To Turn the Tide on Inequality, SDG Strategies Need to Build on Human Rights
UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
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Integrating SDG implementation with the realisation of human rights obligations is a key untapped resource to close the accountability gap.

An integrated approach to realising human rights and the 2030 Agenda will lead to more efficient and coherent policies and accelerate implementation of both agendas.

The human rights-system provides the knowledge and tools to put humans at the centre of sustainable development.

Now we need action to capitalise on the mutually reinforcing connection.

The discussions under the current session of the UN High-level Political Forum for Sustainable Development (HLPF) will in many ways be defining for the future of sustainable development. The session takes place under the theme of “empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality,” but it will take place against the somber backdrop that we are not on track with the commitments of the 2030 Agenda.

Speaking at the recent Expert Group Meeting on SDG 10, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet lamented that a majority of the world’s population is exposed to ever greater instability, while gains continue to be concentrated at the top. The meeting delivered a clear message on the way forward, concluding that “nothing [is] immutable about inequality: Inequality is a political choice.” As the clock is ticking towards 2030, it is becoming clear that we need a new approach to break through the deadlock of business as usual with transformative action.

The human rights system is rapidly building its capacity to ignite its potential to support an integrated approach to the SDGs.

So how do we take the necessary leap forward? At the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), we have been exploring the mutually reinforcing nature of human rights and the SDGs since 2015. Throughout our engagement with the human rights and sustainable development communities, one thing has become very clear: the potential of an integrated approach based on human rights is immense. And the human rights system is rapidly building its capacity to ignite that potential.

Human Rights and the SDGs: A Mutually Reinforcing Connection

The 2030 Agenda is grounded in human rights norms and clearly states that the SDGs “seek to realize the human rights of all and achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women.” DIHR’s Human Rights Guide to the SDGs shows how more than 92% of the SDG targets are linked to human rights and labour standards. This means that there is an enormous potential to use human rights norms to guide SDG implementation. To unleash the potential, we need to find ways to operationalize a human rights-based approach to the SDGs in practice. This requires fostering collaboration and breaking down silos between institutions and mechanisms aimed to achieve either development or human rights.

Over the past years, the human rights community has made a significant effort to explore how it can contribute with knowledge and skills to an SDG implementation that leaves no one behind. As early as 2015, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) adopted the Mérida Declaration and outlined how they can contribute to enhance accountability in SDG follow-up by using their mandated functions. In 2018, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) unanimously adopted a resolution recognising the mutually reinforcing link between the human rights and sustainable development agendas, followed by a one-day intersessional meeting to exchange best practices and discuss ways forward. The Institute was invited to give concrete examples on how we can succeed in this ambitious endeavour. Speaking at the event, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet underlined that “the human rights approach leads to development that is more powerful, more sustainable and more effective, because it promotes empowerment, inclusiveness and equal opportunities for all.” Hence, the UN’s human rights pillar is sending a strong message that it is ready and committed to contribute to the implementation of the Agenda.

From Potential to Practice: Integrated Follow-up to Human Rights Obligations and the SDGs

Many of the Treaty Monitoring Bodies and Special Procedures of the HRC have published comments and analyses on the connections between individual human rights and the 2030 Agenda. The country-specific recommendations that these mechanisms are issuing on a running basis hold a wealth of knowledge to inform sustainable development policies. Through the SDG-Human Rights Data Explorer, DIHR has made it possible for everyone to easily access and explore how these recommendations – more than 150,000 to date – link to specific SDG targets and marginalised groups of rights-holders. Using an innovative machine learning methodology, the Institute has shown that more than two thirds of these recommendations can be realised in connection with specific SDG targets. It is evident that these institutionalised monitoring mechanisms can complement the HLPF as an accountability mechanism with a focus on those furthest behind.

For development practitioners – domestic and international – this offers a concrete opportunity to enhance policy coherence and efficiency in SDG implementation, monitoring and reporting. A human rights-based approach that is informed by this guidance ensures that incremental progress is not undermined by structural barriers and discrimination for the most vulnerable. At the same time, joined-up monitoring processes for human rights and the SDGs at the national level can enhance systematic monitoring and significantly reduce the reporting burden on states by sharing information across the two systems. Likewise, a human rights-based approach to SDG indicators and data collection can help identify patterns of discrimination and inequality that are not easily captured by traditional statistics and help fulfil the 2030 Agenda pledge to “leave no one behind.” Finally, civil society can make use of this link to streamline advocacy efforts at the national and international levels to remind states of their commitments and obligations.

The 2019 HLPF Offers a Unique Chance to Turn the Tide

The debate at the 2019 HLPF can draw on rich and multifaceted input generated at the Regional Forums on Sustainable Development in March and April 2019 and the Expert Group Meetings on the Goals under review this year. Discussions this year were marked by the strong presence of human rights actors and showcased examples on how the practical application of an integrated approach to SDGs and human rights helps increase coherence and efficiency in their implementing and monitoring practices. Together with the Office of the High Commissioner and a range of partners, the Institute will bring a range of voices from the human rights community to the HLPF to further explore the potential for an integrated approach.

The Forum also comes at a critical moment in the reform process of the UN development system. The new generation of UN Country Teams and Resident Coordinators will have a unique opportunity to leverage the mutually reinforcing connection between human rights and the SDGs by operationalizing a human rights-based approach through the UN Development Assistance Frameworks. Taking as a point of departure States’ human rights obligations and the recommendations they have accepted, the 2030 Agenda has the potential to deliver bold progress, but we need political will and the right partnerships, including dialogue and collaboration with civil society, to fully unleash this potential.

Although the SDGs have given some important impulses for reorientation in the development sector, we still fail to reverse the dangerous trends of increasing inequality and shrinking civic space. With two thirds of the way still ahead of us, the upcoming HLPF offers an opportunity to break with business as usual and renew our collective ambitions for transformative change.

The author of this guest article, Eva Grambye, is Deputy Executive Director of the Danish Institute for Human Rights. DIHR will co-organize the following events during the July 2019 session of the HLPF:

  • Training & learning event: Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality through human rights. 10 July, 3:00-6:00 pm. Conference room 5, UN Headquarters; and
  • Side event: Human rights and the 2030 Agenda: Leaving no one behind while accelerating SDG implementation. Insights from the Human Rights Council intersessional meeting. 12 July, 1:15-2:30 pm. Conference room 1, UN Headquarters.

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