation programmes are largely administered separately from one another, even if they address an overlapping set of rights. Government departments and civil society organisations spend huge amounts of energy and resources in parallel reporting processes in various committees that monitor treaty compliance.
The Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) of the 2030 Agenda add another dimension of government and civil society reporting and could draw away from these processes. There’s a strong business case, in a time of constrained resources, for linking and harmonizing UN processes such as the universal periodic review, which involves a comprehensive assessment of a country’s progress on a range of human rights in addition to reports produced by special rapporteurs and expert committees.
Compliance with human rights also requires further attention, despite elaborate human rights and sustainable development commitments undertaken by States. Key targets under SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) and SDG 17 (partnerships for the Goals) promise access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms, and effective civil society participation, respectively. However, an analysis by the CIVICUS Monitor on how the 44 countries that had signed up to present their VNRs to the 2017 HLPF fare on the protection of the fundamental freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly – core to civil society and essential to any meaningful partnership –paints a rather unflattering picture.
These two challenges – overlapping reporting requirements and less than universal compliance – could be addressed by involving civil society more meaningfully in substantive processes. The creation of a dedicated, multi-stakeholder advisory group to advise on how to support the integration of UN human rights mechanisms and the 2030 Agenda commitments would be a step in the right direction. As would the creation of a comprehensive and easily accessible database, by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, of the reports and recommendations received on intersecting human rights obligations of States. Notably, States could make their VNR processes more inclusive and effective by adopting models developed on the participation of civil society and national human rights institutions at the UN Human Rights Council and during the universal periodic review process.
The success of the 2030 Agenda hinges on another target under SDG 17: governments’ policy coherence. This coherence needs to extend to the Goals themselves as well as with other commitments governments have taken on. It is essential that positions on human rights matters that are taken at the UN Human Rights Council are followed up at the UN General Assembly and, most importantly, are implemented at the local level.
With the 2030 Agenda well underway and the new Secretary-General firmly in place, it’s time for the UN to make some meaningful changes for better implementation. Harmonisation, participation and coherence are key.